Music: the Problem of Form and Content

Dr. Henry Bruinsma was professor of music at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Many of his harmonizations of psalm tunes can be found in the Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church. His wife, Grace Hekman Bruinsma, was Dean of Women at CaMn College. Both were early contributors to the Torch and Trumpet. These articles were published in the Torch and Trumpet, December of 1952–March of 1953.

In our last article we discussed in a general way some of the problems which have arisen in the field of church music with the transplanting of the Reformed Church from Europe to America. We mentioned something of the strength of the music which the Dutch churches have incorporated into their worship services, carrying on the great psalm-singing tradition established by John Calvin himself. The strength, virility, directness, and sincerity found in the Dutch congregational worship through song can match anything to be found in the American Protestant church world.

The Dutch Tradition and Ours

The Dutch service, however, is based upon a tradition established by a homogeneous group of people. It is a tradition which has behind it four hundred years of practice, one which is steeped in the blood of martyrs and the pain of persecution. We agree with our Dutch brethren concerning the principles of worship and the ingredients entering into the composition of the worship service. However, we are in a land where we form a very small minority group, a situation quite different from the Dutch. On all sides of us we have churches with other religious and national backgrounds, each of them trying to worship God in their own way. Each is following through on its own traditions or creating new ones. Many of these religious groups differ with us on doctrinal grounds, some of them even having radically different concepts of God Himself. It is thus inevitable that their manner of worship will be different from ours. It is likewise probable that the music they play and sing and the words which they use will be qUite different from ours.

We may not keep our minds closed to whatever is good and true and beautiful in other church liturgies. But we must, as Reformed Christians, always insist upon a proper evaluation of these things. Unless we as a people of God keep in mind our principles for worship and particularly bear in mind our belief in the supremacy of the Word itself, we shall be easily swayed by the beautiful sounds and sights which emanate from some of our neighboring churches. Even in the more abstract realm of music we may not trust our senses alone.

Too often that which is ticklish to our rhythmic sense or heart-touchingly romantic to our harmonic sense may be the vehicle for something entirely foreign to our faith. Because we are in a position to be exposed to many different concepts of worship, and because we are a minority group which more or less has lost the liturgical and musical tradition established by our ancestors, it is increasingly important that we pause and take stock. We must evaluate ourselves and particularly the music which we use for worship.

It is inconceivable that we should try to return overnight to the musical practice of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, Belgium or France. The use of the organ, the choir, and even the method of congregational singing has changed so much in our American churches that such a return would seem intolerably foreign to us. Were we to do so, much of the great music which has been assimilated into our congregational repertoire and the libraries of our organists and choirs would be of little value. We have already built up a sort of musical tradition, for better or for worse. For some of our churches the tradition is an honorable one, based upon principles which apply to the congregation, the choir, and the organist. For others it is one of which few can be proud, since it is based upon a kind of laissez-faire for the organist, choir, and societies. Often the only measure of control we can find is in the use of the congregational Psalter Hymnal prescribed for use in the worship services.

A Key Principle

Let us briefly discuss one of the principles which should guide us in the selection of music for use in the church. We mean by “the church” more than just the Sunday worship service. We mean also those meetings held under the auspices of the church which are variously designated as catechism classes, Sunday School, Ladies Aid, youth groups, and the like. A prinCiple, to be worthy of application for a worship service per se should also be applicable to the other phases of church life.

We have already stated that the source of our preaching and singing is the Word of God. The editors of our praise book have exercised great care in choosing psalm and hymn texts which adhere closely to the words of Scripture. In most cases where there are choirs in the church, consistories have set forth certain rules governing the choice of anthem texts for use in the service. We know of very few instances, however, where there has been any great guidance in the choice of the music which clothes the text, the vehicle of musical expression which sets forth the thought. Whether the music is a setting of a specific Bible text or passage, as in a choir anthem or a vocal solo, or the more abstract organ voluntary where the religious thought may be more difficult to comprehend, the proper musical clothing for the scriptural expression ought still to be there. It is precisely in this area that our church musicians and theologians must reach a meeting of minds. It is here that we must do our thinking and establish a norm if we are to achieve a standard of usage for music which will match its high purpose in the church.

