21 April 2008

Sacred music and spiritual formation -- some ramblings

After the concert last night, Dennis and I were talking about it, and he mentioned how much he loved the deep sounds of a pipe organ. I related to him a conversation I had with R, one of the members of our group, an organist who owns his own organ-building company. He is my age and fell in love with the organ when he was in his early teens, then went on to get a degree in Organ Performance and now owns this company where he constantly works with this instrument that so many churches are casting aside.

R and I were talking about the way an organ can elevate an entire congregation. As he said, the organ just seems to "wrap arms around you." There are few instruments that have that breathtaking and breath-giving effect. Perhaps it's because the organ's very apparatus is one of forcing air through pipes and thus "breathing" that it performs in such a way. Whatever it is -- it can be just amazingly moving.

I was thinking more about it and realizing again, for the gazillionth time, how much I MISS good congregational music. When I was growing up, the pipe organ in my home church, a lovely gothic-esque structure, was played by the incredible Lois Humbert. She treated the organ with such care and played it just beautifully. I remember my father taking us to church and him sitting there with his eyes closed during communion telling us to "close our eyes and listen to the little notes playing with each other." The music was not just hymns played dirge-like in the background, but toccatas and fugues and airs and all sorts of wondrous, substantive, and real music that twirled around on the acoustics of the nave and danced into my ears.

My parents continued to introduce us to sacred music as we grew older. We learned to play piano and Dad subjected us to all sorts of educational instruction about composers and styles and musical periods. (I remember being in the Learning Center of my grade school when I was in second grade and a teacher asked the group about symphonies written by Bach and I know-it-all-ingly informed her that symphonies weren't invented yet when Bach was writing music.) We went to choral concerts in churches and at the universities near us and listened to the great music of the church in all sorts of different settings.

And it became part of us, I think, to the extent that, when I wasn't really conscious of belief or doubt, when I had become unwittingly apathetic about faith, music was always the first thing to call me back to the presence of God. The Mozart mass. The Vaughan Williams and Durufle choral pieces. The Christmas motet from college. The Iona song cycle in seminary. It wasn't what brought me Home, but it sure opened the front door of the House and reminded me of how beautiful the Host had made everything inside.

Now, every once in a while, I get to experience really good sacred music and I feel like I am gulping down some sweet, satisfying nectar that I deeply crave and desperately need and seldom find. The music in the church I serve is... terrible, for the most part. We have a Clavinova now, thanks be to God, and got rid of the hideous funeral home organ, even more thanks be to God, but the music feels functional, seldomly beautiful and almost never treasured and savored and ingested.

And I wonder what kind of musical education my children are receiving. Will they learn to sing quietly and disinterestedly and to see music as a filler in the background for whatever it is that is going on in the foreground? Will they think that Jim Brickman piano solos and a choir singing the melody on absolutely everything and a praise song played 400 times during communion is what music is supposed to be like? Will they ever get to hear a pipe organ that breathes around them and with them and lifts them up as they are singing Praise to the Lord, the Almighty at the top of their lungs? Will I ever get to make them sit still while Mommy and Daddy are carried up in the rapture of a beautifully executed fugue leading them to wonder what all the fuss is about?

This morning we are listening to Vaughan Williams with the speakers cranked up high and I have just placed an order for some more cd's.

But I may have to become an Episcopalian after all.


more cows than people said...

wow. i so relate, april. the music in our congregation has improved (by my standards) since K took over the job, but... sigh.

and k is the one who said if i ever did become an episcopalian it would be because of the music.

and... sorry to read about your back as well. ouch indeed. take care of yourself.

i'm going to point k to this post.

April said...

I'd be interested in his take on it, S.

You are going to have so many incredible opportunities at the next place... music will be just one of them. What a city for high standards, eh?

Shalom said...

I can hear myself completely in your comment - was just at a fantastic, amazing hymnsing last weekend with a fantastic, amazing organist (and pipe organ) and...wow. 'Breath-taking and breath-giving,' is the perfect way of putting it.

We finally got a wonderful musician in my previous congregation and I could hardly articulate how joyful I felt about it. I hope you find some wonderful music on a regular basis.