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What’s happened to music in churches, temples and other religious sanctuaries? (2013 update)

On a rainy Sunday morning I was surfing You Tube in search of a spiritually poignant musical offering. One particular posting had been so inspiring that my index finger ached from so many mouse-clicked replays.

It was ? “Verum”–The one word lingered in my foggy memory, amply retrieved to reap a reward. Out popped Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” sung by the Vienna Boys Choir– a to-die-for performance.

A musician friend used the word “kill” when she described the effect of this music. I agreed that it killed in a way that seared the heart with longing for more…

According to Wiki..
“The hymn’s title means ‘Hail, true body,’ and is based on a poem derived from a 14th-century manuscript found in the Abbey of Reichenau, Lake Constance. The poem is a meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus’s Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and ties it to the Catholic conception of the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers.”

From Mozart’s imagination, sprang ethereal music– channeled through boys’ choirs in international venues.


What had changed about music chosen for religious services in sanctuaries around this country?

At the start of my inquiry, I had accepted invitations from a few of my Christian friends to sample worship services in varied denominational venues.

In one church, three electric guitarists ascended the stage and stood beside two saxophonists. A mobile white screen descended with verses that rolled by as congregants watched the lead instrumentalist for prompts. It was rock-style music in the main, though a few humble ballads managed to squeak through.

For me, something more was needed to cloak a powerful sermon. Certainly, this was not a Crystal Cathedral setting with a shimmering orchestra and special lighting effects. By contrast, it was a much smaller Evangelical church that could ill afford to engage high caliber vocalists to woo congregants toward the Lord.

Every year I’d always looked forward to the Christmas-time Messiah “Sing-Along” in an old established, downtown church. We’d sing “Hallelujia!” from the rafters as the culmination of a memorable musical afternoon.

This excerpt was a favorite:


A Jewish Temple located beside this well-established Protestant church had a domed ceiling; acoustically desirable plaster walls, and lots of wooden seats to enhance resonance, but congregants bowed to pressure to relocate up north. The move to a pricey suburb came with a California ranch-style construction that was no match for the previous Carnegie Hall-like space. Even the Torah that had been encased behind velvet-draped curtains, endured a painful transformation. It was enclosed behind what appeared to be plastic-coated sliders, like those seen in showers.

I ruminated about Temple Beth Israel before its relocation, having performed a few concerts right on the Bima, a narrow “stage” that barely accommodated my exported Steinway “M” model grand. (I nearly fell into the arms of my audience after playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata.)

At least the Torah beside me was an unrelenting source of comfort. It was red-velvet encased with the Hebrew Commandments above.

I recalled the good old times, when the temple imported a community of Christian singers to drape the somber Yom Kippur Day of Atonement in gorgeous music. The service was florid and penetrating, but I was puzzled why the Rabbi and Board of Directors couldn’t secure a minion of Jewish Congregants to intone the musically riveting “Kol Nidre.”

What about the Hammond organ sitting up in the balcony?

Temple Emanuel in New York City, had one of these in its sanctuary, giving it a Unitarian flavor.

Back in the days when I attended the NYC HS of Performing Arts, one of my close Russian friends, Olga Dolsky, a fine pianist, took me by the arm in the biting cold, and escorted me to her Russian Orthodox Church near the Bowery. There, the most awe-inspired music swirled around an acoustically divine space.

A world-renowned choir sang inspired works of Russian composers amidst icons, stained glass, and a Bishop sprinkling incense down the aisle. It was intoxicating! (The choir had produced hot-selling, internationally celebrated recordings.)

Those were the days!

From the East Coast:

A Choir Director and resident pianist/organist at the First Moravian Church in New York City directed an exalted performance of Bach’s Cantata no. 78:

Cantata no. 78 by J.S. Bach

Elaine Comparone not only conducts this ensemble and plays magnificent harpsichord, but she is the musical mainstay of this church, keeping great music alive in the sanctuary each Sunday.

Her comments about the Moravian church and its musical activity were riveting:

“Actually, I have quite a wonderful choir which I direct from the piano. I start the service upstairs in the loft with the organ, which is an advanced stage of restoration. But for more complicated pieces, like the one by Bach we did today, I can more easily direct from the piano (a nice Baldwin)..

