Planning Communion music

The communion service offers the opportunity for the minister and the musician to cooperate harmoniously—both literally and figuratively. Both must be aware of the vital role music plays in the communion service.

Bernard E. Seton, Ph.D., was an associate secretary of the General Conference at the time of his retirement.

Communion is susceptible of meeting many different needs. It is primarily commemorative—"This do in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). It is also instructional—"This is my body. . . . This is my blood of the new testament" (Matt. 26:26-28). In addition, it is anticipatory—"As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26). A service that is so central to our religion deserves our most careful and reverent planning.

Whichever aspect of the Lord's Supper receives emphasis at any given observance, the element of solemnity must never be far away. The issues are too weighty, too fraught with pain, with pathos, with the burden of incalculable sacrifice, with the ecstasy of assured triumph, to be treated lightly or handled casually.

An awareness of the divine intent that saturates the communion service will lead the pastor to ensure that each detail of the sacred rite will contribute to the efficacy of the celebration. Minister and musician need to cooperate harmoniously—both literally and figuratively. Music is capable of playing a superbly significant role in the communion service. It can evoke remembrance of things past. It can induce reverent contemplation. It can open heart doors for the Spirit's entrance, it can encourage repentance and prepare for the presence of the Master Himself.

But all ministers are not musicians, nor are all aware of the vital role that music can play in worship. Neither are all church musicians theologians or conscious of the close connection between their music and the level of spirituality in any given service. But this two-sided awareness needs to be especially keen in observance of the Lord's Supper. It calls for a close partnership between the minister and the organist. This does not require that the first exercise a lordly oversight of the second, but it calls for a mutual fostering of the atmosphere that will lead the worshipers to come before the Lord with godly fear and holy joy.

The church musician must be musically literate, aware of the vast heritage of excellent music that awaits his or her use. Of equal importance is his musical taste, that sense of fitness for the holy purpose that undergirds the occasion, the sensitivity that leads him to turn from the cheap, the shallow, and the showy to espouse the music that best expresses our gratitude, our sense of awe, our surrender before the central mystery of our faith. This music need not be, indeed, should not be, of obvious technical difficulty, for that will focus attention on the player and will distract the communicant. It should rather possess the simplicity that is the hallmark of greatness, governed by the art that conceals art, subservient to the spiritual objective that emanates from the upper room.

The church musician cannot find such offerings without exploring the repertoire of sacramental music. For our purposes that can be narrowed to three categories: sacred music, deliberately written for worshipful purposes; secular music whose intrinsic nature will lend itself to the holy hour, not thrusting incompatible associations upon the listener; and hymns whose tunes touch the meditative chord.

Sacred music

Since we cannot survey the whole musical scene, we arbitrarily begin, in chronological order, with the works of Thomas Tallis, "the Father of English cathedral music"; then pass to Palestrina, of Italy; William Byrd, pupil of and collaborator with Tallis; and Orlando Gibbons. These early masters produced music of unsurpassed, ageless purity that must approach as near the angelic harmonies as mere man can here hope to attain. They also had many worthy successors—among them Dietrich Buxtehude, that father figure for church organists; John Blow, Henry Purcell, and William Croft (credited with writing "St. Anne," the tune used with "O God our help in ages past")—the last three serving as successive organists at Westminster Abbey.

Then appeared the giant Johann Sebastian Bach. His music is not universally loved: it demands close listening and calls for thought; but many musicians declare him to be the greatest of all musical geniuses. Of particular interest to us here are his organ works—cantatas, chorales, Passion music, and masses—which all contain sheafs of dignified, moving harmony befitting a communion setting. From the St. Matthew Passion come the well-loved "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" and "In Deepest Grief," while the St. John Passion brings us the chastened calm of "Ruht Wohl" or "Rest in Peace." In the cantatas we find the haunting "Come, Sweet Death," and among the chorales, "O Love All Love Transcending."

Of similar stature stands Bach's great contemporary, George Frederick Handel. His field of creativity was even wider than Bach's in that it included opera and oratorio. The latter proves to be a store house wherein we find much of the music we need. Messiah yields "He Shall Feed His Flock," "Come Unto Him, All Ye That Labor," "Behold the Lamb of God," "He Was Despised," and "Surely, Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs" which Is followed by that miraculous coda—so poignant, so rarely used—"And the Lord Hath Laid on Him the Iniquity of Us All."

Franz Joseph Haydn was a practicing Christian who used much of his incredible talent to the glory of God. Study of his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, together with his Creation Mass will provide several solemn and joyful excerpts for solo use, while his Seven Words (from the cross) and Stabat Mater recall scenes and themes from the crucifixion weekend. But Haydn, great as he was, acknowledged the amazing genius of his young fellow-Austrian, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote great quantities of church music. His organ works and orchestralchoral compositions such as the Coronation Mass, Ave Verum Corpus, and Requiem yield beauty that can quietly inspire our congregations.

