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Music in Our Churches - Charles Galloway

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By Charles Galloway

THIS is an old and vexing subject. Seldom is there a church paper or periodical in which there is not among its pages at least one article in which, generally speaking, some silly or revolutionary idea is advanced as to what and how and when and by whom shall certain parts of the church service be sung. One writer will declare with capital letters that “The greater part of the music written by modern composers and sung by church choirs is unsuitable for the service.” That is to say, trifling compositions by Charles Gounod, S. Coleridge-Taylor, Sir George Martin, Dr. Samuel Wesley, Sir Arthur Sullivan (to mention only a very few) must be tabooed. This same fossil will insist that every form of music that is at present regarded as melodious and tuneful is wholly sacrilegious. With tears in his eyes, we can imagine, he pleads for something more scientific; less melody; something that is more or less enveloped in mystery; a little more of the—shall I say—mathematical bump. Another person in the delights of a mind conscious of right will call your attention to the compositions of those immortals: Bliss, Perkins, Danks, Harrison Millard, Charles Lloyd, and will ask if anything more beautiful, more effective or more churchly could possibly be written. Here we have two extreme types. One finds that only right which is moulded in strictest form with all emotional features eliminated. The other—and he has a large following—has a fondness for the bravura school, which abounds in flourishes and trills and oddly accentuated tricks forming a style that can hardly be called stately or majestic or solid.

Wild Theories

The seeker after truth is confronted with all manner of wild theories, which, taken together, are enough to give, aye, do give, one the “willies.” And yet there is no reason why men should be more in accord in their views upon such a peculiar subject as this of “church music” than they are upon the thousands of other questions upon which mankind has differed since creation first began and will continue to differ so long as humanity is so variously constituted and of such endless grades of intellectuality. The only seemingly safe course to pursue is to follow that time-honored conservative axiom, and live up to it—“agree to disagree.”

The question naturally arises, “What is the essence of good church music?” Rather a broad question, admitting, it must be said, of rather a broad answer. “All music,” says Moritz Moszkowski, “that does not belong to the class that might be called abstractly contrapuntal, grows obsolete. This style alone is based on the everlasting laws of unassailable logic, for its structure rests upon combinations of actualities, which are inspired by the spirit of mathematics. It is, therefore, not subject to the changing tastes of passing time.” Abstractly contrapuntal! Of, or pertaining to, counterpoint. What a world of thrill and awe surrounds that word counterpoint. I fancy I can almost hear some of you shudder at the mere mention of the word.

What’s the Use of Counterpoint

What possible connection can there be between counterpoint and music, and especially church music? Have not some of the brighest (sic) stars in the musical firmament —Sankey and his like—composed an abundance of church music without the aid of counterpoint? Only cranky musicians take any stock in counterpoint. In speaking of this branch of musical grammar, Mr. Lavignac, of the Paris Conservatoire, says, “No man should hope to become an accomplished musician and a composer of works having real value, without being first a strong contrapuntist. It is, so to speak, a dead language, from which the present speech is derived, as important to the musician as Latin or Greek to the scholar. A knowledge of this language is, moreover, indispensable for the full comprehension of the works of such masters as Bach, Handel, Palestrina, and many others who created its forms in accordance with the demands of their own genius.” Bach, Handel, Palestrina! What church music these musical giants have produced! They had something to say, and how beautifully they said it. All church music, if it is to be pure, if it is to possess any dignity, if it is to have, as Bishop Potter says it should have, “Body and solidity, not thinness and catchiness, it should be strong and, therefore, inspiring.” If it is to have a serious religious tone it will be polyphonic, Bach-Handel-Palestrinal in character and style. You cannot get anything too good for the church. “Our word ‘praise,’” says the Rev. L. Mason Clark, “is only an abbreviation of the longer word ‘appraise’; that is, to express the valuation which the soul places upon the Almighty. What a collosal task it becomes then! What a conception of this part of worship this word ‘praise’ forever enshrines! In the fire of such a thought how the cheap and tawdry notions of religious music curl and blaze and burn!”

