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The Music of the Church Service

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Archives / 1939 / January



The Music of the Church Service

Stanley Ledington

By STANLEY LEDINGTON, Music  Instructor, Glendale, California


The music of the Sabbath service may be classified under the following heads: (a ) the voluntary, (2) the congregational hymn, and (3) special music. The purpose of this article is to suggest in a simple way how to make each of these fulfill, as nearly as pos­sible, its true purpose. It is taken for granted, of course, that local conditions in different churches will make it necessary at times to modify even ideal arrangements.

1. The Voluntary. The voluntary is an instrumental selection which may be played at the beginning of the service (the prelude), during the time when the offering is being taken (the offertory), or at the close of the service while the congregation is dispersing (the postlude).

The prelude is actually the beginning of the service, not something used to quiet a noisy congregation. Its fun,ction is to induce a serious, worshipful mood, to give tone to the rest of the service. The organist or pianist should choose something of a serious religious nature, avoiding all music of the sugary sen­timental or cheap "variation" type. It should not be noisy or too "brilliant." The idea of worship should be considered both in the selection and in the rendition. "Pretty" pieces should be taboo. The prelude is not for enter­tainment or for the purpose of displaying technique, but to prepare for the consideration of sacred things.

In some churches a solo is sung during the time of the offering, but in the Majority of cases- the organist plays a suitable selection. The purpose of the offertory is to continue the mood of worship during this "break" in the service. The organist will usually choose something of a contemplative type to play at this time. Again it is well to avoid selections of the cheap, "pretty," type even though they may be built upon variations of some hymn or gospel song tune. Nothing is farther from being religious or contemplative in character. The organist should sense the function of the offertory, and should play so as to make it a beautiful, natural link in the service, and not an item of entertainment.

It is proper that the music chosen for the postlude (when it is used) should be of a more stirring nature. The postlude is the signal for the congregation to disperse. In a well-or­ganized church the entire congregation will quietly leave the church building proper while the postlude is being played. Frequently, a stately march is used for this part of the service. Nothing trivial, of course, should be used.

The main point in the consideration of the voluntary, I believe, is that both organist and congregation realize that these musical con­tributions are actually parts of the service, and that they should assist in creating and con­tinuing the mood of worship, rather than inter­rupting and destroying it. Sometimes a well-chosen hymn tune, simply and thoughtfully played, makes an excellent voluntary. In choosing the music to be played, the organist should satisfy himself on the following points : Is it good music? Is it suitable for the use to which it is to be put? Will it draw attention to me, or will it tend to induce the proper wor­shipful, reverent mood?

2. The Congregational Hymn. Congrega­tional singing is, in my estimation, the most im­portant musical part of the service. It is the voice of the whole church lifted to God in praise and adoration, or in supplication. Music comes to man's help when speech seems insufficient. So music should be considered as an intensifier and beautifier of thoughts and emotions. It is important that much thought be given to the selection of hymns for congre­gational use. The hymn is the congregation's contribution to the audible part of the service, and should be as ideal as possible. Congrega­tions should be encouraged to sing beautifully and thoughtfully. They should be given the opportunity of becoming acquainted with fine hymns wedded to fitting music.

As the hymn is a combined form of words and music, the minister should give some time to the study of both hymns and hymn music, so as to be able to choose intelligently the congregational song. A few observations might be of help to those who have not had the opportunity for such study.

If it is kept in mind that congregational singing is a part of worship, hymn music that tends unduly to excite the physical or emo­tional senses will be avoided. I am convinced that much restlessness is caused by the singing of hymns that are overrhythmic. Rhythm is that element which carries the music along (takes care of the motion). When this is the most conspicuous element present, the music excites physical reaction. Waltz and two-step rhythms are naturally entirely unsuited to be used in worship music. Even an ordinary march rhythm or the rhythm of the more stately dance forms, such as the minuet or the gavotte, are not in any way conducive to a worshipful mood.

