Of Men and of Angels

When I think about the making music by man in his home, his school, or his church, I inevitably find my thoughts wandering to the other great, mysterious creatures of God’s world who also make music, music which is continuous and which is great. The music of the angels, we are told, is devoted to the glory of God, to His praise, and I like to imagine with my finite mind the glories of the pealing anthems as they must echo and re·echo through the halls of heaven. And my heart is saddened sometimes when I hear an earthbound church member who claims that he knows nothing about music, doesn’t like music, and prefers to hear as little of it as possible in church. What a miracle shall have to occur before he will be able to take part in the heavenly music-making to which we all must look forward!

But angels and heaven are very much of a mystery to all of us. How about men? There I think we can talk at much greater length without ever exhausting the subject. My brother-in-law once was discussing a human relations problem with me. He came up with this striking re-statement of our doctrine of original sin which I pass on to you for what you feel it may be worth. He said, “You know, Henry, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that there’s really only one thing wrong with the world—and that’s people.” A professor friend once said, “This life of being a University professor wouldn’t be so bad, if we just didn’t have to worry about teaching all those students!” As a former church choir director there have been times when I thought, too, that the life wouldn’t be so bad if I could just eliminate the—well, half of the choir anyway!

Seriously, though, I think we can agree that one of our biggest problems is the problem of people, of communicating with them, of understanding them, and specifically of getting them to do with us and for us what must be done in our music programs in churches and schools. But isn’t it an endless job? The key is either too high or too low; the worn-out soprano wants to sing all the solos; the organ is too loud or too soft; you should use the vox humana, or you shouldn’t; the accompaniment to the hymns is too baroque or it’s too romantic (and I must confess that I’m not sure what those terms mean anymore, although I used to be able to define them exactly!); the rouge is too red, or the powder is too white! No one expects to win all these arguments because they have to do with people and their personal likes and dislikes.

Most of us like to say that we are men and women of principle. We all have a certain moral code of which we are proud and to which we try to conform. We have our religious principles, and we do our best to live by these principles and make them work. But I wonder how many of us have a well-grounded principle for our church music. I believe it is important that we establish in our own minds and in the minds of our supporters and colleagues in church something of a framework within which we can analyze and correlate our activities to the greater glory of God.


Since we are not angels, but men, we have problems. It is because of this that people of like minds try to get together and agree on certain principles. That’s why we have so many different kinds of churches, and so many different kinds of music even within the framework of a single denomination. I was brought up in a religious environment which was very meaningful and rich. We learned to think in terms of one all-embracing goal which became the guide for our whole life, including music—Soli Deo Gloria. Now I know that sometimes it is hard to live this kind of life on a full-time basis. But for me it has meant that in my field of church music I could relate all the musical activities of my church to one particular goal which, however subjectively it might be treated, at least was firm in my own mind.

To show you how difficult it is to establish any kind of firm, qualitative principle in church music, however, I’d like to tell you about an interesting experience. For about eight years I served as the chairman of our denominational Psalter Hymnal Committee. The old edition of the hymnal included the lovely old folk song, “O Danny Boy.” Through our years of work on the revision of that Hymnal we had many pressures on us to retain that song. On occasion friends would talk with me about it. And when I would point out the strong secular associations of that tune, they would suggest that just because I was so well trained in music was no reason why everyone else would be bothered by these associations. In fact, some of the critics were sure that 99% of the users of the Psalter Hymnal had never heard of the secular song. When I argued with them I hat it might be unwise to base our principles of church music upon the presumed musical ignorance of our church members, the response often was that “the devil had had the tune long enough and now it was our turn!”

As you know, “O Danny Boy” did not find a home in the new Psalter Hymnal. The great comedian, Danny Thomas, was a great help to the committee in making the final decision, for just about that time the Danny Thomas Show began its long and successful run on television. Since “O Danny Boy” is the theme song of that show, it became apparent to everyone that they could no longer claim that no one knew the tune, and they had to admit that perhaps “the devil had taken his tune back again.” From that point on we had no more pressures to use this folk song in our book of praise.

Although that whole situation may seem humorous in retrospect, I believe this kind of approach to church music is a pretty sad method of establishing the musical philosophy of a church. But I’m afraid that this is the situation in many churches in America today, both the liturgical and the non-liturgical. For most theological and practical questions we can turn to the Bible for our answers. But even there we have difficulty in finding the right answer. Which passage should we use? I believe it was Zwingli who in the early days of the Reformation seized upon the text “Sing to the Lord in your heart” to justify his idea that there should be no audible music in the church at all. The Moravians rely upon the Old Testament Psalms for the justification of their use of instruments in the worship service. Yet not many churches would ever accept the mandate of Psalm 150 to “praise the Lord with the dance.” There are still some churches which do not allow the organ inside the sanctuary; some do not allow the singing of hymns; some do not allow choirs. In some churches, on the other hand, the congregation is so weak musically that if there were no choir or organ there would be preciously little music for the praise of God.

What is the answer? Each of us is going to have to establish the standard of what we can do and what we can’t do; what we may do and what we may not do; what is meaningful and what is meaningless in terms of the worship service in the church, the family worship at home and the education of our children in the school. Once we have reached that kind of decision in our own minds, we shall then have to work together in reaching those points of agreement which will help us praise God meaningfully in our corporate worship.

But what kind of standard shall we strive for? Someone once wrote that he believed the primary problem for the church musician is the quality of the music which he produces. This kind of approach, however, is much too limited, I believe. It substitutes the means to the end for the end in itself. For me, and I hope for you, the goal is glorifying God through the great music which we produce in His name. With that kind of goal, anything less than music of high quality is inadequate; a poor performance which does not match our potential is inadequate; a poorly chosen selection (even though intrinsically the music might be so-called “good music”) is inadequate. Some years ago Olaf Christiansen, speaking at the Calvin College Conference on Church Music, gave an excellent rule-of-thumb for the selection of music for the worship service: “Good music isn’t always appropriate, but appropriate music is always good.”