Musical Rubbish

Much of the music sung in many of our churches to-day is cheap and tawdry; it is musical rubbish; light, sentimental, undignified, if not sacrilegious; a meaningless conglomeration of distorted and undeveloped melodies, very often the imaginations of musical lunatics, the like of whom Florian doubtless had in mind when he wrote, “Everyone to his own trade; then would the cows be well cared for.”

These musical fakers who are allowed to disclose upon a suffering public their frivolous thoughts and emotions are what Thomas Fuller calls “pretenders to music,” and, as he goes on to say that, justly, too, because they crowd into the company of gentlemen, both unsent for and unwelcome; but these are no more a disgrace to the true professors of that faculty than monkeys are a disparagement to mankind. The three strong characteristics of most of the stuff turned out by these would-be composers are, first of all, rhythm; second, rhythm, and thirdly, rhythm. Carl Merz tells us that rhythm principally touches the sensual elements of our nature. If rhythm predominates, melody and harmony are usually the sufferers; just as the spirit suffers when the body largely predominates. Rhythm is the ruling element of the dance. The dance rhythm touches our nerves and, as the saying is, “it makes our feet move.” A dance consists merely of a pleasing melody with plain harmony and a decided rhythm. It is but natural that such music should be popular with children and the uneducated.

I say in all seriousness that laws should be enacted which would prohibit the publication of many of these unwholesome and meritricious (sic) muscial (sic) productions, the effect of which on a serious musician, one who really loves his art, is about the same as is the waving of a red flag before the eyes of a wild bull. If obscene literature is suppressed, why not impure music? The early Greeks were very zealous in this respect. In the history of music we read that “Damon of Athens, the musical tutor of Socrates, held that the introduction of a new and presumably enervating scale would endanger the fabric of the State, and that a single key could not be altered without imperiling the future welfare of Greece. Plato maintained that only music that ennobled the mind should be tolerated, and it was the duty of the law-givers to suppress that which possessed merely sensual qualities.” Music was in a sense a recognized custodian, or safeguard, of the public virtue.

Bad Church Music

I am not alone in my tirade against these persons who are prostituting art. Every now and then I come across some article on church music in which the writer will give it as his opinion that much of the music sung in many of our churches in undignified and unchurchly, or, as one writer puts it, “Not of the mood religieuse; music that is strangely out of place, just as a beautiful ball gown would look worn at a funeral. If the old law of the eternal fitness of things were observed,” continues this same writer, “we should find much of the profanity palmed upon us in the name of church music in the divine worship cast out into outer darkness. Are we to have a continuance of the slipshod, haphazard, ill-fated music which prevails in the majority, it is safe to say, of our otherwise well-regulated churches? In this land of churches, too, where their music becomes such a factor in the education of the art, it is high time the matter should be seriously considered and action taken.”

Good Church Music

Someone asks: “Has there never been any good church music written, and if so, why is it never sung?” There has been an abundance of good church music written, master compositions of almost all of the greatest composers who have ever lived, from Palestrina day up to the present time, which compositions have been, are now, and in the future will be, sung wherever there is a taste for the musically pure, grand and dignified. However, I venture to suggest, with no little timidity, that these master compositions cannot always be satisfactorily interpreted by a mixed quartet. Mr. F. W. Wodell, of Boston, in his “Choir and Chorus Conducting,” a book that ought to be in the library of everyone who is at all interested in church music, says, “There is an extensive list of the best class of compositions for use in the church service which cannot be adequately rendered except by a well-trained chorus. The style of composition is such that several voices on each part are needed to give it with proper breadth and dignity.

“This music is sometimes attempted by the mixed quartet, but the performance savors somewhat of burlesque.” I am decidedly opposed to the mixed quartet. I say, without fear of successful contradiction, that any musician would much prefer to direct and accompany a chorus choir rather than a mixed quartet.

Mr. Dudley Buck says that opposition to the quartet choir may be based upon purely musical grounds. Quartet singing alone narrows down the scope of much good music composed for church services and excludes the possibility of much contrast in musical effects. Here we have expressions from two authorities, men who have had years of experience, broad minded, cultured musicians, who know what they are talking about. Surely no one would think of combating such convincing arguments.

