Guest Post: Church Music – What Does "In Keeping With the Spirit of the Hymns" Really Mean?
Thanks to Debbie Mayhew Zufall for this post.
Appropriate music for church meetings: What does “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church”really mean?
I am sure I am not the only one who has puzzled over this. The music section in the Church Handbook of Instructions (and posted on LDS.org) suggests hymns as the basis for all music in our meetings, or music “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church.”
I have a master’s degree in church music, and have held music callings or assignments in wards/stakes in five different states. I love hymns as well as anyone, but as a classical musician I have always been partial to the classics, or what some people call “the music of genius.”A couple years ago, while living in Atlanta Georgia, I was asked to play for a stake conference. My instructions were to “play something besides hymns. We are tired of just hymns.” Another time, as stake organist in Greenville Stake South Carolina, I was asked to play a solo for a Saturday evening stake conference session, something “based on a hymn.” I suggested something from the classical repertoire.They said that was fine, so I played “Prelude” from the “Prelude, Fugue, and Variation” by Cesar Franck.
The classical repertoire is the music of genius.“Music of genius” implies that the composer was inspired by a higher power. Also, classics are classics because they have lasted for generations or even centuries. It seems to me that we should be thinking about using this music more in our meetings. Does not the Lord deserve the best we have to offer?
I have long suspected that our church’s emphasis on hymns and music “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church” is a way of keeping pop music out of our meetings. The ban on percussion instruments in sacrament meetings supports this idea. One of the differences between classical and pop music is that classical music has an intrinsic beat, and in pop music the beat is extrinsic. In other words, in pop music the beat is added to the music, rather than being implied. Of course, the piano is technically a percussion instrument, and so can carry the rhythm section on its own, along with melody and harmony. In this way, sometimes EFY music shows up now and then in sacrament meetings. In the music instructions in the Church Handbook of Instructions it reads, “some religiously oriented music in a popular style is not appropriate for sacrament meetings.” In my experience, this opens the door for something soft and gentle like EFY, but precludes gospel music and Christian rock.
As a life-long member of the church, I have noticed that there seems to be a canon of classical music appropriate for sacrament meeting, and that this is primarily based on familiarity. Handel’s Messiah is a good example of a work that is widely accepted, but is not “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church.” Although the words are rooted in scripture, the music is secular in style. It is similar to the style of Handel’s Italian operas, written to display the virtuosity of the singers. The music is wonderful,and we have heard it so many times, that we have become conditioned to accept the better-known choruses and solos as the ultimate worship music for Christmas and Easter. We have come to love the music, not because anything about it is intrinsically sacred or hymn-like, but because it is a beloved tradition, with all the happy memories that implies.
I worry about the future of LDS church music. Of the centuries of church music available, very little of it is used in our church meetings. In The Choir bookpublished by the church in 1980, W.A. Mozart’s Ave Verum rubs shoulders with contemporary LDS composers. Of the twenty-four anthems only five are classic anthems. There is nothing wrong with using quality anthems and hymn arrangements by contemporary composers. They are quite appealing, and easier to learn and sing than many of the classics. But I think that we owe it to ourselves as church musicians, and to our wards and stakes, to not forget about the hundreds of years of church music that is at our disposal, much of it free and in the public domain. If we are co-eternal with Heavenly Father, as we believe, then shouldn’t we be thinking about using more significant music in our church?
What does “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church” mean to you? I would love to hear from you. Also, I would love for you to visit or join mychurch music blog. http://www.churchmusic.sampasite.com/
I live in Michigan, in the Detroit metro area, and amthe stake organist for Bloomfield Hills stake. I am alife-long member of the LDS church. After earning a MMdegree in Church Music from Westminster Choir Collge,I embarked on a twenty-year career as a churchorganist, choir director (vocal and handbell), andorgan recitalist. Since 2001 I have primarily focusedon writing and composition, and have been deeplyinvolved in LDS music in various music callings.