“The organ is set into the wall so they are in effect standing behind me and facing out. So they sing the Introit up there, and I do the liturgy and a few hymns before going down to the piano for the rest of the service. This church likes lots of hymns. They range from 15th and 16th Century gems (my favorites) to 18th century chestnuts, most of which have march-like rhythmic patterns not unlike the Battle Hymn of the Republic—Christians on the march. These are not my favorites. I constantly make fun of them even though I play them with gusto. But they are more suited for the piano.

“I can lead the singing of the congregation better with the percussive power of the piano than the continuous tones of the organ. Large groups of people tend to drag
when they sing.

“Our choir members are an intelligent bunch and not averse to working hard on music. (I write out phonetically the German of the Bach cantatas.) We only do first rate pieces. It’s a lot of fun.”


Food For Thought

A reader who posted a comment to one of my blogs, spoke forthrightly about the type of music she deemed inspiring for a religious service:

“It really has nothing to do with denomination but more, I believe, to do with the philosophy within the church as to how music might enhance the worship.

“The ‘old’ hymns have their place, and many of them are quite beautiful. But if only I could hear some Bach, Handel or Haydn’s “Consolation” by Liszt or even MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose”…perhaps, Massenet’s “Elegie”…

“When I go to my Lutheran-pastor’s-wife piano teacher’s home, she has a wide variety of reverential classical (and other) music and discusses what she plays for a prelude to the service, etc. etc.

“However in my church, with its accomplished music director, the only ‘prelude’ is whatever 90’s hymn might have been selected for that day’s service. The only music is that which has words and only rarely more than 20 or 30 years old. It’s rarely reverential or even beautiful…. Maybe I need to get involved and express my feelings about this rather than the internal grumbling!”

I had to agree with her. Perhaps the voices of congregants like hers could make a world of difference.

Another poster had more to say:

“What you’re observing here is also a direct result of the pay that churches offer their musicians. I happen to be paid more than most church pianists these days, but it’s still nothing near a full salary like it was in the days of Bach, when the church job was absolutely the most respectable and well-paying job any musician could hope to have. But they also earned their full-time pay with full-time work. There wasn’t such an elaborate network and huge quantity of music already written for churches to draw upon like there is today. Consequently, today’s church musicians do not need to be composers. Requiring less skill/work of church musicians also means not having to pay as much. And some churches (Catholic, Mormon) don’t even pay their musicians at all – there are so many who want to be honored and recognized as the musicians they are that they’re willing to do it for free. This doesn’t mean there are no good church musicians out there – it just means it’s much harder to find them.

“Your quoted reader is correct: what musicians play in church is a direct result of what the congregation demands to hear. I’ve found it necessary to play a wide variety of music as preludes and postludes since my congregation ranges from the very traditional to the very liberal. It ranges from Bach and Beethoven to Ken Medema and Fred Bock arrangements (and sometimes my own compositions). As for offertory, at my church it lasts so little time – maybe 45-60 seconds each time – that it’s just not practical to get into anything profound, so I usually just play 2 verses of a hymn and put in various embellishments the second time (octaves, passing/neighbor tones, etc.). Sometimes I even use intermediate repertoire for preludes/postludes and for offertory once in a while since intermediate music is shorter in length – I find myself once in a while playing music of Martha Mier, Eugene Rocherolle, William Gillock, Burgmuller, and even Clementi. I am really picky about hymn arrangements that I play because so many of them are so cheap. They just slap octaves in each hand on a traditional hymn and call it an “arrangement.” That’s why I like Ken Medema’s arrangements so much – he actually goes off in his own direction in his arrangements – enough to qualify as “new music” beyond the arrangement.

“My frustration with today’s worship music is that it gives me a “lots of work for little reward” feeling. Luckily, I no longer play for the contemporary service at my church, so this is no longer an issue (once in a while we do this type of music in the traditional service, which isn’t a big deal to me). These points are not secrets to those I work with at my church – luckily we all recognize that one must really enjoy contemporary worship music to do it, and there’s nothing inherently wrong if one doesn’t connect well to this type of music. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with those who connect to it. But here is my perspective of contemporary worship music:

“You’re given 5 or 6 photocopies [licensed photocopies, I should clarify!] for one song, and some of them are a dizzying nightmare of dal segnos, bridges, 2nd/3rd/4th endings, and “repeat this ending until the leader signals to finally end” instructions.
Unlike hymns, they don’t sound good without an ensemble, and ensembles require rehearsal. (Item #1 also adds to the need to rehearse so everyone knows where to go.)
Required tempos for this music are extremely rigid – if you miss the tempo by just 1 notch on the metronome, you start getting complaints by those who have infallible karaoke recordings of these songs in their head. This is in stark contrast to hymns, which allow me to “calculate” a good tempo based on the time signature and pacing of the lyrics, even for a hymn that I’ve never seen before and play on one of those “request your favorite hymn” Sundays during August each year. There is a wide range of acceptable tempos for most hymns. I don’t listen to contemporary worship music on the radio while other church musicians listen to these songs a zillion times before they ever perform it the first time, so I have to work a lot harder to get tempos right.