We have all heard of Mr. Frank Damrosch; some of us are personally acquainted with this distinguished musician; we all respect him highly. Mr. Damrosch prefers the chorus choir to the mixed quartet. Here is what he has to say on the subject: “The quartet choir is an American institution, and it is perhaps the cause of more trouble in the church than any other thing. I would not advise Americans to be proud of it. Not that we do not have excellent quartets, but the more excellent they are, the less fit they are to be in the church. The solution of the quartet difficulty is the chorus. Chorus music to my mind is the only music that is fit for the church in that it sinks the individuality of the performer in the mass. I would not, however, exclude the incidental solo from its proper place in the composition.”

Mr. Damrosch’s speaking of the incidental solo prompts me to add in this connection that in the chorus choir you will generally find two or three first-class soloists. No fewer than twenty well-known and eminently satisfactory singers in the choirs of several of the principal churches in this city (St. Louis, Missouri) have graduated, so to speak, from one of our local chorus choirs within the past ten years. I simply mention this to show that having a chorus choir does not necessarily preclude the singing of a solo, duet, trio or quartet when occasion demands.

Poor Congregational Singing

We must all admit that the congregational singing in the majority of our churches is anything but thrilling. In fact in some cases, it can hardly be called singing. It is not even a “Joyful Noise,” to use the words of the Psalmist. There must be a reason for the people’s not singing. Go with me, to a German church and hear Luther’s noble hymn, Ein Feste Burg, sung. Every man, woman and child sings with an enthusiasm that is unbounded. Now, why is this? In the first place, the range of the hymn is such that everybody can join in. It is neither too high nor too low. Then, again, there is something inspiring and heroic about Ein Feste Burg and many other hymns and chorals used by these people. Carl Merz tells us that “these hymns sprang from a genuine religious spirit; hence they live to this day, and if Protestant Churches do not admire them, sensible musicians do.

And now, a few words about the music sung in our Sunday Schools. I say unhesitatingly that it is a crime and a shame that our young people are not singing a better class of hymns. There can be no question but that much of the music put forth for use of children in Sunday Schools is the very embodiment of namby-pambyism. This is an incontrovertible fact. The great Robert Schumann tells us that “children cannot be, brought up on sweetmeats and confectionery to be sound and healthy men. As the physical, so must the mental food be simple and nourishing. The masters have provided amply for the latter; keep to that.” This is one of Schumann’s many rules for young musicians. Now, who knows but that a rigid conformity to this Schumann precept is responsible for the non-attendance at Sunday Schools of some of our younger musicians?

Kindly bear with me while I quote rather briefly what others have to say about the music sung in many of our Sunday Schools. Says the Reverend Charles Graves: “Old hymn books which contained the fine hymns and tunes of the great masters have been laid aside for the jingling and non-sacred music of MacGranahan, Stebbins, Sankey, Billhorn, Kirkpatrick and others. Many of the Gospel hymn tunes seem to land you in the midst of an Indian war dance. All is not music that jingles, and all is not sacred that is published with a religious title.” Says the late eminent organist, Dr. Eugene Thayer: “The children of to-day are the Church and State of to-morrow. If these be wrongly trained and guided, it is certain that the future will be one of ignorance, wrong-doing and misery. So our work should begin here and begin at once.”

Sunday School Books

If we examine the words and music of the Sunday School books, what do we find? Save here and there a passable selection, nothing but a mass of stupid, incongruous stuff, nonsense and twaddle; illiterate, ungrammatical and utterly unpoetical jingle; and music that trash would be too good a name for. And this is not the worst of it. The little innocents are actually obliged to sing this driveling nonsense.

Think of children beginning life with:

    “‘Twill all be over soon;
    ‘Tis only for a moment here,
    ‘Twill all be over soon.”

Or singing such dismal meditations as this: “A few more prayers, A few more tears, It won’t be long, It won’t be long.”

Or such enforced juvenile hypocrisy as:

    “Almost anchored, life’s rough journey
    Shortly now will all be o’er.
    Unseen hands the sails are furling;
    Soon I’ll reach the heavenly shore. 
    Almost home! How sweet it soundeth
    To the heart that’s worn with care.”

