Many non-musicians and a few musicians are under the presumption that the composer or source determines the style of music. This is not necessarily true when other people play the music.
Take the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” one of my favorites. Horatius Bonar wrote the words in the 19th century and the renowned British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams arranged an English folk tune for four-part choir. So it’s church music for organ and choir, right? V-W also arranged the melody in five variations for orchestra. So it’s classical music, too.
But wait, Rory Cooney used a folk variant, Star of the County Down for his Magnificat setting, “Canticle of the Turning.” You can also hear the tune performed (without Cooney’s words) by Ensemble Polaris on their outstanding recording Midnight Sun: Traditional Nordic Melodies: track 16, “The Skipper O’Dundee.” (If I played in a band, I’d want it to be like this one.)
Hold on, though–the tune goes back way before Vaughn Williams and Bonar, and if you comb through folk tunes, you’ll find it’s had different names and variations, including John Barleycorn, an allegory about brewing beer. So it was done with fiddles and other folks instruments and sung in pubs long before classical and church musicians ever got their paws on it.
So if I use the hymn and accompany it with dulcimer, guitar, bass, and violin, (as I have in the past) it will be done in an authentic folk style. Let me tell you that there are other ways to play or sing the tune, but maybe not as convincingly as my ensemble or an organ-plus-choir or a symphony orchestra. I can swing the tune, alter the harmonizations and it will be jazz, gospel, or blues. I can even out all the note values and sing it unaccompanied in the style of plainsong.
My ensemble plays it in a way fairly authentic to the roots of the song, but would Gavin and his pastor find that unacceptable? We could even out all the note values and would that make the tune acceptable to the chant-only crowd? Or I could add 7th, 9th, 13th, and a whole slew of jazz chords and would a Black Catholic parish find it very good? Or if I sang any variants in a bar, would that render the whole exercise totally unacceptable?
A lengthy example, but I hope to make a point. Music is what musicians make it. I laugh when I hear stories about songs being banned, hymnals thrown out, and the like. Because I know that 80% of the actual music-making isn’t the song–which can be dramatically changed–but the players and singers.
Which brings us to the objections to the Glory and Praise oeuvre. Much of the music contained in that series had serviceable to great melodies. Some of the texts were decent, many being based on Scripture. The arrangements left much to be desired, naturally. My sense of church music is to have a good melody set to an appropriate text. Once I have that, anything is possible.
I realize that many musicians don’t depart from the written page. If you are in that category, you’re missing all the fun. David Haas probably would not approve of what I’ve done with “Song of the Body of Christ,” but two things: he’s not around to criticize me, and if he were to insist I play it his way, I would drop it from the parish repertoire.
Assuming the powers-that-be are on the same page with texts and melodies, everything becomes easy. If you don’t like folk music (authentic or Reppy) don’t play the music that way. As Led Zeppelin commented, “The song remains the same.”