By Robin G. Jordan
Now there are two kinds of church music: in one the congregation is the artist; in the other, the congregation is the audience.Percy Dearmer made these observations in The Art of Public Worship almost a century ago. Dearmer was a lecturer in ecclesiastical art at King’s College, London from 1919 to his death in 1936. He was active in the formation of the Alcuin Club and the Wareham Guild. He authored a number of works. His best known work is The Parson’s Handbook, a manual on liturgy and worship for Anglican clergy. He championed what is known as the “English Use”— liturgical practices of the pre-Reformation English Church, which conform to the rites and rubrics of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and to the canons governing the Prayer Book’s use.” Dearmer also edited The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. In The Art of Public Worship he offers this helpful advice
The art of congregational singing is a noble one. Stirring in its massive effect, and interesting to practise, it is hardly ever attempted, because choirmasters have not realized that it is an art, and like all arts has its limitations — far less intractable, after all, than those of the sculptor — and that it triumphs by and through its limitations. It has also certain excellent and peculiar virtues, chief of which is that a congregation cannot sing out of tune, since the minorities above and below the tone correct one another. The art of choral singing is a different one; and the mistake of the last century was that the distinction was not recognized, whence comes the practice — almost Tibetan in its quaintness — of the congregation standing up to listen to a choir inadequately chanting psalms to inappropriate music. When the congregation sing, it is their business to sing for all they are worth; when the choir sing, it is the duty of the congregation to listen, and not to interrupt by making noises of their own, any more than they would interrupt a sermon — though indeed there is something to be said for this latter display of private judgement.
It is clear, then, that in the average small church the business of the choirmaster is to teach the congregation to sing. That is his art, and it is a delightful one. The choir, if it exists, will work merely to support the congregation, and will of course contain women as well as men and boys, since a musician does not select people for their sex any more than for the colour of their hair, but for their musical capacity.
Avoid…the frozen mediocrity of an authorized hymnal. Refuse to use it; and by the measure of your refusal will you have power with the generation rising about you.... Burn your official hymn books then. Refuse to touch the new one. Here is the chance now to break loose. Cut from your hymn-list everything you do not know to be true and believe to be beautiful; and add to them some of the many hymns which abound, hymns as splendid—and as popular too—as the Adeste Fideles, the Easter Hymn, and the Old Hundreth.
Dearmer’s point is that we should not limit ourselves to a one narrow collection of hymns and tunes. Rather we should draw from the wealth of classic and more recent hymnody hymns and tunes that meet the specific worship needs of our particular congregation.
Among the recommendations that Dearmer makes in The Art of Public Worship is that the congregation should be allowed to sit during the reading or singing of the Psalms at Morning and Evening Prayer instead of being be required to stand. If congregation is allowed to sit, the congregation is less likely to experience the reading or singing of the Psalms as long and tedious.
Much as I prefer plainsong to Anglican chanting, I fear it will be even less popular. I believe the chanting of the psalms (outside community chapels where plainsong can be — or ought to be — heard at its best) is only satisfactory and helpful when performed by a highly-trained choir in that magnificent vehicle for sound, a great cathedral. Even then, the congregation can enjoy the music, and follow the words, far better if they sit. I wish also that English parish churches would revert to the old-fashioned custom, which has been so wisely retained in most American churches, of reading the psalms, and only singing the Glorias.
Dearmer goes on to note:
But this reading should not be a duet between the minister and the congregation; it should be done, verse by verse, alternately by each half of the congregation, from side to side. If you try this, all sitting, you will find that the Psalter takes on a new character, that few parts of the service are more loved: every one enters into the meditative power of the exercise, and few then feel that the psalms are too long.
Dearmer has harsh words for organs and organists.
To this it may be added that the organ exists in the ordinary church merely to support the choir and congregation, and that if its teeth could be drawn by some magician, musical folk would be very much pleased. Probably the silencing of all organs for a period of ten years would make our churches into nests of singing birds. For organs have become like alcohol, though unfortunately we cannot get rid of the craving by going "dry." What we could do would be to revert to the old custom of keeping the organ silent during Lent, and thus throwing the singers for six weeks every year upon their own resources. Then during the rest of the year it would be easier for some parts of the singing to be unaccompanied — Versicles and Responses always, and set-pieces sometimes also, especially at times like the Communion. It would be easier also sometimes for the accompanist to behave modestly — a virtue which can be secured when he is not the same person as the choirmaster. But shall we ever recover church music until we have a music-gallery, and shall we ever recover village fellowship until we have a village band? In any case, all harmoniums everywhere should be burnt: their droning produces just that insufferable tone which makes many bright people hate the very mention of church music, and inferior organists seem to have got it into their very bones. Pianos are far better.
Dearmer recognizes not only the value of the piano but of hymn sings and pre-service congregational rehearsals.
