Monday, September 07, 2009

Reflections on Episcopal and mainline Christian liturgy

There is no way I could ever say this to my choir director's face, so I'll say it semi-anonymously on my blog. I'm an Episcopalian in spite of our church music. I'm not formally trained in music, but I feel our church music is not generally very compelling and that it needs several major improvements for the church to stay attractive and relevant. And this is not just a cosmetic issue.

Yesterday we sung Come Labor On, aka the Protestant Work Ethic Song. The pause after each verse was way too long and the pacing was too slow overall.

And yet, this was tolerable. PWES was in the White people's hymnal and was designed to be played on the organ. What was really intolerable was when we sang Jesu, Jesu to the organ. The midi file from the Oremus hymnal approximates what we sang in church:

From the Oremus Hymnal:
Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.

Kneels at the feet of his friends,
silently washes their feet,
master who acts as a slave to them. Refrain

Neighbors are rich and poor,
varied in color and race,
neighbors are near and far away. Refrain

These are the ones we should serve,
these are the ones we should love;
all these are neighbors to us and you. Refrain

Loving puts us on our knees,
serving as though we are slaves;
this is the way we should live with you. Refrain

Kneel at the feet of our friends,
silently washing their feet;
this is the way we should live with you. Refrain

Jesu, Jesu is a Ghanian folk song. The pacing is supposed to be significantly faster than the midi file goes (and in church, we actually went a bit slower than this). The song can easily be sung a capella, or with simple instruments. The original singers very likely clapped to the song and possibly used drums. I've heard it set to Jazz music, which originates with African-Americans, and that was just fine.

The soft, reverent, meditative tone is fine for church music of European origin - but music of African origin is supposed to be sung passionately, as the introduction to Lift Every Voice and Sing (the Black people's hymnal in the Episcopal Church) indicates. In fact, choir directors should think very, very hard before playing any song in LEVAS on the organ (except perhaps for the title song, Lift Every Voice and Sing).

At worst, this is White people butchering Black people's music. This is especially ironic because my church is unusually racially integrated compared to most others. We do not need to expect White choir directors to play LEVAS exactly the way that Black choir directors would, but I think we can definitely expect them to use the appropriate instrument and pacing for the songs. Again, many of the tunes in LEVAS are unsuitable for the organ. Jesu, Jesu is especially poorly suited to be played on the organ.

More generally, passion for our faith is something I think the mainline Christian tradition needs to emphasize more. Our church music doesn't generally allow us to do that. The mood of the music doesn't quite do it. I'm probably not using the exact musical term, but I think musicians will get what I mean. There are many reasons why the mainline, institutional church is losing members, but liturgy is one and it should be relatively easy to fix.


janinsanfran said...

Come Labor On was obviously written by an adult child of an alcoholic Victorian. :-)

Hymns, unfortunately, are too often comic.

Music appropriated from other peoples' cultures seldom succeeds -- and have we no scruples about borrowing what we do not own without leave? Apparently not.

Church music is hard.

W said...

I believe and hope that African-American Episcopalians gave the church - which as we both know is mainly White - leave to sing songs of African and African-American origin.

Again, White folks don't need to sing the songs exactly like Black folks would, but playing LEVAS songs on the organ is like playing genocide in C sharp. Just using the piano or guitars and picking the pace up slightly would be much truer to the essence of LEVAS and isn't technically difficult - in fact, my impression is that the piano and guitar are much easier to play than the Goddamn organ.