Church Music

Yes, there's a fair bit of dross been written in recent years. However there's also an awful lot of old rubbish too. Even Wesley managed a good few turkeys, and I bet there was even worse stuff that has disappeared into oblivion. As for some of the late 19th century drivel that still survives and is occasionally inflicted on unsuspecting congregations... Go through the average traditional hymn book and see how many really great bits of music there are, and then reflect that what you see in the book is the product of around 150 years of hymn writing, and another hundred years of weeding out.
In my experience some of the people who criticise "boring repetitive" modern stuff will go into raptures about an Oratorio that has as its most famous piece a lyric consisting principally of a single word repeated ad (almost) infinitum. Those of us who do not find that particular style appealing may feel that there is just the tiniest trace of Pot and Kettle... Ultimately though, Church music is there to serve a purpose, and I believe that purpose is to help people worship God, so musical "quality" should take second place. (Not that that is any excuse for under rehearsed sloppy playing, but that's another flamewar...)

Its worth noting that Church Music in the form of a semi-professional organist playing traditional hymns is very much a 19th century innovation. Before that, outside the great cathedrals, I believe Church Organs were pretty rare. Styles of music changed over the decades with fashion in the same way that secular music did. The Wesley era came at a time when the Church was in a very poor state. As a result the new broom swept clean, and most of the older music has gone from the repertoire. Having said that many Christmas Carols are much older, and so are a few other acknowledged classics. The folk song collections contain some marvellous music which has dropped out of use in churches, and I think its a pity.
Before the awful sameness of the organ descended Church music was provided by a group of the local musicians in the same way that modern Parish Worship groups do. It could be subject to some of the same flaws too...

From "Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir", a short story by Thomas Hardy

...It happened on Sunday after Christmas-the last Sunday they ever played in Longpuddle church gallery, as it turned out, though they didn't know it then... The players formed a very good band - almost as good as the Mellstock parish players that were led by the Dewys; and that's saying a great deal. There was Nicholas Puddingcome, the leader, with the first fiddle; there was Timothy Thomas, the bass-viol man; John Biles, the tenor fiddler; Dan'l Hornhead, with the serpent; Robert Dowdle, with the clarionet; and Mr. Nicks, with the oboe-all sound and powerful musicians, and strong-winded men-they that blowed. For that reason they were very much in demand Christmas week for little reels and dancing-parties; for they could turn a jig or a hornpipe out of hand as well as ever they could turn out a psalm, and perhaps better, not to speak irreverent. In short, one half-hour they could be playing a Christmas carol in the squire's hall to the ladies and gentlemen, and drinking tea and coffee with 'em as modest as saints; and the next, at the Tinker's Arms, blazing away like wild horses with the "Dashing White Sergeant" to nine couple of dancers and more, and swallowing rum-and-cider hot as flame.

Well, this Christmas they'd been out to one rattling randy after another every night, and had got next to no sleep at all. Then came the Sunday after Christmas, their fatal day. 'Twas so mortal cold that year that they could hardly sit in the gallery; for though the congregation down in the body of the church had a stove to keep off the frost, the players in the gallery had nothing at all. So Nicholas said -at morning service, when 'twas freezing an inch an hour, "Please the Lord I won't stand this numbing weather no longer; this afternoon we'll have something in our insides to make us warm if it cost a king's ransom."

So he brought a gallon of hot brandy and beer, ready mixed, to church with him in the afternoon, and by keeping the jar well wrapped up in Timothy Thomas's bass-viol bag it kept drinkably warm till they wanted it, which was just a thimbleful in the Absolution, and another after the Creed, and the remainder at the beginning o' the sermon. When they'd had the last pull they felt quite comfortable and warm, and as the sermon went on-most unfortunately for 'em it was a long one that afternoon-they fell asleep, every man jack of 'em; and there they slept on as sound as rocks.

Twas a very dark afternoon, and by the end of the sermon all you could see of the inside of the church were the parson's two candles alongside of him in the pulpit, and his spaking face behind 'em. The sermon being ended at last, the parson asked for the Evening Hymn. But there was no sounding up of the tune, and people began to turn their heads to learn the reason why, and then, a boy who sat in the gallery, nudged Timothy and Nicholas, and said, "Begin! Begin!"

"Hey what?" says Nicholas, starting up, and the church being so dark and his head muddled, he thought he was at the party they had played at the night before, and away he went, bow and fiddle, at "The Devil among the Tailors," the favourite jig of our neighbourhood. The rest of the band, being in the same state of mind, followed their leader with all their strength, according to custom. They poured out the tune till the bass notes made the cobwebs in the roof shiver like ghosts. Then Nicholas, seeing nobody moved, shouted out as he scraped, "Top couples cross hands! And when I make the fiddle squeak at the end, every man kiss his pardner under the mistletoe!"

The boy Levi was so frightened that he bolted down the gallery stairs and out homeward like lightning. The pa'son's hair fairly stood on end when he heard the evil tune raging through the church; and thinking the choir had gone crazy, he held up his hand and said: "Stop, stop, stop! Stop, stop! What's this?" But they didn't hear 'n for the noise of their own playing, and the more he called the louder they played.

Then the folks came out of their pews, wondering down to the ground, and saying: "What do they mean by such a wickedness? We shall be consumed like Sodom and Gomorrah!"

Then the squire came out of his pew lined wi' green baize, where lots of lords and ladies visiting at the house were worshipping along with him, and went and stood in front of the gallery, and shook his fist in the musicians' faces, saying, "What! In this reverent edifice! What!"

And at last they heard 'n through their playing, and stopped.

"Never such an insulting, disgraceful thing-never!" says the squire, who couldn't rule his passion
"Never!" says the pa'son, who had come down and stood beside him.
"Not if the angels of Heaven" says the squire, (he was a wickedish man, the squire was, though now for once he happened to be on the Lord's side)-"not if the angels of Heaven come down," he says, "shall one of you villanous players ever sound a note in this church again; for the insult to me, and my family, and my visitors, and God Almighty, that you've a-perpetrated this afternoon!"

Then the unfortunate church band came to their senses, and remembered where they were. 'Twas a sight to see Nicholas and Timothy Thomas creep down the gallery stairs with their fiddles under their arms, with the rest of the band, all looking as little ninepins, and out they went. The parson might have forgiven them when he learned the truth but the squire would not. That very week he sent for a barrel organ that would play twenty new psalm-tunes so exact that however sinfully inclined you were, you could play nothing but psalm-tunes, and the old players played no more."...

[Of course these days we heat the Churches, so nothing like that could happen...*]

Jim Champ.

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*Not that it necessarily helps. Some years ago I left a Church band for what were in fact the cliched "Musical Differences" (I didn't say so at the time, it seemed tactless for some reason that escapes me now). I actually hadn't realised just how great those musical differences were, until after a service a couple of months later they came out with "Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree".**

**Not that I object to playing secular tunes in Church after services, even songs about released felons. My objection was on grounds of musical taste...

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