Stagnancy and creativity in modern church music

by Jonathan Ambrosino

A keynote speech without a title is the dream of a lifetime for a perverse sort. I could completely ignore this stack of paper, and instead spin out my much-anticipated thesis on why people who love pipe organs also like trains, roller coasters, model railways, and old Chambers stoves. As you all nodded your heads sagely in agreement on the issues of deep-well cooking and the superiority of wooden coasters over metal, not one of you would be the wiser. On a summer’s day, it is tempting! In the same spirit of confession, it is with fond remembrance, and not a little sheepishness, that I admit to you that I have not been a part of a Saint Dunstan’s conference for two decades.

It was in the summer of 1979 that I and some two dozen other boys of the Choir of Men and Boys of Boston’s Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral made the unmistakably un-airconditioned trek from Governor Dummer Academy near Newburyport, Massachusetts to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Providence to offer a choral recital as a part of that summer’s Saint Dunstan’s conference. We had been stuck at camp for some weeks, and even without a/c, the outing was a joyous one. I remember that the Skinner organ at Gloria Dei had just been rebuilt by Möller, and I was fascinated by its shiny new console and the mix of old and new stops. I dimly recall singing Brahms’ How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place, which we actually may or may not have done; however, the choir knew it practically by heart and we seemed to perform it at most concerts. Most memorable of all were the light fixtures at Gloria Dei, reminiscent more than anything of the colorful Chinatown restaurant to which my parents were regularly dragging me.

Twenty years is a long time, and in the intervening period the true worth of my youthful musical training has come into a more significant relief. Being a choirboy is a marvelous musical environment for any youngster. The graduation from novice to chorister to head boy brings with it a sense of seriousness, pace and valor. The regularity of rehearsals and the need to work both seriously and swiftly develops a sense of discipline, purpose and institutional allegiance. Up to that time I had studied piano and had sung with other youth groups, but it was at Saint Paul’s that the development of choral excellence was finally linked to a still-greater cause, that of enhancing, defining, ornamenting and crystallizing Divine Worship.

Mind you, as a boy of eleven, I had not the slightest appreciation of such heady implications on my musical growth. It was the paycheck at month’s end (perhaps $28? perhaps less?), and a bona fide excuse to ride the trolley in from Newton two weekdays and Sunday every week — I told you I would get in the railway angle, now didn’t I? — these lesser details proved, at the time, a greater stimulus. Only later in life did I realize the real worth of the musical grounding we boys were receiving.

My choirmaster was Thomas Murray, the now–internationally-acclaimed concert organist who, when the Saint Paul’s Choir of Men and Boys was disbanded in 1980, left in dismay, soon heading to Yale where he is now University Organist and Professor of Music. Tom Murray is a consummate church musician, one of the last exponents of a generation who saw church music as the organist’s principal calling. He relished all the expressive features of the Anglo-American accompanimental and liturgical style at the time when such playing was thought highly unfashionable, even decadent. Without second thought of having an assistant, he was naturally gifted at conducting from the console, and could play pistons and swell shoes with equal facility as the notes themselves. Yet he did it all so elegantly and fluidly that there was never any question that his motivations were musical and not for the purposes of vanity or display.

The context for this music was one of traditional Episcopal worship, of the low-church sort, but infused with a high degree of choral activity. Holy Communion, as it used to be called, was reserved for the first Sunday of every month. The remaining Sundays employed the format of Morning Prayer, which went vaguely along the lines of choral Matins, with a sung Venite, Jubilate Deo and psalms. Canticle settings were deployed regularly, ones familiar to you, Howells, Stanford, Parry, alongside lesser-known settings by Sumsion and Hanson. Preaching was of a good order. The prayers of the people were spoken, though practically intoned by the singsong, wizened and deeply compelling voice of dear old Rev. Francis Caswell, a human outcrop of rock, who, when he eked out the words, “trouble, sickness, need or any other kind of adversity” would, at the last word, always seem to be the embodiment of every kind of adversity. Indeed, he sounded on the verge of dropping dead. Furthermore, in the presence of guest preachers who had failed to compel in the past, the choirboys followed his lead by falling asleep practically at the words, “the meditations of our hearts,”. In such an atmosphere it was more than suggested that Rite II was an unwelcome corruption of the composed elegance of the 1928 Prayer Book, and that any step away could be seen only in terms of informality being equated with inelegance of expression.

