When faced with making decisions on church music, a nonmusical theologian will undoubtedly concern himself primarily with the content of the music, i.e., the words actually used by the congregation or the choir in the songs which they sing. A non-theological musician will, on the other hand, be more concerned with the beauty of musical expression as the first requisite. The one finds himself concerned with content; the other may find himself concerned with form. Too often both individuals forget that music in God’s service is adequate for the occasion only if both elements are considered seriously.
This study of the relationship of words and music can best be served if we first return to the concept of church music as it was evolved by the great reformers of the sixteenth century. As we strive to develop our own particular aesthetic of worship music we should keep in mind our point of departure. Just as the doctrines and liturgies of the Reformation churches were different from those of Rome, the music, too, allowed a different course to meet the needs of a changed situation.
There were several elements in the music of the Catholic Church which Protestants generally disapproved of. What were these important points of departure from the traditional church music? In what way did the music of the Reformed churches, particularly, differ from that of the Roman Church? How does this difference affect us today?
Use of the Vernacular
One of the cardinal achievements of the Reformation was the transformation of the worship service from the Latin tongue to the vernacular, the language of the people in their own locality. The common man no longer needed to understand any language other than his native tongue to worship God. This was important not only for the sermonizing, catechizing, and praying. It was also important for the musical life of the Church. It meant that an entire congregation, without special training, could participate in praise.
This, however, had deep implications. It forced the church to develop a whole new body of poetry and music for the use of the church in worship. The Church, as an organization, had to encourage and promote the writing of new hymns and psalm texts and the composing of new music to accompany these. The whole existing body of song in the Latin tongue had to be eliminated. The consequent vacuum was particularly evident in Geneva where for some years there was no music whatsoever in the church service. ‘With the arrival of Calvin, however, the work of writing the texts and the music of the new church song was assigned to the most talented men available. Over a period of about twenty years the Genevan Psalter finally took shape.
No Foreign Music in Our Worship Services!
As Reformed Protestants, what does this particular facet of the development of church music mean to us? In the first place, it means that the music sun/; in the Church must be in the vernacular. Although this may seem an unnecessarily emphasized point, it is one which should be kept in mind. While the development of choirs in our churches has been, on the whole, a healthy one, there are occasions when our leaders may be tempted to make use of some particularly beautiful Latin anthems or motets by Renaissance composers. Such music may be great music, perfectly fined as a vehicle for the Latin scriptural text. However, as Protestants following the principle that our church song must be intelligible to the hearer as well as the performer, we are forced to relegate that to music: either to the service of the Roman Church, or to limit its performance to concerts and recitals. Music sling in a foreign tongue can have no place in the Protestant worship service.
Keep On Revising and Improving!
Secondly, this early Reformation stand on church music means that the modern Reformed Church has sufficient precedent to induce it to appoint the finest musicians and poets available to keep its liturgical music alive and meaningful. The mere writing of a psalter does not finish the task. No praise book is ever complete. Calvin’s Genevan Psalter went through at least nine revisions and additions between 1539 and 1562. Not only was each succeeding edition larger than the previous one, but the existing tunes and texts were being continually revised and improved. Upon the death of a poet or musician another competent man was appointed to continue the work. Even the death of Calvin himself did not stop the work.
Over the centuries a tremendous body of Calvinistic church music has been developed along the lines first established at Geneva. England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and America have all contributed to the development of a body of Reformed church music. We, too, must continue in this tradition, making use of what we have in this heritage and building upon it.
A Suggested Program
A program for making such a heritage come to life for us today should be a many-sided one. Among other things we should consider the following: a) The creation of a historical commission to recover and make available to our leaders the great music of our past. The impressive chansons, motets, and anthems from the French, Dutch, and English Calvinistic choral tradition would fill a great need which our church choirs have today. The preservation and distribution of these and of the great organ and other instrumental works by such Calvinistic masters as Sweelinck and his followers would raise our musical standards immeasurably. Their availability and use would create a musical stability and unity which we sadly lack today. b) The establishment of a committee for the revision of our existing praise b00k (now in progress) , while a step in the right direction, is hampered by its lack of historical continuity. Such a committee should be a continuing one, ever concerned with revision and improvement of not only the congregational song’ but also the literature and performance of organist and choir. c) The promulgation of principles of good church music must be accompanied by an intensive program of education. The process of education is never complete, In order to begin training the child we must now begin to train the teachers and the ministers, With the cooperation of college and theological seminary all of our prospective church 2nd school leaders must understand something of our traditions and our principles of church music. d) We must encourage the composition of new church music and the performance of this music in our worship service. The composer of religious music, no less than the writer of religious articles and books. can make no contribution if his work remains on the shelf. The publication and distribution of new religious writing of all kinds is essential to the healthy growth of the Church.
This short list of suggestions suggests activities which cannot be carried out sporadically but must become the work of some permanent, continuing ecclesiastical body. Tile present free and undirected development of music in the Calvinist churches of America can only lead to liturgical and musical chaos. A unified approach by an entire body of believers brings strength. Through that strength we shall be enabled to build upon and further develop our traditions and thus influence the rest of the American church world for good. And, above all, through the application of Reformed principle to church music we shall be able to contribute much more to the praise and glory of Almighty God.
Our succeeding article will continue this application of the lessons of history to our current problems in worship music.