We must remember that all strongly rhyth­mic music excites a physical rather than a mental reaction, and unless the words call for a physical setting, as in "Onward, Christian Sol­diers," strongly rhythmic music should not be used. Even in this hymn the rhythm is very conservative and not at all of the "catchy" variety.

On the other hand, the music may be of the "too emotional" type, and this style of hymn music should be used only on those rare occasions when a high pitch of emotion seems called for. We are all aware that the ultra-emotional type of person is only too frequently lacking in those traits of character that make for stability and strength. So, too, it is with the highly emotional type of hymn music. It is almost always weak, depending for effec­tiveness upon an overabundance of "sweet" chords and weak progressions. Naturally, an overemotionalized person, like an overexcited one, physically, lacks the control of the mental faculties needed to understand thoroughly and to grasp firmly the deep, wonderful truths of God's word.

There are so many beautiful hymns which contain an almost ideal blend of the intel­lectual, physical, and emotional elements, that it hardly ever seems necessary to use music of an inferior quality. I suggest a few hymns from "Christ in Song" as examples of dif­ferent types of hymns suitable for use in church services.

"The Church Has One Foundation" ("Aurelia"), No. 619.

"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" ("Miles Lane"), No. 259. ("Coronation," No. 258, is also acceptable, though not by any means as good as Miles Lane.)

"I Need Thee, Precious Jesus" ("Rutherford"), No. 620.

"Who Are These Like Stars Appearing" ("Nean­der"), No. 912.

"Abide With Me" ("Eventide"), No. 655, "Sun of My Soul" ("Hursley"), No. 775. "Jerusalem the Golden" ("Ewing"), No. 898.

A great many other hymns conducive of creating a worshipful atmosphere could also be mentioned. Let me remind you that I am discussing the music of the church service proper. Naturally, the music used in connec­tion with other meetings—prayer meeting, young people's meeting, Sabbath school, etc., may be somewhat different. A word might not be out of place in reference to one point of great importance in the singing of the con­gregational hymn—the matter of speed. Most organists and choristers are prone to err here. The younger generation seems to want to take the hymns at a breakneck speed, destroying both the sense of the words and the beauty of the music. And the older folk have a tendency to drag.

There are means, however, by which it is possible to arrive at approximately the correct speed for any hymn tune. First, notice the mood of the hymn by reading the words. Sec­ond, observe the time signature, noticing par­ticularly whether the time used is for ex­ample, 2/2 or 4/4. Third, if the music is, of the rhythmic type, take it fast enough so that the rhythm may be felt, but not so fast that it becomes conspicuously rhythmic. If the hymn is of a contemplative character, be sure that the speed does not cause it to become rhythmic. Nor must it be taken so slowly that the sing­ing is done by syllables, instead of by com­plete thoughts and phrases. An organist should read every stanza as the hymn pro­gresses, so that his playing may be really sympathetic. It is clearly the duty of the organist to set the correct tempo when playing the introduction to the hymn before the sing­ing commences, and then to stick to the speed set.

3. Special Music. I do not like the term "special music," for it seems to bring with it the thought that such music is an added attrac­tion. The only safe guide for such music is that it fit in as an integral part of the service. It should never be used for purposes of display either by choir or by soloist. This music should be chosen to fit in with the topic of the sermon, and thus has to be carefully planned in cooperation between the minister and the musician.

The only legitimate reason for using special music is that the choir or soloist, as a result of careful training, is able to render music of a more highly developed type than can the congregation, thus greatly beautifying and en­riching the service. When this music is sung properly, the congregation can enter into this part of the service with wholehearted sympathy, accepting it as part of their own offer­ing of worship.

Both soloists and choir directors should be very careful to use only such music as seems worthy of the sacredness of the occasion. Sad to say, the singing of choir or soloist is frequently considered, and used, as a medium of attraction. The selection of an anthem or solo for the Sabbath service is a serious matter and should be approached in a worshipful manner, with a desire to choose the very best possible.

Music may be made a medium of great bless­ing. It can supply something in the public worship of God that nothing else can, for through its medium, praise and adoration may rise to the throne on high as a sweet-smelling incense.

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