Imagine my surprise, then, to grow up in the world of organ restoration and eventually organbuilding, and find that the focus of the modern organ world treated church music as a second-rate citizen, a stepchild of the real pursuit, which ever since World War II has been increasingly the detailed study and performance of organ literature from the earliest ages to our modern time. Viewed positively, this period must been seen as an incredible one, as we have learned much about organs from past times, learned many lessons as we have tried to build instruments embodying the principles and practices of the great organs of the ages, and as each decade seems to have rediscovered its own new bit of the past.

The music of Bach was central to all of this at first, and rightly so; then came early French; then came more formerly esoteric Baroque music, including the Spanish, Italian and English. After being a dirty word for so very long, Romantic music and music-making actually came into fashion again, and something unthinkable in the 1970s — an all-Widor program, a Symposium dedicated entirely to the music of Guilmant — became not only a reality but even fashionable in the 1980s. This coincided with the revival of transcriptions, a period introduced by Nelson Barden’s pathbreaking serialized treatise on the life and work of Edwin Lemare. Now — alongside the emergence of tracker organs in meantone temperament, and the music of Scheidt and Scheidemann to go with them — we were hearing Wagner at organ recitals again. In 1994 someone actually played a Debussy transcription as an encore at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the heroic Fisk organ that has attracted so much attention. Prior to the piece, this organist proclaimed to his audience that no organ recital is complete without a piece of Debussy, and organists actually laughed. Had this happened thirty years prior, he might have been hissed off the stage by a mob already on their way to the monthly village swell-box burning.

But in all of this organ music frenzy, whether you think of it as rediscovery or merely dredging up the river bottom, where in all of this did church music go? Compared to the remarkable focus and seriousness of purpose that has been brought to bear in the design and construction of organs to suit the repertoire, almost no advances have been made in the design and construction of organs purposely geared to the accompaniment of choirs and the liturgy. Furthermore, when such an organ is built (a good example being Saint Paul’s K Street, the intriguing Schoenstein organ in Washington D.C., with its multiple enclosures, plentiful celestes and keen desire to redefine the traditional Anglo-American accompanying organ style), it is lauded in an offhanded way, as if to say that by indulging this secondary path, it has sidestepped any organ’s real purpose.

The players are as guilty as the instrument-makers, if guilty is the right word, which I suspect it is not. Too many organists graduate from conservatory today incredibly informed about precise points of the performance of the literature, but it is obvious from so simple a thing as their hymn playing that no one has ever taught them to sing as they play. The activity they will be called upon to perform 90 percent of the time is the thing they have spent at best 10 percent refining, or even defining. The greatest service players today: the Tom Whittemores, the Hal Pyshers, the Walden Moores, the Richard Websters, are complete unknowns, their unfailingly magical service-playing goes all but unnoticed in the organ world. Because of the fixation on playing literature stressed at most organ departments, there is developed almost unconsciously the notion that Sunday morning is an evil necessity for an organist to support his main interest, the performance of organ literature in a concert setting.

I recall one colleague who recently returned from an RSCM summer weeklong course where he was to gather a group of 60 kids. This is a naturally gifted organist of limited conservatory training, who was nevertheless an organ scholar at 16 and absorbed from his teacher, who had absorbed from his teacher Richard Purvis, the ineffable elegance of expression that typifies the better tradition of American service playing in this century. His accompanist for the week was a well-trained Eastman organist. My friend spoke of his consternation at the close of the week. At the final service, the prelude and postlude were expertly wrought. But the hymns, he reported, were static and lifeless. And the choral accompanying was only of the most basic sort, with lumpy crescendi and decrescendi, and inability to make quick changes of registration by hand, and in general a note of delight and surprise when my friend demonstrated how a smooth build-up could be effected, and why it would heighten the impact of a certain moment in the Bairstow anthem they were performing. In the words of my friend, “I got the feeling that he considered Sunday morning something of an organ recital interrupted by the liturgy.”

Of course I over-simplify, and many of our good church organists are indeed products of many of the conservatories that come to mind. But I think we would agree that such players are the minority. I know one student at Yale who self-consciously proclaimed that his focus would be church music. Although proud and certain of his choice, he always expressed his desire with a certain, perhaps unconscious, defensiveness, which only served to underscore his acknowledgement in our time that church service is somehow, even though the road now less traveled, by no means considered the high road.

