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The Opening Voluntary

There has been a great awakening, during the last few years, in everything pertaining to worship-music. Various religious bodies have taken steps looking to the betterment of musical conditions in our churches, and at least one great organization, the American Guild of Organists—to say nothing of the newly-developed Religious Art and Music Department of the Religious Education Association—has been created during that period for the same purpose. A great deal of attention has been directed, among other things, to the proper character and place, strangely enough—of what is commonly called the opening voluntary.
The earliest forms of opening voluntaries were almost entirely improvisations upon hymn-tunes, or chorales. In Germany, especially, it was required that every organist be able to improvise skilfully upon the chorales, presumably those that were to be sung in the service. This custom still survives in large measure, and it is quite the usual thing to hear
organists who have been trained in the German school using chorale arrangements—either Bach's, or the simpler ones that succeeded his, or their own improvisations. In England arose a similar class of compositions, some in the Variation-form, or the chorale-prelude form, others in the free style, though all are marked more or less by the musical characteristics of the time, being pleasing or brilliant, as the case might be, rather than worshipful or meditative.
The very name of this class of compositions—voluntaries—at once indicates the difficulty in dealing with the problem. The rest of the service (excepting, of course, the closing voluntary and offertory) is prescribed in the ritualistic churches strictly, in the others not so strictly; but in all there is at least an ecclesiastical tradition which has approved certain forms and materials and created a standard. In Protestant church music, especially the instrumental part, there is absolutely no standard, nor has there been until lately, any attempt at uniformity.
That there is much room for a discussion upon this subject there can be no question, when it is remembered that organists of respectable reputations have been known to play excerpts from the popular operas, both as opening and closing voluntaries. If the writer were to append even a partial list of the unsuitable (to put it mildly) organ-music that he has heard or seen upon service programs, it would certainly provoke a smile, to say the least. This is largely true because every organist is a law unto himself; hence, if he is an ardent Wagnerite, it is the most natural thing in the world that the "Evening Star" song should find its way to his organ-program, or the "Tannhäuser" march, or even the "Liebestod" from "Tristan and Isolde." Or an ardent admirer of "Faust" may play the "Dio Possente" or a part of the Garden Scene, or the swinging "Soldiers' Chorus." The "Toreador Song" from "Carmen" is not unknown as a Postlude, or such selections as the "Berceuse" from "Jocelyn" as opening voluntaries, or offertories. But enough! It is unnecessary to dwell upon this aspect of the question at greater length, as it is only too evident that the musician whose sole interest is in his music does not always see clearly in this matter, and needs some outside assistance, either authoritative, if from the music committee, or suggestive, if from his professional brethren.
Unquestionably, the freedom of choice which characterizes our American organists in particular has been productive of much good. The brilliant performer or the thorough musician is able to demonstrate at the keyboard his superiority and desirability to a much greater extent than if confined to strictly service music, with the result, it is to be hoped, that the emolument will be proportioned to the merit. Salaries are not so large but that any means tending to increase them is to be welcomed. Then again, the organ music of the church service is often the only good instrumental music that many people hear, and is for that reason a valuable educational agency. Some organists realizing this have been so taken up with the educational aspects of the case that they have subordinated the devotional to the artistic—and religious—impairment of the service. Therein, and in the over-display of virtuosity for selfish ends, lies the greatest weakness of the system.
The proper function of the opening voluntary is, undoubtedly, to prepare the congregation, by inducing in them the proper frame of mind, for the service which follows. As has frequently been pointed out by writers upon musical subjects, there is no such thing as sacred music, per se. Not even association is able to remove the sense of incongruity when music that is improper in character is introduced into the service. That is what is the matter with many of the so-called Gospel Hymns. In most cases written for the words to which they are sung, they are as thoroughly associated with the church and worship as it is possible for music to be. Yet, because they are inherently trivial or worse, there is always that feeling of incongruity, almost of sacrilege, which rises in the mind of every understanding listener.
In like manner it is not every organ selection which has been habitually associated with the sanctuary which has a right there. In fact, there is room here for a thorough shaking-up in the programs of many organists. Not that any music can be essentially bad any more than it can in itself be sacred. But any music which by its character or associations awakens emotions which are not in keeping with divine worship should be ruled out, no matter what its intrinsic merit. And, per contra, frequently music which may not be of much intrinsic worth may, by its character and appropriateness, be perfectly suited to the church service.
In this connection arises the question of transcriptions—a question which, like the poor, we have always with us. Whether or not there is ever any necessity (or justification) for transcriptions, there is certainly none for the wholesale "lifting" of selections from every conceivable source, which is so commonly met with in the catalogs of publishers of organ music. It might be stated, as a fundamental rule, that nothing should be used in the church-service which in its original form has been intimately associated with anything else, especially with the stage or the parade-ground. There has been much adopting from operas of "Prayers" and "Marches," a practice which can only be condemned. For, while in strictly rural communities there may be no general acquaintance with even the better-known operatic selections, certainly in the urban and suburban communities, representing the majority of our people, there is no such ignorance. So that it is scarcely in good taste to use excerpts from the operas as voluntaries, both because the associations are foreign to the sanctuary and because dramatic music is by its very nature not, as a rule, of the quiet, contemplative character which is most suitable for opening voluntaries.
Usage has, however, made a few exceptions allowable, notably the famous Handel "Largo." This is largely due to the fact that it has been so long since the "Largo" has been heard in its original form and setting that to the listener of our day and generation its associations are entirely churchly. In the meantime, the "Largo" is typical of so small a class that it is hardly to be taken into account in dealing with the problem as a whole.
With transcriptions from instrumental sources there is greater liberty; first, because, as has been before stated, music in itself is neither sacred nor secular, and, secondly, because the associations, if there are any, are, at the most, simply those of the concert-room, with its sedate, intellectual atmosphere. In the case of such music, fitness must be the determining factor, not much account being taken of associations. In this realm one is at once brought face to face with the greatest instrumental masterpieces, very few of which, in later times especially, were written originally for the organ or dedicated to religious uses. By using the blue pencil liberally, many movements from Beethoven and other instrumental composers may, in part at least, be utilized for opening voluntaries. In making adaptations it is always safer to err on the side of too great severity, rather than to be lenient.
Of the music written originally for the organ, not much need be said except that, while there is a great deal of organ-music in circulation, here as elsewhere the yard-stick must be applied. Simply because a composition has been written for the organ rather than for the piano or the orchestra does not guarantee in the slightest degree that the composition is fitted for church use. In fact, considering that it has been produced entirely by church musicians it is surprising to see how much of it is actually unfitted for such use. Even collections of organ music that are avowedly for church use are generally selected with less regard to their value as church music than simply as show pieces, or else they are so dull and uninteresting that they are of little value except as lullabies. At the best, such collections represent the taste of an individual, which may be or may not be good, and never can be comprehensive.
Inasmuch as there is no standard of excellence or of usage to which new candidates for favor may be compared, it would seem a good idea for some representative body, such as the American Guild of Organists, to pass upon a number of voluntaries from time to time, selecting them by majority vote of the entire body, strictly upon their merits as church music. This or some similar manner would seem to be the only method available in this country for the creation of a collection of standard voluntaries, which is so much needed if church music is to be purified. Let us hope that the near future will see such a collection, in good, clear print, durable binding, and at a reasonable price (to fit the organists' pocketbooks.)—J. Lawrence Erb.

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