The works of the elegant Christian Jew Felix Mendelssohn epitomized the early Victorian ideal for church music and thereby furnished us with numerous scores suitable for the sanctuary. Although he was a master organist, he is chiefly remembered for his oratorios, each of which is a mine in which to dig for musical treasure. St. Paul came first (1836) and Elijah followed in 1846, while Hymn of Praise, a symphonic cantata rather than an oratorio, was written in 1840. These works provide vocal and instrumental offerings to grace our devotions: "But the Lord Is Mindful" (St. Paul), "O Rest in the Lord" and "If With All Your Hearts" (Elijah), and the "Andantino Religiose" from Hymn of Praise.

Here is more than enough material for several reenactments of the Last Supper. To professional organists and pianists most of it is already well known, but the amateur musician may find the suggestions daunting. Fortunately, there is also a vast library of simpler and simplified musical literature that will make a ready appeal to the average congregation while still being musically and ecclesiastically acceptable. In this class composers on both sides of the Atlantic were especially busy during the nineteenth century. Mentioning a few of them will alert us to their works and to those of their fellow musicians.

From the United States came Lowell Mason and Louis Gottschalk; from France, Charles Gounod, Cesar Franck, Felix Guilmant, and Charles Widor; and from Germany Joseph Rheinberger and Sigfrid Karg-Elert. Britain provided John Goss, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the grandson of Charles and considered the outstanding organist and composer of his day, George Elvey, John Stainer, and Arthur Sullivan. They gave the Victorian world a rich variety of anthems, oratorios, organ works, and hymn tunes on which we still depend. Such names can alert us to sources of good church music, directing us to other collections of religious compositions where we shall meet like-minded composers of earlier and later times.

Secular music

Our use of the word secular in this setting is in no way derogatory; it merely indicates music that was not specifically written for religious purposes, though it may contain pages very suitable for church use. Handel can serve as an opening example. His air "Lascia ch'io pianga" comes from his opera Rinaldo, but supplies a tender touch that might well grace a eucharistic service, while the much-used "Largo" from the opera Xerxes can furnish a dignified air of triumph as a postlude. And if that is not deemed strong enough, then we can hark back to "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" and be on sacred musical ground again. Both Haydn and Mozart give us, in their voluminous chamber music scores, streams of unsurpassed beauty, much of it contemplative in character, that can raise us to worship in heavenly places.

Beethoven can also satisfy our search. Slow movements from his piano sonatas, from trios, quartets, some symphonies and concertos posses an other-worldly beauty that is truly hymnic. These few examples should suffice to make us aware of the selections that await our use. But we should be careful that secular associations do not destroy the usefulness of the offerings we bring to our people.


In the pages of our hymnbook we have a ready source of incidental music for solemn, yet joyful, occasions. But the hymnbook's usefulness depends much upon our thoughtful choice and instrumental skill. A mere turning of the pages and random selection of a tune will rarely meet the congregation's needs. The organist should know the hymnbook, choosing melodies that harmonize with the service, and should make those choices before coming to church. The tunes' potential must then be utilized in the richest possible way by exploration of their parts, by variations on the principal themes, by changes in tempo, octave, and volume, by avoidance of the cinemalike vibrato, and use of the tender speaking stops. The instrumentalist should use his skills to direct the worshipers' minds to Calvary and its sequels. This can best be done through p and pp, rather than / and ff or a colorless uniformity of volume.

The player might justifiably expect to find a ready-made selection of Communion hymns awaiting him in the section "The Lord's Supper," but alas, the Church Hymnal has only six hymns there. One of them, "Communion" by Stanley Ledington (No. 476), fulfills our criteria, and .being rarely used, may be ready for our employment. Other hymnals, however, have a more generous supply of Communion hymns. One Adventist volume has a dozen, other books have more, even as many as three dozen!

But abundance or lack of hymns that are specifically for communion does not determine our range of choice. It is the quality and spirit of the music that makes it suitable for our purpose, and fortunately there is an abundance of such hymns. Some obvious choices are:

"Wellesley" (65)

"Rockingham" (118)

"Gethsemane" (122)

"Horsley" (126)

"Passion Chorale" (130)

"St. Margaret" (145)

"St. Peter" (150)

"St. Christopher" (280)

"Morecambe" (336)

"Hollingside" (402)

"Evangel" (524)

"Tell Me the Story of Jesus" (534)

In addition, many other tunes of a meditative nature await our use:

"Pax Dei" (26)

"We Would See Jesus" (29)

"Rest" (116)

"Serenity" (141)

"Deerhurst" (237)

"St. Chrysostom" (350)

"Gardiner" (519)

"Softly and Tenderly" (563)

"I Surrender All" (573)

"Father, We Come to Thee" (599)

"Staincliffe" (648)

"Paraclete" (679)

Of course, there are other usable tunes, not only in our own hymnal but also in other books, that will well repay our time and efforts to explore. But no matter where we find our hymns and our music, let us dedicate them to the intensifying of the worshipful atmosphere, to the deepening of our contrition and resolution, and to the strengthening of the Advent hope as we "shew the Lord's death till he come."

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Bernard E. Seton, Ph.D., was an associate secretary of the General Conference at the time of his retirement.

August 1982

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