31 May 2013

From church to stage: nurturing a culture of congregational song

While the Bible speaks of praising God with musical instruments (e.g., Psalms 147, 149 and 150), there is an ancient tradition of unaccompanied singing in the church. The Orthodox Churches, Reformed Presbyterians and the Churches of Christ sing a cappella in their worship services. Such groupings out of principle exclude musical instruments from their liturgies. Although many of us would not go quite that far, there is nevertheless much to be said for the argument Justin Taylor, drawing on John Piper and James K. A. Smith, makes in noting “The Difference between Congregational Worship and a Concert.” Taylor quotes Smith:

Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.

It might seem odd to jump from liturgy to the theatre section of the New York Times, but this report is a marvellous witness to the power of a culture of congregational song in one segment of the American church: Something Happened on the Way to Bountiful: Everyone Sang Along. Cicely Tyson currently appears in a Broadway revival of the Horton Foote play, The Trip to Bountiful, playing Mrs. Carrie Watts, a character played so wonderfully by the late Geraldine Page in the screen version nearly three decades ago. At one point Tyson sings Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp’s familiar gospel hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its mostly black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”

After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”

Thrilling but unexpected. Under normal circumstances the Broadway experience does not include audience participation, even when catchy songs from classic musicals are being performed.

Some decades ago, at a worship conference at Calvin College, I heard someone remark that Christians are among the few people who regularly sing together in a culture which has so thoroughly professionalized the music “industry.” A vibrant culture of congregational song is something we should continue to nurture in our churches lest it be suppressed by the ubiquitous choirs and praise bands that have reshaped the liturgy in so many settings. And if we do so, it may just manage to spill over into the rest of our lives, even into such unlikely venues as Broadway!

27 May 2013

Stolz: Psalm 83

Our friend Ernst Stolz continues his recording pilgrimage through the Psalms, with Psalm 83 his latest contribution. I love the organ and recorder combination. However, to be quite honest, I find it difficult to warm up to the crumhorn, whose sound too closely resembles that of a kazoo for my comfort. But let the listener judge for herself.

19 May 2013

Fantasia on Psalm 47

The actual title is Fantasy and Fugue on a theme by Goudimel for Organ Duet, by Rachel Laurin, performed last September by Marnie Giesbrecht and Joachim Segger. This was commissioned by the Edmonton RCCO Special Enhancement Fund in Edmonton, Alberta. The title should perhaps reference Louis Bourgeois rather than Claude Goudimel, who merely arranged the melody for the Psalm. An impressive performance all round.

11 May 2013

Hungary sings God's praise: Psalms 42 and 138

In Hungary it seems that even Baptists sing the Genevan Psalms, a wonderful example for Baptists elsewhere in the world. Here is the Vox Nova Baptist Male Choir singing two stanzas of Psalm 42 but only one of 138, undoubtedly leaving the audience wishing for more:

9 May 2013

Update: Psalm 66

I have just posted my 82nd Genevan Psalm versification, namely, Psalm 66. This psalm is one of thanksgiving and celebration for God's deliverance of his people, especially in the exodus from Egypt, which suggests its use in the Passover liturgy (see verse 6). Indeed, the authors of this wikipedia article tell us that within Judaism Psalm 66 is "recited on the second day of Passover in some traditions and the sixth day in others."

Given the spiritual connections between Passover and the Christian Pascha, it is not surprising that it should find its way into the Easter liturgy of the church as well. In fact, the superscription in the Septuagint translation of the psalm, numbered 65 there, runs: ωδή ψαλμού [αναστάσεως], that is, "an ode of a psalm [of resurrection]," the bracketed word perhaps a later christian liturgical interpolation. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon observes that the first four lines of this psalm occur in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for Pascha, which was just celebrated this past sunday in the Orthodox churches. Here is my own versification of verses 8 and 9:

Now bless our God, you earthly peoples;
let all your praise to him resound,
for he keeps us among the living
and placed our feet on stable ground.

In the Genevan Psalter, Psalm 66 shares the same tune with Psalms 98 and 118, the latter of which is also sung at Easter. All three are psalms of celebration breathing a similar spirit of thanksgiving to God for his mercies. The tune is one of the better-known and more durable of the Genevan Psalter, with the eucharistic hymn, Bread of the World in Mercy Broken, being set to it. Revisiting this tune persuaded me to make a very modest alteration of the arrangement. The entire score can be found here.

6 May 2013

Psalm 96

I have just posted my own performance of Genevan Psalm 96 on my Byzantine Calvinist youtube channel. At some point I hope to have access to better recording equipment, but this is the best I can do for now, I think.

Recording the Psalms

Our friend Ernst Stolz has now made it as far as Psalm 80, leaving only 70 more to go. If he keeps up the current pace, he will finish recording all the psalms by 8 September 2014. When that day arrives, we should all down a good Dutch beer to celebrate.