The Sounds of (Church) Music

by Carl Leafstedt

from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.


Choir? No choir? Organ? Guitar? Praise band? Classic hymns? Newly written songs? You say tomato. I say tomahto. Debates over how to incorporate the human love for music into spiritual practice have long preoccupied the world’s oldest religions, including Christianity. The Christian faith has endured passionate opinion about the nature of music in its services since its establishment.

Today, in the Diocese of West Texas, churchgoers have certainly been known to hold opinions (or two!) about the way music is performed in their church on Sunday mornings. Such tensions are nothing new. From Antiquity and the Middle Ages onward, disputes have roiled the Christian community on every conceivable topic, from the most minute details of liturgical practice to serious theological and political concerns.

Just this month the Journal of the American Musicological Society published a wonderful article by medievalist Henry Parkes, a faculty member at Yale University. Parkes recently rediscovered an 11th-century manuscript, De varia psalmorum, originally produced in the Frankish region in northern Europe. In this manuscript, Berno of Reichenau, a diplomatically-minded abbot writing in the late 1040s, attempts to reconcile the liturgical singing practice he knew with alternate practices then found in other monastic communities. (In the Middle Ages the correct translation of the Psalms and Divine Office texts into Latin was a scholarly preoccupation for many religious men and women. Standardization was a frequent if futile concern in an age when every book was handwritten.)

Berno noticed friction in the 11th-century church over correct chant procedure, the problems stemming in part from singers diverging from Roman or Gregorian practice. Also, he noticed the overenthusiastic literary minds of his day making grammatical corrections of the underlying texts, compounding the confusion and straying from authority. Discussing point by point the differences in practice between Cistercians and Gallicans and other communities of believers, he pauses to observe, “Wise reader, always beware superstitious intelligence, so that you do not adjust the scriptures to your sense, but bind your sense to the scriptures.”

Exactly so. Centuries later, the Protestant Reformation would use a similar rallying cry to justify its wholesale rethinking of Christian theology. The century that gave rise to the Church of England witnessed extraordinarily bitter battles over the role of music in Christianity. The Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s was about many things, and in the more Calvinist branches it often resulted in zealous purges of music.

In England the glorious choral polyphony and chant traditions of the Renaissance Christian church were thrown out overnight. Services in the new Anglican faith were to allow for the metrical singing of psalms by the congregation: biblically sanctioned music practice was condoned. But nothing else.

A rather charming summary of the thinking that led to the elimination of most music from the Church of England’s liturgy can be found in the preface to the 1841 American Book of Common Prayer. By the 19th century enough time had passed that the authors of this preface could distill the actions of several generations of church founders into several tightly worded pages. They place music squarely in the category of “gross corruptions” of the Roman church service that had needed to be eliminated. The certitude of this passage, written three centuries after the fact, still carries the pungent tang of reformers’ zeal:

“But when the nation in King Henry VIII’s time was disposed to a reformation, it was thought necessary to correct and amend these offices; and not only have the service of the Church in the English or vulgar tongue . . . but also to abolish and take away all that was idolatrous and superstitious, in order to restore the service of the Church to its primitive purity. For it was not the design of our Reformers (nor indeed ought it to have been) to introduce a new form of worship into the Church, but to correct and amend the old one; and to purge it from those gross corruptions which had gradually crept into it; and so to render the divine service more agreeable to the Scriptures and to the doctrine and practice of the primitive Church in the best and purest ages of Christianity. In which reformation they proceeded gradually, according as they were able” (Preface, 1841 American Book of Common Prayer).

No matter what you and I sing on Sunday mornings in Texas, it’s safe to say that 95 percent of it wouldn’t have been allowed by the founding generations of the Church of England. Even if a hymn melody was known at the time, it was eliminated on principle “to render the divine service more agreeable.”

The music we now enjoy in our church services, in other words, has been built up from scratch over the past 450 years. Most of that expansion took place in just the past 200 years. As bishops, rectors, poets, and musicians accelerated the process, each in their individual ways for their communities, further dissent and division naturally followed. I’m reminded of Robert Kennedy’s famous dictum, “Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivation. And change has its enemies.” When the human yearning for innovation collides with tradition and authority, tension naturally emerges. Religions are famously not immune from this endless, and endlessly human, process.

