James Altena on Church Music as Facilitating Worship
A few months ago, as associate editor for the classical music magazine Fanfare, I reviewed a CD of music for the services of Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer at an Anglican cathedral in England. While it includes a few traditional hymns and works by Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell, most of the contents are given over to premiere recordings of compositions by several contemporary British church composers, including the cathedral's current choirmaster. The performances are exemplary; the recorded sound likewise. Yet, the compositions themselves bother me. While all of them are cast ostensibly in tonal or neo-tonal idioms, and are well crafted in purely technical terms, their thematic and harmonic character was of a sort that I find intensely irritating, even disturbing, when present in ecclesiastical music, though not necessarily in secular concert music. Why?
About a year ago I read a passing remark by a fellow critic, who said he didn't understand why religious believers thought that all church music had to be "pretty." He clearly believed that such music should not differ in any way from music written for the concert hall, including being written in more "progressive" or "advanced" idioms. That critic was also quite clearly neither a churchgoer, nor even a religious believer, something which I believe has everything to do with his attitude and which gave rise to two reflections.
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James A. Altena is the associate editor of Fanfare magazine, a comprehensive bimonthly periodical for reviews of classical music recordings. He is a member of All Saints Episcopal Church in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania.
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