Throughout the breadth of recorded human history, music making is a common thread, leading some people to observe that music is a universal language, connecting people of many cultures and generations. And while it’s true that music has the ability to transcend so many barriers, what is equally true is that people and cultures espouse a broad and diverse value system of aesthetics regarding what comprises “good” or “pleasing” music – on which people agree and disagree as vociferously as the devoted fans of any sports team.
Take, for example, some of our most beloved church music: during the Renaissance, the musical lines that were being sung simultaneously became so complicated that the church intervened to specify what types of polyphony* could be allowed. One Renaissance church choir was disciplined by the church board for throwing chicken bones at each other in the choir loft during the sermon. String players in Vivaldi’s female string ensemble had to perform behind screens because it was considered indecent and lude for women to perform in public. One of the churches where J. S. Bach served complained that his accompaniments were so complicated that the congregation wasn’t sure when they were supposed to sing – and he played so many extra notes, they had trouble hearing the melody. Bach also had to be very careful when he wrote his Passions to make sure that they weren’t overtly operatic, because theatre had no place in the church. By the time Mozart came along, the aesthetic had changed so drastically, that they ridiculed the music of the previous generation as being “Baroque” – a derogatory term that we still use today to describe the music from that time. (Back then, “baroque” was a jeweler’s term for an irregularly shaped pearl that was therefore worthless because of its deformity.) But the music of the classicist composers also did not last – giving way to the emotionally and harmonically extreme music of the Romantics. This music developed in intensity until it gave way to 20th century music that sought to eliminate the governing aesthetics that were applied to the previous 400 years. Since the early 1900’s, music has become a prolific swirling of musical changes and styles lasting approximately a decade – bringing us a whole new set of genres like jazz, big band, rock and roll, film scores, musical theatre, hip hop, R & B, etc. with various fusions of styles combining and bending genres in new and different ways.
This abbreviated explanation of the development of Western music doesn’t even address the music and aesthetics of other cultures, like the tribal music of the Native American, the Indonesian Gamelan, Japanese Kabuki Theater, and so on, which have aesthetic qualities that Western trained musical senses cannot even perceive or appreciate. Add to this the development of the concept that life’s components can be divided into the occasionally arbitrary subcategories of the “sacred” and the “secular” – one of which is allowed into the worship service, and the other, which isn’t. This categorization gives us yet another thing to argue about – if a song mentions “God” or “Jesus” does that make it sacred? If it doesn’t, does that make it secular? Do we have anything to learn from secular poets and artists?
The point is, every generation has its own beloved composers and music makers. And every generation has made fun of the music of those who came before – using derogatory language to disparage and dismiss. Some religious leaders have even gone so far as to call certain types of music “Satanic” and suggested that listening to certain types of music can open you up to being possessed by demons. This was something that I was taught and believed as a teenager and had a profound impact on my development as a musician.
As you can imagine, choosing music for worship is not for the faint of heart!
Snowmass Chapel is an interdenominational church which means we have people from many denominational backgrounds. What fascinates me is that what qualifies as a great hymn to a Baptist would be very different for a Catholic, and different again for a Methodist or Presbyterian, or Evangelical church. Consider a few famous examples: “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Sing To The Mountains,” “Standing On The Promises,” “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “In The Garden,” “On Eagles’ Wings,” “The Summons.” If you recognized all of these songs, consider yourself a true ecumenist! Because although each of these examples is rooted in one denomination or another and are beloved traditional hymns, they might not be familiar to those who don’t have “the right” hymnal. Full disclosure: I grew up with most of the hymns that appear in our red hymnal, and they are quite beloved to me personally – you’ve probably noticed that I play them during my prelude completely from memory. I think some people have gotten the impression that my preference is for modern, contemporary music, but that’s not the case. It’s just that I know that when I talk to younger folks, those “dusty old hymns” don’t hold a candle to the music they hear on K-LOVE.
At Snowmass Chapel, when selecting music for each Sunday’s theme, we hope that the question is not so much one of entertainment value – “Will today’s music be my idea of good entertainment” – but rather, “Does this music amplify the unified theme that we are developing through readings, prayers, music and sermon?” There are many additional influences, such as trying to balance music from different genres and denominational traditions, the mood that the music creates, and within that, we usually try to choose one traditional hymn and one that is contemporary.
The church in general is in a rather precarious position. Let’s be honest – change is hard, and never more so than in an institution that is more known for its traditions than its innovations. And yet the church HAS changed. There was a time (493 years ago) when “A Mighty Fortress” was a newfangled hymn that nobody had ever sung or heard. Can you read the page of music that is in the picture attached to this article? If we were to walk into a 10th century church service, we would probably not hear a single familiar hymn or even recognize the liturgy or forms. The people would be dressed entirely differently and we would probably be castigated as witches and heretics by the clergy of that time. In all likelihood, they would look at our most traditional hymns and call it “dance music” since all of our modern hymns were written in meters designed for dancing – and in some cases, were adapted from the popular, singable bar tunes of the day. And let’s be clear – we may think that “dance music” is perfectly acceptable, but for many people, this would be a damning criticism. Each of us has taken the torch from the people who went before us, and, for better or for worse, made it our own – only to pass it on when time forces that upon us. Between generations is a liminal space where we can choose whether to fight or to transition with grace.
What would it be like if we could learn to appreciate the favorite music of our generationally different brothers and sisters? What could we learn from each other? Who understands the aesthetic clash of the generations better than those of us who have lived through multiple decades of such? What would it be like if younger people asked older people what their favorite hymns mean to them? Where can we find common ground that reveals our shared values? Those who have embraced the message of Christ can not afford to become “stuck in our ways.” It is imperative upon us that we become “all things to all people” as Paul writes in I Corinthians 9:19-23. We don’t accept the luxury of putting our own tastes and needs first, because we have a higher priority – our love relationship with our brothers and sisters. Fundamentally, we are not here to be entertained – we are here to love.
At the end of the day, it is more important to us that we be loving than any other priority. Each action, each choice, each carefully chosen word expresses God’s grace and our love. If being loving means that I join my younger siblings in singing one of their songs, then I can do that – and I can look them in the eye and tell them that they are very special and important to me – even their music. Then when a younger person looks at those of us who are older and sees a tear slide down our cheek as we sing “How Great Thou Art,” perhaps they can also see that our music has special meaning and memories for us.
*Polyphony derives from the Greek word for “many sounds.” It is the combination of multiple melodic lines of music that are sung or played simultaneously. Rounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” are examples of polyphony. Polyphony is not as common today as it was during the Rennaisance, Baroque, and Classical periods, but you can still find it in popular music when more than one person sings at the same time.