translated by Sara MacVane
Music sustains the important moments of our worship services, and has a bigger role than that as well. Johann Sebastian Bach believed that music should not serve any end other than praising God and restoring the soul. This is of course even truer of liturgical music, which has two functions: one aspect it serves is to give voice to theological positions and the other is to engage the worshipers in the service. Music allows the worshipers to expresses praise and thanks to God in their own public priestly function, and also serves each individual as his or her personal expression of devotion. For that reason, the policy of renewing hymnology as presented by the United Protestant Church of France site at cantiques.fr seems to me wanting. On the one hand, the particular interpretation of the priesthood of all believers expressed there, leaves no room for individual ministry, and thus denies sacred music its teaching and preaching roles. On the other hand, the site is almost exclusively concerned with music as a species of entertainment, which can hardly touch our deepest needs.
An expression of the priesthood of all believers:
Music is the most obvious way in which worshipers take part in a service. The music and the service itself are the dynamic elements in our worship of God. The music starts even before the beginning of the service, and so gets us ready to listen. It is an aesthetic experience which calls into play our intelligence and our sensitivity, and thus prepares us to hear the Word. Music speaks at once to the ear and the mind of the individual, as Augustin says in assigning a liturgical value to music; it has the characteristic of making even weak individuals understand their own religious position better. Calvin, following on to Augustin held that the value of music is its power to move and inflame our hearts.
Musical hymns and responses constitute most of the moments when we actively take part in the service. They allow us to pray, praise, cry, rejoice, grieve, revolt, give thanks, and celebrate, all out loud and all together. To make sure that everyone can take part, we should all be given copies of the hymns.
Any religious tradition that rejects the idea of a total separation between body and spirit must surely include the active participation of the faithful. Of course other religious traditions incorporate worship in different ways, such as: meditation for Buddhists, making the sign of the cross, processing and fasting for Roman Catholics, prostrating and fasting for Muslims. The only bodily participation we have in the Protestant tradition is singing, and this surely explains the importance which hymn singing takes on in our services.
A Form of Preaching:
Although congregational singing is an essential part of our worship and our participation in the priesthood of all believers, music is not necessarily limited to that aspect of worship. Luther claimed that just as there is a ministry of preaching, there is also a ministry of music: I would not be able to write motets like that, even if I put my all into it and on the other hand, he wouldn’t be able to preach on a psalm as well as I can. The gifts of the Spirit are various. Everybody sings, but to compose requires a gift, a profession, and work. Music functions in a worship service something like preaching: It is a given and not of any particular concern to the individual worshiper. Again, like the sermon, music may serve an evangelistic role, because it has the power to reach me where I am and then to over-turn me.
During a worship service, music supports the sermon, is an element of the sermon, and is beyond the sermon, all at the same time. According to Calvin, music is reinforces the sermon, it gives importance to the Word, which it emphasizes and helps us to remember. An example would be the psalms set to music during the Renaissance. From a Lutheran point of view, music serves as a sermon; it is very nearly theology. This is probably why the Baroque music of the Lutheran tradition is very sumptuous, for that was the time when, more than in any other period, music was understood as a form of discourse.
Romantic theologians like Schleiermacher defined music as beyond discourse. They considered music as a way into the transcendent and felt that music took over where words lost their power. Raphael Picon rightly says: Where the word alone may claim to close God off in conceptual discourse, music comes to open up our theological reflection.
What sort of music do we want in our worship?
When Luther names certain composers who preached the Gospel musically, they are the foremost composers of his time (eg: Josquin des Prés, Senfl). So if we were to do the same, it would not be music from the past, nor popular music for entertainment, nor music with a specific liturgical function. Today the music we hear during worship services comes from these three sectors. In contrast to the Reformers of course, we have received a tradition of worship with a long history. The music of the psalter is very good and the hymns of the Reawakening are unrivalled. Sometimes the melodies (often borrowed from popular tunes) can be lovely, but far too often the texts have very little to do with the theology expressed in the sermon itself, so our beloved musical inheritance should certainly be enriched.
Although hymns have been written throughout history, nowadays popular music is all the rage in contemporary hymns. However, music has a specific function in our worship services, and so it should raise our spirits, not simply satisfy a taste for easy entertainment. Calvin believed: we should always take care that our hymns are neither silly nor frivolous, but that they are serious and majestic. There is a big difference between music made to please people around the table in their homes and the psalms we sing in church, in the presence of God and his angels. Christian rock and songs sung to guitar music have their place as the creative spiritual expression of individuals, but they should not be a substitute for liturgy.
The renewal of liturgical music would benefit from contributions by serious contemporary composers, as it did in the past. I can think of two objections to this idea; the first is aesthetic and the second is practical, but both are connected to the difficult nature of this kind of music. Contemporary music certainly offers a very different listening experience to what went before, but I feel that we can set aside any foregone aesthetic conclusion, at least so far as instrumental music is concerned. Isn’t worship the place where our traditional heritage can live side by side with contemporary contributions? That is why I think we would gain a lot from hearing very avant-garde music during our worship and why we should commission instrumental music and hymns from composers familiar with sacred music, like Rihm, Pintscher and other important composers, with the proviso that the hymns be easy enough for all of us to sing.
PS: it takes two to tango
If we were to take the connection between words and music seriously, we would never see the pastor handing the organist a list of the hymns at the last moment. Likewise, if the organist has not already seen the sermon, he/she can hardly make a choice of hymns which resonate on a deep level with the Word. To neglect cooperation of this kind discredits the power of music and disallows deeper levels of meaning to the congregation.
On the other hand, it is a shame that theological study does not include solid musical training, so that it is quite possible to become a pastor without knowing much about hymnology, scores, the history of church repertories, that is to say, without even a suspicion of the vast spaces which good music opens up for us. In fact, Luther said: We should not ordain as pastors young people who have not studied music and have not practiced it themselves.