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June 2019
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2002-10-16 Music helps to fill churches

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685. He had 23 children and practiced on an old spinster in the attic. This is a direct quote from a 1st year music essay from a Dublin school. For those of you who may have missed the joke, Bach would have sometimes played a keyboard instrument called the spinet.


On a recent trip to the magnificent city of Leipzig we were privileged to pay a visit to the famous Thomaskirche, where, arguably the father of modern music, J.S.Bach spent the last 27 years of his life as Cantor and Kappelmeister.

Many of his greatest masterpieces (for example the B Minor Mass and the Matthew Passion) were composed and premiered there, so spending some time in this musical Mecca was an emotional and mind-blowing experience. Bachs absolute devotion to God is reflected in his vast output of sacred music.

The majority of European composers since the Baroque era have written music for the Church - Schutz, Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, even Verdi and Puccini.

Several of these great masters famously had little faith, but their music nonetheless seems able to elevate worship to a whole other level.

From the dawning of the Christian Church, music has been used to enhance and enrich the liturgy. There was a distrust of instrumental music as it was often associated with pagan celebrations.

The only instrument permitted to take part in worship was the human voice, in its purest form, and so we still have a wealth of chant from the Byzantine, Coptic, Ambrosian and Gregorian liturgies, as well as others.

A few centuries later, figures such as the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen introduced her more specialised and often virtuosic plainchant.

Until this time, harmony had been taboo, but people began to bravely experiment and so chant was no longer plainchant. With the invention of musical notation, composition began to replace improvisation. Polyphony (literally many sounds) began to replace monophony.

Polyphony became more and more adventurous and soon, composers such as Machaut, Dufay, Josquin, Byrd, Palestrina, Tallis, Victoria and a host of others were contributing to the rich reservoir of choral music which is still performed weekly in chuches worldwide.

During my time in London, I was fortunate to sing in churches of all denominations, such as Hampton Court Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey, and others, and to be part of, say a Palestrina mass, or the Tallis 40-part motet, is far superior, in my mind, to any high which may be achieved via more dangerous means!

Congregational singing is something which varies from church to church, but one thing which is no secret is that for some reason, there has always been a stronger tradition of congregational singing in the Protestant churches.

From as far back as I can remember, church music was my main motivation for going to church, and in many of the city churches people often attend weekly masses/services in order to hear good music.

Lord Hugh Cecil said that the two dangers which beset the Church were good music and bad preaching. Having spent two years as organist and choirmaster of a south Dublin parish, and several years in London as an organist and church session singer, I feel I have the authority to say that the place of musicians in the Church needs to be taken more seriously.

The Church has made efforts to modernise liturgical music, but often with little or no consultation with the musicians themselves, and this music sadly alienates many. Much of it has little or no depth at all and more often than not resembles a sort of second-rate 1930s dance-music!

Since the birth of Christ, music has been an integral part of the church service in some form. Obviously resources always need to be taken into account, and its all very well planning a Mozart mass every Sunday morning if all you have is a handful of octagenarians who dont know a crotchet from a hatchet and have a range of four notes between them! However, just as people have become disillusioned with the Church itself, I would argue that music in churches and the treatment of church musicians is central to the wider problem.