Monday, June 21, 2010

Encouragement, not self-congratulation

Reading others' blogs recently, I was encouraged in a couple of ways.

First, from a Welsh preacher who was in the College Church pulpit on June 13. An excellent preacher with a vibrant ministry in Cardiff, Wales, Peter Baker was our guest for special services to kick off our summer. It was good to meet Peter, and to have a few minutes to talk about music in the life of the church. Two minor quibbles - his accent is English, not Welsh, and he apparently doesn't do Richard Burton impersonations. But he does have the same handsome features. And he is funny!

Peter was visiting a number of churches of various types, on a 3-week "study" trip to the U.S. In his last post before heading back to Cardiff, he wrote:  "When I joined in the singing of Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer ... I remembered how rarely I had felt personally involved in the worship of the majority of churches I had attended in the US. Worship as a spectator sport was the consistent experience over here, except in College Church Wheaton." What a nice nod to his time in our morning services. This is not self-congratulatory - of me or of this church - but rather just that it's encouraging to have someone experience what we probably take for granted, and then to say so, so publicly

And I have to ask, but again I don't mean anything by asking: Is it coincidental that College Church is also the most "traditional" of the churches Peter visited? Seriously, it is an honest question. And again, I mean nothing self-congratulatory by even asking the question. Food for thought.

The second bit of encouragement, or food for thought, comes from today's Choral Net blog post. Today's post points to a favorite author and blogger, Alex Ross. The subject is the culture of applause, with some surprising history that suggests our concert etiquette (strict rules about when to applaud) are fairly recent. The blogger, Allan Simon summarizes: "the 'traditional' way of listening to classical music is largely the invention of Wagner, who created a quasi-religious aura around his musical creations."

The questions raised by the Choral Net post have to do with an audience's engagement with the music being made in their presence. Is there a mechanism for immediate, even visceral, response to beautiful and/or moving music? Do we lose something by controlling individual responses as music is being made? Why do we have to wait for the last notes to fade away before applauding?

It is one of the replies to Allen Simon's post that elicited another small bit of encouragement: "If you really want to hear beautiful music performed without applause put on your favorite CD or go to a fine church service. (There are exceptions!)." Interesting that Alex Ross points to the quasi-religious setting of Bayreuth as the beginning of concert etiquette restraint. In his essay (which is linked to the Choral Net blog) Ross demonstrates that Mozart's concert music was routinely "interrupted" by applause. But it is hard to imagine that this happened in the Salzburg cathedral, with his vocal music or even the church sonatas. So, a sense of decorum that one has to assume comes with a sense of place and of purpose.

And, again, I ask the question, apropos the reply just quoted (go to a fine church service. (There are exceptions!)) - but I don't mean anything by asking it. Would that be more true of "traditional" church services than other "fine" services? And what is gained, and what is lost, by our control of the peoples' responses in public worship? Or is it really a virtue, that there exist church services with a sense of place and purpose that make applause seem ... out of place?

I do not mean it to be self-congratulatory when I say that I am thankful for this place, where people still participate heartily in the acts of praise, and where there is a sense that whatever our responses may be, the response of the concert hall is somehow inappropriate. Inadequate, even, if I may say so. I long for more responses, and deeper, interrupting (if you will) the flow of our service. But let's not confuse things by mis-reading the venue or changing the direction of our attention.

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