Both Harp and Psalm!

At this point we cannot presume to set forth an authoritative statement on the problem of form and content in church music. Only after many minds have done much thinking on the subject can we hope to arrive at some conclusion. In guiding our thoughts, however, we would like to quote a short article on the subject of musical taste by the learned theologian, the late Dr. K. Schilder of the Netherlands, as it was reprinted by Mr. Geerink Bakker in a recent issue of Polemios. It presents in a forceful, precise manner the question facing us today -the question of beautiful form and beautiful content in church music.

A people which only has the song but not the lute, the psalm but not the harp, the content but not the form, the beautiful thought but not the beautiful sound, is poor. And its poverty is to its own discredit for God's people can never be poor unless they have allowed the Kingdom to lie untouched which God has given them.

But there is still one thing which is poorer than poverty. That is death. Not only is a people poor, but dead, which has the lute but not the song, the harp but not the psalm, the form but not the content, the beautiful sound but not the beautiful thought. That people is dead.

Dead were those peaceful ones in Zion against whom Amos spoke (Amos 6:5,6). They had not taken over the whole heritage from David. It is true they had taken from David's legacy the lute, the harp, the beautiful sound of the music, and the art. But they missed his song, his psalm, his holy thoughts, his piety ... The harp, the lyre, the music is never without content. They are always imbued with some thought. And David's thought was dim in Israel's children, for they could no longer pray as David, no more confess as David, no more plead for mercy as David, no more honor God through song as did David. Then, with David's harp preserved, the art remained; but David's Psalms were only warbling to this generation; the holy music became dance music. The instrument of David went into the hands of strange, profane souls, and the worldly song superseded the holy art of David (translation mine, H.A.B.).

We are happy that such a situation does not yet exist in our church. It does, however, exist all about us in many other churches where the abstract beauty of the music is often considered to be of greater importance than the religious truth which it is to convey.

Calvin Restores Church Music

In order to combat this evil there have been some who wished to remove all music from the worship service. This was true in the Reformation when for a time there was no music whatsoever in the church at Geneva. There were even some devout Catholics in the Council of Trent who felt that the interest of the Catholic Counter-Reformation would best be served by the abolition of all music from the Mass. When Calvin returned to Geneva he spent much thought and energy in returning music to the worship service. He established certain principles for worship which we must bear in mind as we study our twentieth century problems of church music.

He undoubtedly would have encouraged the production of a great deal more music for his church if he had had the time, the talent, and the cooperation from his coworkers. In carrying on with our great traditions we too must have the time, the talent, and the cooperation in meeting the musical needs of the twentieth century Reformed church.

The Need for Constant Improvement

When faced with making decisions on church music, a non-musical theologian will undoubtedly concern himself primarily with the content of the music, Le., the words actually used by the congregation or the choir in the songs which they sing. A non-theological musician will, on the other hand, be more concerned with the beauty of musical expression as the first requisite. The one finds himself concerned with content; the other may find himself concerned with form. Too often both individuals (theologians and musicians) forget that music in God's service is adequate for the occasion only if both elements (words and music) are considered seriously.

This study of the relationship of words and music can best be served if we first return to the concept of church music as it was generated by the great reformers of the sixteenth century. As we strive to develop our own particular aesthetic of worshipmusic we should keep in mind our point of departure. Just as the doctrines and liturgies of the Reformation churches were different from those of Rome, the music, too, followed a different course to meet the needs of a changed situation.

There were several elements in the music of the Catholic Church which Protestants generally disapproved of. What were these important points of departure from the traditional church music? In what way did the music of the Reformed churches, particularly, differ from that of the Roman Church? How does this difference affect us today?

Use Of the Vernacular

One of the cardinal achievements of the Reformation was the transformation of the worship service from the Latin tongue to the vernacular, the language of the people in their own locality. The common man no longer needed to understand any language other than his native tongue to worship God. This was important not only for the sermonizing, catechizing, and praying. It was also important for the musical life of the Church. It meant that an entire congregation, without special training, could participate in praise.

