Seemingly since the beginning of time, there have been rules about what is and is not appropriate for music in God’s house (or even if music is appropriate at all.) Over the years, the progression and development of church music has invariably been in response to those guidelines, either in compliance with or in rebellion from.
Over the years, these rules have addressed texts, language (and translations), melody, instrumentation, singers… and get endlessly more complicated when church politics and personal relationships are added into the mix. There are as many different ways to worship God as there are people on earth, but there have always been people who believe that how they encounter God is the only way to encounter God, or the only correct way, and that the church’s worship should reflect those opinions.
Out of such a situation comes LAUDA ANIMA, “one of the finest [hymn]tunes that arose out of the Victorian era,” along with the text for which it was originally written, “Praise my soul, the King of Heaven.”
LAUDA ANIMA was written by Sir John Goss (1800-1880), who served as the organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Luke’s, Chelsea. In his post, he struggled to improve musical standards but faced indifferent cathedral authorities, whose opinions might sound familiar to some church musicians even today:
“It is enough if our music is decent… we are there to pray, and the singing is a very subordinate consideration.”
Despite ecclesiastical apathy, Goss strove to compose sacred music that was “melodious and beautifully written for the voices, and remarkable for a union of solidity and grace, with a certain unaffected native charm.” His most prominent pupil and successor at St. Paul’s, John Stainer, said of a rehearsal with Goss:
“When the last few bars pianissimo had died away, there was a profound silence for some time, so deeply had the hearts of all been touched by its truly devotional spirit. Then there gradually arose on all sides the warmest congratulation to the composer, it could hardly be termed applause, for it was something much more genuine and respectful.”
Volumes have been written of the oft-difficult relationship between pastor and musician, and this situation illustrates what seems to be a fundamental part of the disagreement, when there is a disagreement: a failure to understand the other person’s impetus to ministry and the ways by which they encounter God, which leads to a contempt for that person’s expertise and perspective.
From their remarks, Goss’ clergy did not seek God through music, and likely did not know how to. To an ear that doesn’t know even how to begin thinking about music, a classical concert is much like overhearing a conversation in an unfamiliar language. It’s white noise, you either tune it out or let it waft over you. Without comprehension, it’s meaningless.
So instead of music, Goss’ clergy sought to experience God through fervent prayer. From their perspective, music was something they had to sit through until they got to the part of worship that they connected with. This is understandable!
In this situation, the obligation rests ever more firmly on the church musician to help others discover what they know so well: how music links together intellect and emotion to reach directly into the soul, creating the opportunity for a life-changing experience of God.
As with anything, understanding the “why” of church music makes the “what” matter. Knowing “why” people like music to begin with answers the question of “what’s music’s purpose in worship?”
And understanding how to listen to music is the first step towards knowing the “why.”
So first, the how: if you find yourself with coworkers or a church like Goss’ clergy and want to help them (and your clergy/church are open to it!) think along the lines of the language metaphor I used above. Start teaching the music “words” for everyday things, basic nouns and verbs. Start small with what can be immediately understood and applied, and build from there. Teach by example as often as possible, and remember that there’s no need to simplify both music & text: you can pair theologically rich texts with whatever musical level they’re at.
As they begin to connect with music through the “how”, they’ll start to answer the “what” and “why” themselves.
If we want the church to continue to value music, it’s important for us to keep in mind that 1) everyone encounters God differently, and there’s no “right way”, and 2) not everyone understands music, and that’s through no fault of their own. Condescension towards people who don’t “get” music does more harm than good. Instead, think of the amazing times you’ve felt the Spirit move in your heart through music. How much do you think others would want to feel that life-changing feeling, too? What could you do to help make that happen?
In 1868, Goss composed the tune LAUDA ANIMA (Latin for the opening words of Psalm 103) for Henry Francis Lyte’s paraphrase of Psalm 103, Praise my soul, the King of Heaven. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Lyte’s text and how it came to be despite the stringent church music rules he was dealing with.