“Personally, I just don’t connect at all with “happy clappy” music (or “7/11″ songs – songs that have 7 words repeated 11 times). From a purely harmonic/pianistic point of view, the length-to-complexity ratio of this music far exceeds the same ratio for a lot of hymns, especially ones such as “Now Thank We All Our God” (Crueger-Mendelssohn) or “All Creatures Of Our God And King” (Vaughan Williams). So, I have to put all this extra work into music that is difficult/complex only on levels that annoy me (dal segnos, syncopation, rigid tempos) rather than on levels that please me (harmonic and melodic interest).
I get to use artistic musical skills to lead the congregation on a hymn effectively (anticipating places to breathe, shaping phrases dynamically), but so much contemporary worship music requires the pianist to metronomically bang all the way through to be heard in the drum/vocalist/guitar ensemble and to provide rhythmic support (the piano almost takes on a percussion role, as in a lot of jazz, for this type of music). I feel more like a MIDI computer than an actual musician when I’m doing that type of music – there is almost never any place for rubato/phrasing/shaping.”

My response: AMEN!

Post Script: 2/11/2013

I’m now an official Berkeley resident, having attended my first service at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists on Bonita/Cedar.

Not knowing what to expect in the spiritual music realm, I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of a magnificent Steinway grand, 1909–well- maintained, even to the touch, with a divinely beautiful voice.


To add to the feast, a wonderful pianist, Aline, played Chopin’s “Etude Op. 10, No. 3” at the Offertory, and Debussy’s “Reverie” after Meditation and Sharing. It was an inspiring setting with music-making at peak performance level.

pianist Aline Prentice

Fully sated by memorialized servings of music that complemented the LOVE theme, I left the sanctuary in karma.

side view fellowship hall

And this Update from Elaine Comparone at NYC’s First Moravian Church: “It’s Black History month so lots of spirituals. That and a Haydn ‘Sanctus’ plus a movement from Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah.’

“During Black History month I pull out arrangements of spirituals and some contemporary pieces like”Order Your Steps”. I think that particular arranger/composer(?) is Glen Burleigh. Moses Hogan is the arranger of most of the others. Some are simpler arrangements found in the hymnal–not only the Moravian hymnal but the United Methodist one. I played an Offertory yesterday from that. The title was something like “He never said a mumblin’ word”, and the choir sang “Oh Lord what a mornin'”—gorgeous piece.

“Most of the spirituals follow a standard form: chorus; verse(3 or 4); da capo after each verse to chorus. Arrangement-wise, the choruses are harmonized in four parts and the verses are monophonic, very often on a pentagonal scale (is that the right word or am I dredging up geometric terms?), which comes from the African roots of the music. The spirituals are moving and gorgeous, many of them.

“As for my own offerings: for preludes I play Bach on the piano, or on organ I favor Frescobaldi—love this stuff!—and some 17th century Spanish pieces from a collection I picked up in the now defunct Patelson’s. Since these guys were church musicians (Bach, Frescobaldi,), whatever they composed sounds good in church. That is true for most of the early guys (Sweelinck, Handel), because even when they’re composing dance music it sounds spiritual and church-appropriate. Can’t say the same for Scarlatti (altho I very occasionally play one of his for a postlude) or CPE Bach, who sounds way too much of this world. Slow movements from Haydn or Mozart would work for prelude, but they’re too long for offertory.

“These decisions are totally mine and don’t reflect any directions from anybody else. I have a sense of the flow of the service and don’t like to interrupt it with too long a piece for offertory…..”

No doubt Comparone prepares a full plate of delicious, time-honored music! And who’s to complain? The Moravian Church is lucky to have her!

Links: First Moravian Church of NYC

Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists  BFUU