Think of it! Worn with care at the age of twelve! I have seen and played from a Sunday School book which has the words, “For Jesus is my Saviour,” set to that drunkard’s melody, “We Won’t Go Home ‘Till Morning;” three or four notes changed, but the rest note for note. And this in my blessed native State of Massachusetts! Now the music was not bad, for there is no such thing as bad music. But there are such things as bad associations; and when we hear this, or any other melody, repeatedly sung by men reeling home at midnight, we must conclude that it is unfit for church service—unfit because of bad associations; because of inappropriateness; the only things that can render music valueless for good influence and good works.

“As the twig is bent the trees inclined.” So we must begin in the Sunday School if the music of the church is ever to be reformed. If you have any Sabbath School books like this, buy no more fire kindlings until they are in the ash-barrel past resurrection! Far better that the children should have but a half-dozen hymns, or none at all, than that they be made to sing such arrant nonsense as the majority of these books contain.”

Doctor Carl Merz has written as follows:

“Would it be safe to fill our Sunday School libraries with novels and silly stories in order to please uneducated children? Yet the modern Sunday School tunes are the silly stories of church music. The rhythmical element is strangely developed in it; hence these tunes are often converted into dances, they are heard played at parades and picnics, minstrels with blackened faces sing and play them. Hilarious young people, coming home from picnics and parties, are known to have sung ‘Sweet By and By,’ ‘Hold the Fort,’ and tunes like these. Surely such popularity cannot be a credit to any church music. The old and calmer church tunes have never thus been popularized, neither is it desirable that they should be.”

And now comes Dr. J. E. P. Aldous, who, if I mistake not, is a clergyman somewhere in the East:

“In the matter of music for congregational and Sunday School singing, the average clergyman and Sunday School superintendent seems to throw, all consideration of fitness to the winds, and to sacrifice everything to so-called ‘Heartiness.’

“I must at once announce my ground in this matter. I hold that hymn tunes of the style known as Moody and Sankey are an outrage on musical art, especially as connected with Christian worship. I cannot think it is right or fitting to sing and shout the most sacred thoughts connected with our religion to strains which savor of and have a great tendency to recall the burlesque opera and the circus ring.”

I do not deny that there is a catchiness in tunes like, “Safe In The Arms Of Jesus,” a foot moving energy in strains like “Hold The Fort, For I Am Coming,” that carries a body of people along, and almost forces them to sing.

But the enthusiasm and questionable fervor fomented by such means have much the same symptoms as the Dutch courage of the proverb, which oozes away and is no more seen when the fumes of stimulant that called it into being are felt no more.

Good Solid Tunes

The good solid tunes that stir the heart are not those that work the feet; if the depths of the spiritual nature are to be appealed to, it is not by tunes that cause the head to wag and the lungs to work like a blast furnace. Surely the “eternal fitness of things” in this matter should appeal not only to musicians but also to any man of sense.

To recapitulate briefly, let it be said that one cannot think highly of much of the music sung in many of our churches. Not that there is no good music published; just the contrary. There is an abundance of good church music published, but of such a character and style as to preclude the mixed quartet from interpreting it. I am opposed to the mixed quartet. I advocate the mixed chorus choir. I deplore the indifferent way a majority of the people enter into the singing of the hymns, and as a remedy for better congregational singing would suggest the compilation of a hymn book containing, first of all, fewer hymns and only ones that have been written by religious leaders like Martin Luther, or devout Christian musicians, one of whom, John Sebastian Bach, stands pre-eminently at the top. I am of the opinion that a much higher grade of hymns should be used in the Sunday Schools.

In conclusion, I ask your indulgence while I read a set of resolutions for elevating the music of the church; resolutions compiled by Mr. W. F. Gates for the choir singer, music committeeman, organist and minister:

For the Choir Singer: I will remember that I am supposed to be a factor in the service of worship. I will be dignified in my demeanor. I will choose music that is worshipful in character, but not too difficult for my congregation to understand. I will do my best to elevate the musical part of the service and will sing an English that can be understood. Nor will I think I am all of the service.

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