Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Peoples’ Song

I am indebted to Paul Westermeyer for the phrase, “the peoples’ song.” I’ll have to check the source – one of his excellent books on church music. (As opposed to one of his excellent books on hymnody.) Probably The Church Musician, in which he argues for the title Cantor. And champions “the peoples’ song.”

I love to direct my church choir. I am pretty passionate about choral music to begin with. Choral music in service of the church and to the glory of God is a pretty high calling. I care so much about it that I despair of ever being a good enough conductor to do it justice. But I find that there is an even higher calling than the excellent pursuit of the choral art in Christian worship.

That higher calling, to me, is the excellent pursuit of getting the right songs into the hearts and minds and voices of God’s people. Christian worship can survive quite nicely, thank you, without a choir. Survive, yes and even thrive. As it has for centuries in western culture and does in cultures wherever the Gospel has gone. The voice of Christian liturgy is the peoples’ song – whatever form that liturgy may take, and whatever the sound of the song.

I serve a particular church in a particular culture at a particular place in time. Though seen locally as the “poster boy for traditional worship,” I am both more and less than that. Younger colleagues may confuse the articulation of the following principles and approaches with paleontology. Older parishioners may suspect the application of these principles and approaches can open Pandora’s Box. Well, whatever.

The first thing I look for in congregational song is the text. As much as possible I try to separate the text from the melody. It’s easy to rule out a song because the tune is mediocre. It is even more easy to accept a song because the tune is so appealing. I try to start with the words: do they say something worth singing, that helps us understand what the Bible says? Are they theologically sound, poetically beautiful, psychologically true? Will they bear up with repeated use?

Then I look at the melody. Does the music have a character that supports the text? This is so obviously culture-bound. To a degree it is even sub-culture bound. But I still argue for it in my setting: does this melody reinforce or detract from what the words are saying? If they are devotional words set to a march-like meter and angular melody – maybe that’s not such a good match. Do the words call us to action, but the melody comes across as a lullaby? Again, we might want to take a pass on that.

Why are these principles important? Because it is primarily through the peoples’ song that a congregation’s affections are set, their practical (lived) theology is formed, and their spirits are united to one another and with God. Or as Saint Paul wrote: Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. And Let the word of Christ dwell in you (plural) richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

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