This, however, had deep implications. It forced the church to develop a whole new body of poetry and music for the use of the church in worship. The church as an organization had to encourage and promote the writing of new hymns and psalm texts and the composing of new music to accompany these. The whole existing body of song in the Latin tongue had to be eliminated. The consequent vacuum was particularly evident in Geneva where for some years there was no music whatsoever in the church service. With the arrival of Calvin, however, the work of writing the texts and the music of the new church song was assigned to the most talented men available. Over a period of about twenty years the Genevan Psalter finally took shape.

No Foreign Music in Our Worship Services!

As Reformed Protestants, what does this particular facet of the development of church music mean to us? In the first place, it means that the music sung in the church must be in the vernacular. Although this may seem an unnecessary point, it is one which should be kept in mind. While the development of choirs in our churches has been, on the whole, a healthy one, there are occasions when our leaders may be tempted to make use of some particularly beautiful Latin anthems or motets by Renaissance composers. Such music may be great music, perfectly fitted as a vehicle for the Latin scriptural text. However, as Protestants following the principle that our church song must be intelligible to the hearer as well as the performer, we are forced to relegate that music either to the service of the Roman Church, or to limit its performance to concerts and recitals. Music sung in a foreign tongue can have no place in the Protestant worship service.

Keep On Revising and Improving!

Secondly, this early Reformation stand on church music means that the modern Reformed church has sufficient precedent to induce it to appoint the finest musicians and poets available to keep its liturgical music alive and meaningful. The mere writing of a psalter does not finish the task. No praise book is ever complete. Calvin's Genevan Psalter went through at least nine revisions and additions between 1539 and 1562. Not only was each succeeding edition larger than the previous one, but the existing tunes and texts were being continually revised and improved. Upon the death of a poet or musician, another competent man was appointed to continue the work. Even the death of Calvin himself did not stop the work.

Over the centuries a tremendous body of Calvinistic church music has been developed along the lines first established at Geneva. England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and America have all contributed to the development of a body of Reformed church music. We, too, must continue in this tradition, making use of what we have in this heritage and building upon it.

A Suggested Program

A program for making such a heritage come to life for us today should be a many-sided one. Among other things we should consider the following:

1) The creation of a historical commission to recover and make available to our leaders the great music of our past. The impressive chansons, motets, and anthems from the French, Dutch, and English Calvinistic choral tradition would fill a great need which our church choirs have today. The preservation and distribution of these and of the great organ and other instrumental works by such Calvinistic masters as Sweelinck and his followers would raise our musical standards immeasurably. Their availability and use would create a musical stability and unity which we sadly lack today.

2) The establishment of a committee for the revision of our existing praise book (now in progress), while a step in the right direction, is hampered by its lack of historical continuity. Such a committee should be a continuing one, ever concerned with revision and improvement of not only the congregational song but also the literature and performance of organist and choir.

3) The promulgation of principles of good church music must be accompanied by an intensive program of education. The process of education is never complete. In order to begin training the child we must now begin to train the teachers and the ministers. With the cooperation of college and theological seminary, all of our prospective church and school leaders must understand something of our traditions and our principles of church music.

4) We must encourage the composition of new church music and the performance of this music in our worship service. The composer of religious music, no less than the writer of religious articles and books, can make no contribution if his work remains on the shelf. The publication and distribution of new religious writing of all kinds is essential to the healthy growth of the church.

This short list of suggestions presents activities which cannot be carried out sporadically but must become the work of some permanent, continuing ecclesiastical body. The present free and undirected development of music in the Calvinistic churches of America can only lead liturgical and musical chaos. A unified approach by an entire body of believers brings strength. Through that strength we shall be enabled to build upon and further develop our traditions and thus influence the rest of the American church world for good. And, above all, through the application of Reformed principles to church music we will be able to contribute much more to the praise and glory of Almighty God.

 

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