There is a wealth of material from which to draw in selecting church music. It is not necessary to use the cheap, trashy music that has sometimes crept into the church services. Much of this seems to have been copied (probably unconsciously) from the popular music of the day. There is a swing and rhythm and syncopation, and often a total disregard of rules of good composition. Some of it is entirely out of place in religious meetings.
There are many stately, dignified old hymns which are in good taste. But antiquity is not the only requisite. Many modern composers (and we have a number in our own ranks) have written beautiful, soul-stirring songs which have a distinct mission. A study of hymnology reveals the fact that most great hymns have sprung from deep religious experience.
Many appropriate anthems and solos can be found which bear a heart-warming message. Some people are prejudiced against what is termed "sheet music," this being often referred to with a sneering tone of voice. But this attitude is narrow and unjustified. No music should be sung in church just for the purpose of displaying the talent and ability of the performer; and perhaps it is this type of showy music that has brought about the above-mentioned prejudice. There are many appropriate songs in this form which have been instrumental in bringing comfort and help to countless struggling souls. But I am coming more and more to the conclusion that more real good is accomplished by the singing of simple, message-filled gospel solos.
There are many beautiful anthems which can be used by the choir. Occasionally a hymn can be sung as it is written, or rearranged in such a way as to make it sound different. The singing of a hymn by either the congregation or the choir can ofttimes be greatly enhanced by prefacing it with a bit of interesting history in connection with its writing, or by relating an incident in connection with its use on a previous occasion. There are a number of books filled with stories of this kind.
On one occasion I prepared a series of fifteen-minute radio programs dealing with the history of some of our great hymns, and relating little heart-interest stories in connection with them. These have been presented (as a method of trying them out) in lieu of the ordinary song service preceding the Missionary Volunteer meetings, and many favorable comments have been forthcoming. Later in this series of articles, one or two of these programs will be submitted. The possibilities are limitless.
Singers should be chosen, not for their musical ability alone, or because of attractive personal appearance, but primarily because of their desire to render a service through the medium of song. There should be no desire to show off great ability or a cultivated voice. A great voice teacher once told me that the only well-placed tone was one that was placed in the heart of the listener, and that music could reach another's heart only when it came from the heart of the singer.
I have frequently heard a singer whose production was faulty and whose voice was mediocre, but whose singing touched the heart and brought forth a ready response. Personally, I would much rather hear a chorus of "amens" after the singing of a song than to hear thunderous applause. The singers in a choir should be chosen with great care, and only those who are thoroughly consecrated in dress, deportment, and character should be asked to sing special numbers.
In the selection of music for church services we must avoid being narrow and bigoted. There are those who are critical of the modern hymnals, and who have a tendency to decry and denounce everything that does not belong to the old Italian, German, or Russian schools of music. Their purpose seems to be to educate the common people to enjoy this stately classical music. Their ideals and aims to elevate the music of the church are commendable, but there are many good musicians who cannot see how this type of music will ever bring about the conversion of souls.
There is a beauty, a dignity, a stateliness, about such music that tends to bring about a worshipful atmosphere. But this can also be brought about by a formal ritualistic service, which may be impressive, but still may not bring about a change of heart. The music of Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Palestrina, and that of many Russian composers, is wonderful. But there are millions of people who cannot enjoy it. If music is an important part of worship, it must be conducted in a. style and language which the common people can understand. It is said of Jesus that ,"the common people heard Him gladly." This does not imply that Jesus over discarded the highest ideals and descended to the vulgar, but it must mean that He spoke in a language which the people understood.
Let us use the beautiful music of the old masters, but let it be as the dessert for a meal, and not the whole meal. Someone has said that "God must love the common people, because He made so many of them." After all, our church membership is made up mostly of this class of people, and we must have music which they can understand and in which they can participate.
In the large churches of other denominations, where there are large paid choirs and where the people go to be entertained both in sermon and in music, the music before mentioned may be appropriate. But people who come to church hungry and thirsty for spiritual food and drink —something to help in their daily living—go away from this kind of service as from a meal of husks and dry chips, entertained for a few moments but not fed spiritually.
We must not descend, however, to that which is vulgar and cheap. There is need of definite improvement of this nature in our churches. We frequently hear music that must be offensive to God. Surely it is not worshipful. It is reminiscent of the low-class music of the world, and far from inspiring and uplifting. But there are hundreds of beautiful hymns which are worthwhile musically, and which are really inspiring and touching.
Those who attended the recent General Conference were greatly impressed by the music presented by the great choir. And while we were inspired and thrilled by the "Hallelujah Chorus," "The Heavens Are Telling," "Unfold, Ye Portals," the "Gloria," and other great compositions, I feel sure that no greater blessing came than from the singing of such simple gospel hymns as "A Song of Heaven and Homeland" and "What Must It Be to See Jesus?" And surely when the choir softly and reverently sang that gem, "Near to the Heart of God," all were drawn nearer to the Saviour. The work of the choir at the General Conference...session–was a demonstration of-what can be done with simple music by work, practice, and good leadership.
(To be continued)