I’ll return to this by way of my second topic, which involves our need to move beyond the paths we know and love. As an adult I sought out opportunities to be involved in choirs where the contexts were similar to what I knew as a boy. For example, when I lived in Connecticut, I sang countertenor at Trinity on the Green in New Haven, a fine old Episcopal parish with a gorgeous unaltered Aeolian-Skinner organ, Tiffany windows, Choir of Men and Boys, Rite 1 with Morning Prayer on the second and fourth Sundays. It was a good experience, and the discipline of choral singing is always welcome in any guise. I knew, however, that this was increasingly a form of worship unfamiliar to most Episcopalians, a relic of a bygone era and, for many, an outmoded form of worship. The earlier service was always Rite ii, with non-traditional music and a burgeoning congregation.

I did not understand why or how these other people were worshipping. Moreover, I cringed when colleagues from other churches would tell me that Rite ii, the new prayer book and Eucharist every Sunday actually was far more Biblically-based than turn-of-the-century based worship formats. Did I ever research what they were saying? No. I was too offended to think that my personal and fond history of worship could be at fault.

In these feelings and assumptions I brand myself fully guilty of a syndrome that forms the basis of my second topic: our often tentative ability to engage ourselves in the present, both for the good of our congregations and as true servants of the Church. As Americans, we are often at our worst when we seek the familiar at the expense of the present. Many of us, and I obviously count myself in this group, can conjure up a desire for the familiar at any cost. It is comfortable. Things, patterns, ways hold a certain rightness for us. We experience a continuity that lends credence to who we have been and what we have done, bringing the significance of our personal past to what we wish to do in the present. In the proper context there is nothing wrong with this, but it too often masks a deeper motive.

It seems that too many church organists who actually are interested in being church musicians are still pining for an imaginary glory day of what church music meant in a former age. A lot of choral involvement, a good deal of singing, the stature of choral offering being accorded an equally valid expression of the Word and its place in Worship. This informs their entire attitude and approach to dealing with their choirs, their parishioners and their clergy, wherein their actions are all quietly motivated by a desire to create, at least from time to time, an atmosphere and the qualities of this imaginary glory day in the past. They don’t want youth choirs, or Heaven help us handbells, they just want one choir with which they can perform the known treasures in familiar ways.

The fact of the matter is that the church world has moved on, and clergy and congregations don’t necessarily expect something new, but something relevant to today, and how people wish to express their faith in a significant manner. Too often this means an unacceptably simple form of music, which is not the answer. Churches that opt for the simple often secure short-term results by underestimating the long-term intelligence of their congregants.

But is it possible to integrate the positive attributes of tradition into a new expression for our time? Recently I have seen an example of a church, which has taught me many lessons about how to blend the old and the new in a creative fashion. Moving recently to Philadelphia, I joined a fine old church, Saint Peter’s in Society Hill, where Tom Whittemore is an uncommonly distinguished service player and improviser. His style goes hand-in-glove with his restored 1931 Skinner organ (incongruously but deliciously housed behind a case that dates, as does the church, from 1761 — it takes a bit of adjustment to hear string celestes, French Horns and Cornopeans emit from an 18th-century Georgian case trimmed in gold leaf).

Here is a modern parish in an old building. There are box pews, the pulpit is at one end of the building but the altar is at the other, so we face both east and west in the course of a single service. At first glance the atmosphere and music are highly traditionally Anglican. Dig deeper, however, and the similarities fade. Rite ii is used constantly here, and as I could not fail to note, with an elegance far surpassing that of my New Haven church’s Rite i. The times demand a relevant language and approach; but the intelligence of the congregation expect nothing less than a divine deportment. Style has taken second place here; quality of expression is still out front. Mr. Whittemore’s music spans the gamut, without concentration in any particular area. There is a choir of men and boys, a girls’ choir and a mixed parish choir.

There are many exalted features about the service from the musical standpoint: over a period of years they have gradually re-introduced the singing of psalms, and it is wonderful to be surrounded by people who can chant in parts. But let me single out one distinctive feature: the manner in which the organist fills the communion time with music.

In most places it seems a commonplace either to sing delicate motets, quiet hymns or otherwise soothing music. If there is no choir, how often have we all noodled on quiet celestes in order to provide a soothing background to the reception of the sacrament?

