Who are we singing for, and who is singing?

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

Versailles opera house interiorI’ve been asked, “In church, who are we singing for?” so let’s play with the idea of an opera, with singers on stage enacting a story for the audience, and see what it suggests for hymn-singing.

Put ourselves – the whole congregation – on the imagined stage of a service of worship. Sometimes we split into characters made of individuals or small groups of people as we enact our story, such as when we sing “The Lord bless you and keep you” to each other. But much of the time the congregation is a single character. We sing a collective utterance.

Many of our hymns are like the aria. In the conventions of opera, some song, such as recitative, is ‘public’ on the stage – all the characters on stage can hear what is said. But an aria is commonly unheard by other characters on stage; it represents a character’s inner thoughts, revealed only to the audience. I think that much of our hymn-singing is a collective inner thought made audible, not for the benefit of other characters, but before the audience. And if the congregation is being a character on stage, then we might imagine that the audience to whom we reveal inner thought is the divine persons.

For example, singing “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord! Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice…” the congregation expresses its collective desire. Actually, an additional thing can be happening here. Because these words are borrowed from Mary, the congregation can choose to inhabit Mary’s role.

What about when we seem to be exhorting each other? Singing “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” whom do we address? I’d suggest that such a hymn is also like an aria. It is a character exhorting him- or herself, which is an important part of many operas. In Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, when Orpheus is given permission to go and retrieve his wife from death, he first sings “Now all my hopes start to rise… I will brave every pain and peril,” showing his inner movement to the audience, not to other characters in the story. But Janet Baker says that this musical encouragement is essential to the story: “It is like the way the Bantu warriors gear themselves up through music and rhythm. So Orpheus prepares himself for the descent to Hell, for unless he sings the aria he is not going to set foot there.”[1]

Then sometimes we sing words that address God directly, so we appear to have two characters on stage: God; and the congregation, singing “Our heavenly Father…” or “My Jesus, my saviour…” or “Breathe on me, breath of God…” And sometimes the congregation explicitly takes the role of God, singing, for example, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you…” So, in our imagined opera, we recognise that God is audience, on stage addressing us, and on stage singing through us! And we remember we’re called ‘the body of Christ’ – which reveals, perhaps, not only who we are singing for, but who we are, singing.

[1] Quoted in Edward Greenfeld, “Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1982: Edward Greenfeld: three interviews,” Liner notes to Orfeo ed Euridice, Erato Disques, 2292-45864-2, 1983, CD.

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