This applies specially to those sing-songs which we learnt to use so much in the Army. It was an excellent thing for the men to sit round a piano and sing hymns for half an hour before service began in the hut, not putting their smokes away till that moment arrived….Will some daring priest arise, now that the War is over, who will have sing-songs in church before Evensong, and not frown at the incense of woodbines, until the last bell begins? In any case sing songs afford an ideal opportunity for learning fine new hymn-tunes, and for much quiet explanation of the reasons why so many of the old hymns should call the blush to the cheek of all true men.
Dearmer also affirms the liturgical principle that less is more. He advocates greater simplicity in worship.
Reform has already begun, and should not be impossible of accomplishment. We have to get rid of the idea that everything in a serviceshould be sung. Why, for instance, should not the Canticles only be sung at Evensong or Mattins ? Any congregation can learn to do that much really well. Again, in very many churches the principal Eucharist should be said and not sung, with four or five good hymns at the proper places, and nothing is easier than to have good hymns, as soon as we give up the old hymnals. In many of these churches, one (or more) congregational part, such as the Creed, can be sung to the one or two good simple settings that exist, the old Plainsong, Merbecke, or Mr. Martin Shaw's new settings. Most of the Masses of the later great composers are too long — for we ought to regard an hour as the utmost time for which attention can be maintained; but it would surely be possible for trained choirs to sing one piece from such a Mass, and to use the simple settings for the rest — after all, the Benedictus and Agnus are anthems in our service — or to say the rest of the service without note. It must always be remembered that the saying of services is an immense saving of time, with consequent prevention of tedium, and concentration of worship, and that this practice forms an excellent monochrome framework for pieces of rich music. On this side there is little else to be said — so exceedingly simple is the remedy.
Among the books that have shaped my thinking on church and worship music is Bishop Michel Marshall’s Renewal in Worship (1982). Marshall champions the importance of small churches tailoring their worship to their resources and their circumstances. The main thesis of his work is that small churches give themselves an inferiority complex, comparing their worship to the worship of larger churches and attempting to imitate large church worship. They judge the worship of their church by what are unrealistic standards for a church of their size and set themselves up for failure. They attempt types of music that cannot do well, reinforcing their sense of inferiority.
Marshall advocates the use of forms of music that smaller churches can do well with their particular resources and under their particular circumstances. Like Dearmer he sees a place for the piano and other musical instruments beside the organ in the music of the church.
Lionel Daker was the organist and master of choristers at Rippon Cathedral for 3 years and Exeter Cathedral for 15 years. He was the director of the Royal School of Church Music from1972 to 1989. He was also a director of Hymns Ancient and Modern from 1976 to his death in 2003. He held a number of other important posts related to church music. Daker also wrote a number of books on church music including Choosing – and Using – Hymns (1985). This book is full of helpful advice from which I benefited when I was involved in the planning of worship at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the 1980s and 1990s.
As The Telegraph points out in his obituary, Daker “recognised that what might be possible in a cathedral was hardly likely to be achieved, or even desirable, in a parish church, and he urged organists and choirmasters not to attempt more than local resources would permit.”
In regard to the selection of hymns and tunes Betty Pulkingham makes a similar point to Dearmer’s in Sing God a Simple Song: Exploring Music in the Worship for the Eighties sixty seven years later. Pulkingham writes:
The music of the church belongs to the people; they are the celebrants. The believing people as a whole come in many different shapes and sizes, represent at least three generations and in many cases today (the urban church being a good example) a poly-ethnic background. How shall we meet the needs of very young children, teenagers, young couples, the middle-aged, and octogenarians in the same service? Certainly where music is concerned we must purpose to be eclectic, choosing music from many and varied sources, old and new. We must not get stuck in a tiny framework, using one style or type of music.
In regard to the reading of the Psalms, Pulkingham also strongly recommends that they should be read antiphonally, that is, from side to side.
In the introduction toThe Hymns of Michael Forster: A Resource for Worship (2004) hymn writer Michael Forster draws attention to a principle he learned from his father who was the choirmaster of a small Church of England parish. The choir his father directed was small and did not have enough voices to do part-singing. Rather than attempt musical works that required two or more voice types, his father picked hymns, anthems, and service music that a small unison choir could not only sing but sing well. He then worked at getting the best from his choir at what they could do. By choosing types of music that the choir could pull off, he reinforced the choir’s confidence in their singing.
In his article, “How to Grow a Traditional Church,” written four years before his untimely death in 2009, the late Peter Toon noted that the pendulum as he put it appeared to be swinging in a direction favorable to the traditional church. Toon identified what he believed would be the characteristics of the traditional church that caught the pendulum’s movement. They included “simple, dignified worship, using the classic text of the BCP as is, without additions from other books (e.g. Missals);” good music, the use of “minimal but well executed ceremonial and ritual to accompany the words;” openness to “the use and development of modern (dignified) forms of music to accompany traditional psalms and canticles, alongside the creative use of traditional music;” “being simple but not simplistic;” and majoring on majors not on minors (e.g., not majoring on “the minutiae of ceremonial, of clergy dress or of specialized music”).