How do we respond when someone puts the entire liturgy for a service in our hands? In the case of the first musician-led service at St Luke’s (coming on 23 August), one of the first collective responses was to look wonderingly among ourselves thinking “we’re musicians.”
I’m a professional musician, but I’m in the minority. Of the musicians in our community, some are young children, and among the adults, there is a wide range of professions – but in worship we’re called to be musicians. When we first met to prepare for this service, we thought about why this is so, and these were the answers that came from the group:
- Making music is our natural response to God, a way of giving our assent
- Music is a way of teaching and learning the word
- Music brings grace and peace to our hearts
- Through music we have variety of experience and expression
- Music involves everyone and it involves all of the body
- Music allows us to give soulful expression to what we think and feel
- Music takes us to a place beyond words, when words are not enough
We want the service to give the congregation a sense of each of these aspects of music, each of these reasons that we find ourselves to be musicians. Here are a few examples:
Sung responses awaken this mode in us. And most “responses” contain an element of anticipation as well as response – what we sing is not the final word. “Bless the Lord, my soul” is sung before the Gospel reading. It comes from the Taizé community, which is expert in composing short refrains that allow the interplay of response and anticipation to develop within the singers.
Teaching and learning
Traditional hymnody is the typical way of learning, digesting and remembering teachings, as in Fred Pratt Green’s hymn “When in our music God is glorified.” We’re singing it to Charles Villiers Stanford’s tune Engelberg, which is a favourite with both singers and organists.
Grace and peace
The Renaissance period style cultivates a graceful effect, so we turn to the transitional Renaissance-Baroque composer Giovanni Paolo Cima for a sonata played as musical meditation. The instrumental voices soar gracefully and the gentle unfolding of its harmony fills the sonata with a sense of peace.
Variety of experience and expression
We’ve made an effort to avoid repeating styles in this service and to move between styles in a way that allows them to enhance each other. Near the start of the service, a Kyrie eleison in a folk-like, contemporary style (2007) is juxtaposed with a doxology from the Genevan Psalter (1551).
Throughout the service there are different musical roles for the whole community: not just active listening, but unison singing, four-part hymnody, a traditional Czech round (“Everything that has breath”) as processional, and the call-and-response “Come to the feast” (Haugen) in which we all participate in a sung “reading” of Isaiah 55.
Spirituals are intimately concerned with soulful expression; the traditional song “Down in the river to pray,” published in Slave songs of the United States in 1867, takes the place of an anthem in this service. We’ve done our own vocal harmonisations, but in a style that we feel is sympathetic to the music’s roots.
In the Gospel reading, there is a woman who speaks powerfully through her gestures. When we move beyond words, we also reach for music and for silence. The service incorporates a short time of silent reflection as well as a wordless musical meditation that serves as the doorway for our collective prayers during the prayers of the people.
… and how we are musicians
There’s one final thing to share at the musician-led service, and that’s a taste of what it’s like to be the musician in worship. So we won’t be following our usual custom of behind-the-scenes preparations, warming up, and prayer prior to the service; instead, everyone will be invited into the experience of warming up with the choir (as well as singing a few favourite hymns, just for fun) in the church immediately before the service. You might even come to share that experience of wonder at finding that you can transition into identifying as a musician as well.