But on many Sundays at Saint Peter’s, I have heard Tom Whittemore take a totally different tack, in the form of an improvised a scherzo, sometime quite menacing, other times merely brooding. It took me about three Sundays before I realized what he was doing: the musical tensions build as most of the communicants approach the table, the music reaches a climax as most of them are in actual reception of the sacrament, and fades away as people return to their boxes for prayer.

Musical theatre? Perhaps. Effective? It’s more than that, it’s provocative. It underscores that the Sacrament is not a trifling matter, and that the experience evokes many more emotions than simple reverence. Finally I summoned the courage to ask him about it.

He explained that he has been at his church for 13 years, and has gotten to know his parishioners very well. In sharing their views on faith, he has been surprised at how most of them are responding not to the serenity and sustenance of the Sacrament, but of the challenge of humans to rise to the gracious offering the Sacrament represents. “I realized that, just as we emphasize other points in the service through music, and in the ways that only music can express, I had a golden opportunity to do the same at the Eucharist, which is after all the high point of the service. You would be surprised at how many people notice this.”

I realized through this example that it is possible for the thoughtful musician to do many things at once. One of the reasons we all deplore so much modern church music is that it assumes our congregations are musical idiots, only worthy of being dumbed down to. Here, on the other hand, was an example of tackling a very serious liturgical issue in musical terms with equal parts of inspiration and taste. Too often what we don’t like about modern liturgy is that our desire for musical excellence stands apart from the general proceedings, resulting in a liturgy which lacks cohesion because its goals are too multi-dimensional to have real focus, real point. In his communion scherzo, Tom was once more asserting that it is music which is often the one thread that binds a service together; well done, it can be reminiscent of things that have been done before, but put together and expanded in a way entirely suited to modern-day thinking.

Is there a practical way we can deal with these two issues? Can we make a new generation of organists as turned on by church music as by organ performance? Moreover, can we make our own music-making and that of the next generation encompass all the positive attributes of the best in former playing while establishing our own, distinctive styles?

In a recent panel on the future of the organ (which by the way is an absurd topic, you might just as well try to talk constructively about the future of the Italian government), the very talented and individualistic organist Robert Bates, who has been at Stanford for some years and is now moving to the University of Houston, raised a superb point. He said, and I paraphrase, performance practice and the Romantic revival has made us play more musically. We are past the point where we feel things must be played in strict metronomic fashion to integrating performance practice in a more lyrical manner. But, he said with great poignancy, if we are playing more musically, we are making less and less of our own music. We are so conditioned by recordings and other people’s playing (this goes for choral recordings too, I fear) that too often we are reluctant, for fear of ridicule or notice, to reconcile our understanding of how a piece “ought” to be played with our own vision of how this music should be wrought. In place of making music, we are too often mimicking the music of others.

In church terms I see one excellent solution that addresses both points: promoting the idea of the organ scholar. Why can we not offer at our churches the opportunity at the console such as I was allowed to receive in the choir stall? At no time soon are organ students in conservatory going to learn how to accompany a service to the same degree of study and detail as with organ repertoire. If they are to learn the ropes, they need to get on the schooner, so to speak, and be brought along by good church musicians at an early age directly in the context of liturgical music-making. At the same time that they can be exposed to the techniques of good hymn playing and good choral accompaniment, we can just as strongly encourage them to explore the instrument, explore the colors, explore different ways of making the same music come alive.

Organists have to be told at an early age that the tools they learn are not to be an agent to confining their style but rather to liberating them from ignorance and the commonplace. Also, they must realize that all music they make on the organ can be accorded equal importance, and that by bringing their faith as well as their ears, a congregation is often far more than a mere concert audience.

I’ve raised many questions yet given few answers, describing syndromes while prescribing few antidotes. (To my great dismay, I haven’t given you a single recipe for the deep-well cooker of your Chambers stove.) But on the topic of church music and our younger players and choral people, I do not worry about the future of church music. As long as there are churches, I think we can rest assured that we will be singing.

I do worry, however, about the future of good church music. It is not enough that we demand it of ourselves; we are all here because we continually want to learn more, and by so marking ourselves as perpetual students we acknowledge all that we have yet to learn. But as those passionately devoted to the cause of good church music, we must actively commit ourselves to the next generation. At least for now, the rest of the organ community is unlikely to do it for them.