Our denominational committee on church music worked for two years seeking to write a satisfactory statement of the principles which should govern music in the church. The longer we worked the more difficult and impossible the task seemed. Then we came to the realization that we were making it much too difficult for ourselves and for the church. We had to lay a. foundation for judgment, recognizing that the judgments themselves would inevitably be made by those who had to work actively in the field and by those who participated or listened to the music in the pews. We had to establish a framework in which the music program could develop both in a big, sophisticated downtown church and in the little country crossroads church with a poor organ, no choir, and inadequate leadership. I’d like to quote this statement of principle for the music of the church which. I believe, is a masterpiece of simplicity but full of pregnant meaning for those who will seek to apply it to the local needs. The single statement of Principle is followed by two paragraphs, the first referring to the relation of the music to God, his worship, and his Word, and the second to the qualities which man should look for in choosing this vehicle of praise.

The Music of the Church should be appropriate for worship.

1. The music of the church should be liturgical. In spirit, form, and content it must be a positive expression of Scripturally religious thought and feeling. It should serve the ministry of the Word.

2. The music of the church should be beautiful Its religious thought or spirit should be embodied appropriately in the poetry as poetry, in the music as music, and in the blending of these in song. It should satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint, and fitness which are the conditions of all art,

Many religious leaders in America. representing a wide variety of churches, have expressed wholehearted approval of this beautiful statement. But along with this approval we must express the fear that, unless we have a church membership which is musically intelligent, we may have difficulty in attaining the lofty goals which that principle calls for. And this fear brings us to the problems of music education in our Christian Schools. in our public schools, in our homes, and in our churches. Frankly I am deeply concerned about the future of the music in our churches in this country. I think the time is coming when the churches shall have to step in again and take on more responsibilities for the musical training of our children, in much the same manner as was done in the old European Cathedral Schools, in the church-oriented public schools of the Baroque and Renaissance periods, and in the early days of the Dutch Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. There are several factors at work which are contributing to the decline in musical and religious intelligence among our children. One of these is the current movement for a clean-cut divorce of things religious from the secular in our public schools. If this movement continues we may find that the only place our children can learn the great music of our religious heritage will have to be in the Church because the school may not allow it. Even in the Christian School we may find this same lack, perhaps not for the same reason, but for other reasons such as a lack of qualified teachers or a lack of interest on the part of the constituency to support such teaching. I have known many children in the public schools whose only introduction to things religious was through the singing of great religious music in their a cappella choirs. Is the church ready to step in to fill this gap in order to keep alive the art of our heritage? The time is fast approaching when we may no longer hear our children singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” simply because it has a religious message. To take its place our children in America will be singing the latest hit tunes from the Broadway shows, not because these are great music but because they avoid carrying a religious message! If that time actually arrives, will our churches be ready to step in?

Will our Christian Schools?

Another matter of great concern to me is the problem of the technical musical training which our children are, or rather, are not receiving. Since World War II we have not been able to recapture the musical pace which had previously been established in the schools. Our colleges and universities are turning out more music educators than ever before, hut we can’t seem to meet the demand for these teachers. The result has been a complete absence of musical training for many children in the Christian as well as in the public schools. Now this has deep implications for us as church musicians. If an increasing burden is to fall upon the Church and upon the Christian School for the musical education of our children, it means that we should take another look at the kind of preparation our future church musicians and our school teachers are receiving. If the church cannot rely upon the schools for training its members to give proper praise through music, the church musician will also have to become a music educator, his responsibilities must be increased, and his areas of competency must also be enlarged. There will have to be an increase in the technical training of children, if we are to have a musically intelligent man in the pew as well as in the choir loft. Church musicians might well learn more about the instruments of the orchestra, even as German church musicians today must know them, or become much more adept at the organ, as our contemporary Dutch musicians in the Reformed Churches are expected to be. In a nutshell, we should be anticipating the day when we may have to carry an even heavier burden of training our youth in the field of music if music is to live and flourish in the church. Above all, we should make sure that we have an intelligent laity, intelligent in the ways of religious understanding, in the ways of musical understanding in so far as this supports the church.

Well, they tell me that a three-part form is the most perfect of all musical forms and the most meaningful to the listener. In my introduction I talked briefly about angels. Now I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about our problems as men and women devoted to music and the church. Really I should go back to the angels again to let you know that I’m approaching the end of a well-rounded speech! Of course I can’t conclude without quoting that beautiful passage from Corinthians which must have come to mind when you read the title of this speech: “If I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.” How true that is! The charity which we show to our colleagues and partners, and the love which we have for the church and for its music, and above all for our God, are what makes the sounding brass and the tinkling cymbal meaningful. It gives our work a depth which few other professions can ever hope to match.

I’d like to stretch the vision of the angels just a little bit and close with a quotation concerning men and those winged creatures which are not angels but birds. You will recall that I have referred to the need for developing a musically intelligent laity. Many centuries ago St. Augustine had this in mind too. His word bears repetition, even as it has been repeated by many other fathers of the church, including John Calvin who quoted this in his Preface to the Genevan Psalter.

Now the heart requires the intelligence, and therein, says St. Augustine, lies the difference between the singing of men and of birds. For a linnet or a nightingale may sing well, but it will be without understanding. Now the peculiar gift of man is to sing knowing what he is saying. After the intelligence must follow the heart and the affection, which cannot be unless we have the song imprinted on our memory in order never to cease singing.