MUSIC: Plain And Simple, Rich And Complex by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Plain And Simple, Rich And Complex by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I remember preaching at a week-long series of services that were part of a conference on worship and music.  We were fortunate to have an excellent organist, who not only gave fine performances of works from the standard organ repertoire but also provided the congregation with exemplary service playing that encouraged robust yet nuanced singing.  Each afternoon, after the services, we had an open discussion with members from the congregation and a panel consisting of the liturgists, musical leaders, visual artists, dancers, and the preacher about the worship of the day, its planning, and its execution.

One of our most interesting discussions arose over the wide spectrum of ways that the organist had accompanied the hymns.  A pastor started the conversation by reflecting on the congregation he was serving and its organist, who – like the organist at the conference – sometimes provided an interlude after a stanza or modulated to another key.  The majority of the pastor’s congregation, including the pastor himself, loved these embellishments.  But there was a small group of people who protested the practice, claiming it was too much a “performance” and that it called attention to the music instead of promoting the worship of God.  The matter appeared to come down to an elemental question.  What kind of music is appropriate for worship: plain and simple or rich and complex?

It is illuminating to bring a historical perspective to the question.  This is not the first time that the issue has emerged for faith communities.  For example, in the age of Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707), a period that saw the creation of many beloved organ works, there were fierce debates between those who wanted music plain and simple and those who celebrated music that was rich and complex.  Geoffrey Weber writes:

Within the conservative wing of Lutheranism, elaborate church music was accepted not only for its power to convey a particular text but also simply as an offering to God.  By contrast, the reformers [pietists] favored the cultivation of the spiritual song for use both in church and at home, and argued that other forms of church music should be simple and serious in style, and easily understood by the congregation.

Different forms of music – the simple and the elaborate – awaken different landscapes in the soul, different imaginings of the inner world of faith, different intuitions of existence and meaning.  Those differences can become highly contentious.  Thus the introduction to the Hamburg Melodeyen Gesangbuch of 1604 disparaged the new Italian styles that were spreading into Germany during the early 1600s: “Wherever instead of fine, serious motets and moving psalms and songs that touch the heart, pieces and songs that come frolicking in with a skip are sung by choir with organ, and played with foreign, Italian lascivious leaps and tick-tacks, or strange fugues, [it is] as if one were going to the dance.”  But a later Lutheran pastor, Heinrich Mithobius at Otterndorf (near Hamburg), answered such objections, defending rich and complex music as a divine gift: “Meanwhile at this time of ours [God] fills many excellent composers with his spirit, who have composed the most magnificent musical art pieces, and proved therein their high understanding and art in music.”  Notice the different presuppositions here.  Those against the Italian style of music are opposed because they want the words to be clear and understandable.  But those in favor stress the spirit, the yearning of humans for realities that extend beyond the precise meanings of language.

The genius of the organist at our conference is that he provided both.  Some of his playing simply lines out the melody, and there were occasions when he dropped out and let the congregation sing unaccompanied.  Other times he highlighted and enriched the drama of the music with rich chords and improvisations that took us to places of wonder and beauty.  I would hate to settle for only one or the other.  There is a time for plain and simple and a time for rich and complex.

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