Church music scholars love to track the history of our hymns. A vast literature of books and articles covers the history of Christian hymn texts and hymn music. If you train yourself to look at the end of each entry in our hymnal, you’ll see listed on the page the origins of its text and music. It’s a habit for me. And I know it’s a habit for many Episcopalians.

By the early 19th century it became increasingly evident that many congregations liked singing hymns, too, and they liked singing hymns with more emotion in their words. In response to changing desires in their congregations, bishops and theologians gradually loosened the centuries-old strictures against singing anything other than psalms in a church service. (“Psalmody” refers to the practice of singing the Psalms by the congregation in church services.)

A remarkable transformation soon took place. After 1800 the Anglican faith would absorb in successive waves the best of the German Lutheran hymns, one of the great repertoires of Protestant hymns. It also absorbed the best of the Welsh hymns, and even new American hymns written by singing school masters on the East Coast like William Billings (“When Jesus Wept”). Even some of the new Methodist hymns with their evangelical poetry and strong emotional content eventually lost their sting for Anglican church leaders. Those Methodist hymns were the praise band music of their day, written in a new poetic style that inspired strong adherents and strong detractors in equal measure. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” whose words were written by Charles Wesley himself in 1739, gradually nudged its way into Anglican hymn compilations; the stroke of genius generations later was to set those words to a newly adapted melody by German composer Felix Mendelssohn. (Those Germans and their great melodies again!)

As the market for new hymns expanded in the 19th century, the crafting of hymn texts became a cottage industry for English poets and composers. Dozens of new hymnals were published. The Oxford Movement (1833-45) at the same time encouraged the church to restore some of the beauty to its services. Robed choirs were seen again in English cathedrals for the first time since the Renaissance. Chant began to be heard again in the church.

The good news is that the explosion of interest in singing hymns in the Episcopal Church in the last 200 years has given the church a welcoming quality. The music is more appealing now on its own aesthetic merits. (Psalmody, let’s admit, is not exciting or interesting as music. Its appeal lies in the words.) The many attractive newer Anglican hymns written in the 20th century add further appeal.

The 1982 Hymnal pointedly aims for diversity in its selection of hymns and service music. People notice these qualities. I grew up Lutheran, in Sioux City, Iowa. Lutherans take their music very seriously, and in many ways my career as a music historian goes back to the high cultural value placed on singing that I absorbed as a child at Trinity Lutheran Church in my hometown. Many of those same venerable Lutheran Christmas, Easter, and devotional hymns are also found in the 1982 Hymnal – Lutheran imports and ancient German chorale melodies that the Anglican faith embraced in its search for beautiful music capable of stirring the spirit. “Valet will ich dir geben,” the traditional Passion tune, sends me right back to my Scandinavian Lutheran heritage every time I hear it, and to Bach’s many reverential settings of the melody in his choral music. Sung in English as “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” it’s now a cherished hymn for Episcopalians, too. Rightly so. Its presence in the Episcopal hymn book is like a welcome mat to Christians of all Protestant backgrounds. It stitches all of our experiences together when we sing it.

To many Christians in modern America, of course, these church hymns are nothing but “old fashioned” music . . . written in a style they no longer find appealing or relevant. They find spirituality instead through the singing of contemporary popular styles, including songs imagined through newly written words harmonious with Christian sentiment. Most of us in the Episcopal faith cherish our hymns in all their variety – and even find ourselves drawn in to the church through them. Spiritually enriching experiences, it turns out, can be had while listening to all sorts of music. You say tomato. I say tomahto. And the music plays on.

Carl Leafstedt, PhD, is on the music faculty of Trinity University, where he teaches music history courses.  He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.



For Further Reflection

Visit a church, Episcopal or other denomination, where the music is much different than that of your home church. Reflect on the differences and how each speaks to  you.

Select one of your favorite hymns and do some research. When and where was it written? By whom? Under what circumstances? Does the information add or detract from the beauty of the hymn for you?

Back to Table of Contents, Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.

From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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