The Problem of Form and Content

In our last article we discussed in a general way some of the problems which have arisen in the field of Church music with the transplanting of the Reformed Church from Europe to America. We mentioned something of the strength of the music which the Dutch churches have incorporated into their worship services, carrying on the great psalm, singing tradition established by John Calvin himself. The strength, virility, directness, and sincerity found in the Dutch congregational worship through song can match anything to be found in the American Protestant church world.

The Dutch Tradition and Ours

The Dutch service, however, is based upon a tradition established by a homogeneous group of people. It is a tradition which has behind it four hundred years of practice, one which is steeped in the blood of martyrs and the pain of persecution. We agree with our Dutch brethren concerning the principles of worship and the ingredients entering into the composition of the worship service. However, we are in a land where we form a very small minority group, a situation quite different from the Dutch. On all sides of us we have churches with other religious and national backgrounds, each 01 them trying to worship God in their own way. Each is following through on its own traditions or creating new ones. Many of these religious groups differ with us on doctrinal grounds, some of them even having radically different concepts of God himself. It is thus inevitable that their manner of worship shall be different from ours. It is likewise probable that the music they play and sing and the words which they use shall be quite different from ours.

We may not keep our minds closed to whatever is good and true and beautiful in other church liturgies. But we must, as Reformed Christians, always insist upon a proper evaluation of these things. Unless we as a people of God keep in mind our principles for worship and particularly bear in mind our belief in the supremacy of the Word itself, we shall be easily swayed by the beautiful sounds and sights which emanate from some of our neighboring churches. Even in the more abstract realm of music we may not trust our senses alone. Too often that which is ticklish to our rhythmic sense or heart-touchingly romantic to our harmonic sense may he the vehicle for something entirely foreign to our faith. Because we are in a position to be exposed to many different concepts of worship, and because we are a minority group which more or less has lost the liturgical and musical tradition established by our ancestors, it is increasingly important that we pause and take stock: We must evaluate ourselves and particularly the music which we use for worship.

It is inconceivable that we should try to return overnight to the musical practice of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, Belgium or France. The use of the organ, the choir, and even the method of congregational sing’ing has changed so much in our American churches that such a return would seem intolerably foreign to us. Were we to do so, much of the great music which has been assimilated into our congregational repertoire and the libraries of our organists and choirs would be of little value. We have already built up a sort of musical tradition, for better or for worse. For some of our churches the tradition is an honorable one, based upon principles which apply to the congregation, the choir, and the organist:. For others it is one of which few can be proud, since it is based upon a kind of laissez-faire for the organist, choir and societies. Often the only measure of control we can find is in the use of the congregational Psalter Hymnal prescribed for use in the worship services.



A Key Principle

Let us briefly discuss one of the principles which should guide us in the selection of music for use in the Church. We mean by “the Church” more than just the Sunday worship service. We mean also those meetings held under the auspices of the Church which are variously designated as catechism classes, Sunday School, Ladies Aid, youth groups, and the like. A principle, to be worthy of application for a worship service per se should also be applicable to the other phases of church life.

We have already stated that the source of our preaching and singing is the Word of God. The editors of our praise book have exercised great care in choosing psalm and hymn texts which adhere closely to the words of Scripture. In most cases where there are choirs in the church, consistories have set forth certain rules governing the choice of anthem texts for use in the service. We know of very few instances, however, where there has been any great guidance in the choice of the music which clothe the text, the vehicle of musical expression which sets forth the thought. Whether the music is a setting of a specific Bible text or passage, as in a choir anthem or a vocal solo, or the more abstract organ voluntary where the religious thought may be more difficult to comprehend, the proper musical clothing for the scriptural expression ought still to be there. It is preciseIv in this area that our church musicians and theologians must reach a meeting of minds. It is here that we must do our thinking and establish a norm if we are to achieve a standard of usage for music which will match its high purpose in the Church.

Both Harp and Psalm!

At this point we cannot presume to set forth an authoritative statement on the problem of form and content in church music. Only after many minds have done much thinking on the subject can we hope to arrive at some conclusion. In guiding our thoughts, however, we would like to quote a short article on the subject of musical taste by the learned theologian, the late Dr. K. Schilder of the Netherlands, as it was reprinted by Mr. Geerink Bakker in a recent issue of Polemios. It presents in: a forceful, precise manner the question facing us today—the question of beautiful form and beautiful content in church music.

A people which only has the song but not the lute, the psalm but not the harp, the content but not the form, the beautiful thought but not the beautiful sound, is poor. And its poverty is to its own discredit for God’s people can never be poor unless they have allowed the Kingdom to lie untouched which God has given them.

But there is still one thing which is poorer than poverty. That is death. Not only is a people poor, but dead, which has the Jute but not the song, the harp but not the psalm, the form but not the content, the beautiful sound but not the beautiful thought. That people is dead.

Dead were those peaceful ones in Zion against whom Amos spoke (Amos 6:5,6)_ They had Dot taken over the whole heritage from David. It is true they had taken from David’s legacy the lute, the harp, the beautiful sound, the music, and the art. But they missed his song, his psalm, his holy thoughts, his piety….The harp, the lyre, the music is never without content. They are always imbued with some thought. And David’s thought was dim in Israel’s children, for they could no longer pray as David, no more confess as David, no more plead for mercy as David, no more honor God through song as did David. Then, with David’s harp pre· served, the art remained; but David’s Psalms were only warbling to this generation ; the holy music became dance music, the instrument of David went into the hands of strange, profane souls, and the worldly song superseded the holy art of David. (TRANSLATION MINE, H.A.B.)

vVe are happy that such a situation does not yet exist in our Church. It does, however, exist all about us in many other churches where the abstract beauty of the music is often considered to be of greater importance than the”religious truth which it is to convey.

Calvin Restores Church Music

In order to combat this evil there have been some who wished to remove all music from the worship service. This was true in the Reformation when for a time there was no music whatsoever in the church at Geneva. There were even some devout Catholics in the Council of Trent who felt that the interest of the Catholic Counter-Reformation would best be served by the abolition of all music from the Mass. When Calvin returned to Geneva he spent much thought and energy in returning music to the worship service. He established certain principles for worship which we must bear in mind as we study our twentieth century problems of church music.

He undoubtedly would have encouraged the production of a great deal more music for his church if he had had the time, the talent, and the cooperation from his co-workers. In carrying on with our great traditions we too must have the time, the talent, and the cooperation in meeting the musical needs of the twentieth century Reformed church.