William Mahrt’s lengthy review of Sing to the Lord is online at Musica Sacra. There’s a lot to digest in it. Like many reform2 musicians, Mahrt seems disappointed that the Right’s favored method of “fire, aim, ready” wasn’t applied by the bishops to the sins of modern church music.
I’m always struck by the naiveté that the vast sins of parish musicians can be scrubbed away by fiat. How many thousands of parishes offend the orthodox sensibility in America? While I’m sure that Dr Mahrt would be willing to shoulder the burden of a dozen parishes pining for plainchant, I’m less certain there are enough qualified rock musicians (let alone church musicians) to cover the needs out there.
I don’t have time today for Mahrt’s other oversights and miscues, other than to address the topic of other instruments.
One is grateful that the place of the organ is asserted: among instruments, it is accorded “pride of place” (¶87). It is praised for its role in accompanying congregational singing, improvisation to accompany the completion of a liturgical action, and playing the great repertory of organ literature, whether for the liturgy or for sacred concerts.
Fair enough for the pipe organ. Mahrt probably knows, as most church musicians do, that this pride of place does not extend to synthesizers and other instruments imitative of the pipe organ.
The recommendation of other instruments, however, raises a few questions. Instrumentalists are encouraged to play music from the treasury of sacred music, but what music for instrumentalists is meant? Is it the church sonatas of the seventeenth century, requiring an ensemble of string players and keyboard? One hopes it is not a recommendation that the treasury of organ music be played upon the piano or that secular piano music be played.
As an ensemble player and a musician with no little appreciation for and understanding of early music, I find this kind of blindness simply incredible. From the times before Trent and long after, instruments have been employed for sacred music. My own hero contributed great ensemble music to the Church’s treasury. I can understand a chant expert like Mahrt would focus exclusively on the vocal repertoire. I can understand that an organist would be flush with knowledge of Bach, Alain, and everybody in between. But a church musician of any pedigree should certainly know the historic place of instruments, and even how the great composers and music directors utilized these instruments to support choirs, reinforce part singing, and composed for them.
The commentary on instruments ends with a pessimistic note:
The wider issue that this raises is the suitability of other instruments. The document does not state the principle (sic) reason for the priority of the organ: it is primarily a sacred instrument. Other instruments do not share that distinction. A citation of Old Testament usage of “cymbals, harps, lyres, and trumpets” (¶89) begs the question of their associations in the present culture. The document proceeds to allow “wind, stringed, or percussion instruments . . . according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt” (¶90). This avoids the vexed issue of whether instruments with strong associations with popular music, such as those of a rock band, but even the piano, are really apt for sacred use.
Take the saxophone for example. The instrument is virtually synonymous with jazz. But it wasn’t invented for jazz. While there is very little sacred literature particularly for the saxophone, it doesn’t follow that adaptation, improvisation, and new compositions would not find a place in church. Jan Garbarek‘s collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble comes to mind.
The reform2 philosophy as elucidated here has two tragic flaws in my mind: a lack of imagination, and a lack of confidence.
A lack of imagination is a terrible thing for a musician to suffer. Music at its core is about “playing.” We might perform. We might read. We might practice. But all of those aspects, including our own styles and the expectations of the listener, are lensed through the essential of play. If a musician isn’t playing with imagination, I have no interest in listening in.
A lack of confidence in the transformative and sanctifying power of Christ is a terrible thing for a minister to have. When we get weirded out by a piano or a saxophone because the cabaret or the jazz joint uses them too, it reveals less confidence that God can work grace from the neutral palettes of human life. Is the demonic influence of percussion, the electronic amp, or the horn so strong that it will engulf the liturgy and all within it?
The issue may be vexing, but perhaps only to the cowardly spirit of people who cannot bring themselves to trust that God’s power to transform really works. For musicians like Mahrt, it’s all about and it’s only about what’s inside the treasure chest inside the church doors. For optimists, it’s also about the possibilities of the treasures that await in the courtyard, down the street, and out in the fresh air.