MUSIC: Silence As The Prelude to Sound by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Silence As The Prelude to Sound by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I recall reading an article in the newspaper about an organ that was rescued from destruction.  The instrument was moved from one church and rebuilt by another church that had not possessed a pipe organ for many years.  I was struck by the clever way the congregation raised money for the project.  “For $300, someone could adopt a single ‘chimney flute’ pipe high in the organ’s superstructure.  For $100, a donor could adopt a single key on one of the console’s three manuals.  Adopting a stop knob was cheaper: That cost only $50.  Adopting a pedal key was the least expensive: Only $25.  Reading those prices, I imagined different members of the congregation listening attentively to the instrument they had helped purchase pipe by pipe, key by key, stop knob by stop knob, pedal by pedal.  For as Christ says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21)

The story of the rebuilt organ and how the congregation raised money for the project got me to asking: what other ways are there to get people invested in the music organists play whether it is in a church or a concert hall or auditorium?  It is significant that the word Christ uses for treasure does not mean simply “cash” or “money” or “wealth.”  Money can be a treasure, but so can many other things.  Think of a piece of furniture that has been passed down generation after generation in your family.  Think of a recital leaflet autographed by your favorite performer.  Think of a poem or passage of sacred writing that has brought you comfort again and again in life.  Wherever these treasures are, our hearts are there as well.

So besides asking people to buy a pipe, stop knob, or pedal, how do we get them invested in the pipe organ?  The first thing that strikes me is that those of us who treasure the organ treasure it for its sound: the color, the nuance, the resonance, the sublimity, the gentleness, the brilliance, the contrasting timbres and blending voices.  But in a culture that is saturated with sound, how do you help people become attentive to sound, to the beauties and wonders of an organ’s varied voices?

Two student advisees of mine recently gave a joint academic presentation that illuminated this very issue.  They began by examining how the French cinematographer, Robert Bresson, employed music very sparingly in his films.  Bresson did not want to flood his scenes with music that outshone the drama.  Instead, he allowed the common sounds of tools and footsteps and passing vehicles to dominate dramatic scenes.  With no accompanying music, the action in many cases became almost unbearably tense.  But now and then, Bresson would use music, very rich music – for instance, an excerpt from a Mozart mass – and the power of it was amplified by the preceding and following silence.

The students moved from the analysis of Bresson to the fear of silence that is often found in worship services.  Even if the rubrics call for silence, it is usually quiet for as brief a time as possible.  One of the students, an organ major, recounted how often she has been instructed: “Quick.  Play something.”

Perhaps, then, the first step to treasuring sound is honoring silence.  I think of when a conductor lifts the baton and surveys the orchestra before the downbeat, when members of a string quartet raise their bows and gaze around at one another before they begin, when an organist checks the stops and positions hands and feet – in that moment of silence are anticipation, wonder, mystery.  Silence is the prelude to sound, sound that is then richly treasured.

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