I played my best for Him: A high purpose calls for high performance

It's time for church organists to stop apologizing for their "performance" in worship. For years people have been suspicious of the word "performance," usually reserved for more involved worship music played by well-trained organists. They Ve somehow had the idea that any music included in the service should be simple and ordinary, not complex and technically difficult.

These negative notions about "performance" have grown, at least in part, out of ignorance about the place of music in worship. What's important is not the simplicity or complexity of the piece, but the intention of the composer and/or the attitudes of the performer and the congregation.

Still, negative attitudes persist. In a recent issue of Exaltations! (the newsletter of Region I of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, January, 1992), Mark Mummert yet again debunked the use of technically demanding organ music not directly based on well-known chorale tunes. Mummert went so far as to attribute selfish motives to organists who desire to "flex" their "toccata-and-fugue muscles" by indulging in this kind of music.

For a professional musician to deny or sacrifice his/her talents may in certain instances indeed be an act of worship. A musical situation on which there is sure to be a blessing, according to C.S. Lewis, is one in which ... an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

[C.S. Lewis. "On Church Music," quoted ir The Business of Heaven, ed. Walter Hooper (Collins 1984), page 291.]

To make such a sacrifice out of a sense of a false humility, however, is quite a different matter and no better than acting in a spirit of pride and self-exaltation.

Which Performer?

The article in Exaltations! goes on to accuse organists who play "free works" (presumably anything without a known hymn tune in it) of showing off, and of having a desire to "baffle them [the congregation] with brilliance and dazzle them with pyrotechnics." How dare anyone presume that this is the organists aim! Who has the right to judge? Showing off is as much a temptation for a person with one talent as it is for a person with many talents. Why single out only the latter?

In a worship service, musicians aren't the only performers. The description of performer includes anyone who takes part in the service, including not only preacher, reader, conductor, and instrumentalist, but also every member of the congregation. Are we prepared to question the motives of all these people? Why is it that choirs may sing the most difficult music in the repertoire (e.g., Bach's "Magnificat" and "B-minor Mass"), and preachers may use all the resources at their disposal and every bit of talent they have, but organists, especially the well-trained and hard-working ones, must draw the line at the nasty word performance? Preachers perform, orchestras perform, choirs perform, and so, begging your pardon, do organists. And like the Drummer Boy in the Christmas carol, let them do it for all they are worth, and more so. And let the Michals in our midst beware of how they criticize . . . (2 Samuel 6).

The attitude exemplified in the article in question is based on a fear of letting go of the safety of controlled and predictable worship. This may be a perfectly valid viewpoint, but it must not be set up as the only right one.

Isn't the very reason we include music in our worship its ability to go beyond words? The real meaning of the words is often frozen until music sets it free. By always chaining organ music to hymn texts, we are communicating on an intellectual level rather than on a deeper, less tangible, and more spiritual one.

There is a story about Bach actually hitting a student who complained about playing fugues. Why was it such a crime to complain about fugues? Because to the Baroque mind fugues, more than any other musical form, could express theological truths. No chorale or text is needed for a Bach fugue to speak to us about God.

Telling the Story with Music

We can point to many examples of organ music that are deeply rooted in theological and biblical truths, though not in any clearly programmatic and/or textual way. In Baroque organ music, for example, there is a long tradition, articulated especially by the Albert Schweitzer school, that associates the historical acts of God (creation, exodus, nativity, etc.) with so-called "toccatas and fugues," (also sometimes called merely "toccatas"), psalms with so-called "preludes and fugues," (also called merely "prelude" or "Praeludium"), and eschatology with "fantasias and fugues."

This pictorial approach to composition is illustrated by many well-known organ works. Thus, the D-minor "Toccata and Fugue" (BWV 565) by Bach must be seen in the light of the story of the Flood. The importance of the note "A" the note associated with the element of water, in both the toccata and the fugue, is a major hint in itself. And the serious, almost tragic ending of the fugue makes a lot of sense (only) if seen in connection with the last two verses of the story (Gen. 8:21-22). Whether or not the composition is for organ, by Bach, or a proper toccata and fugue is "external" information that is quite irrelevant.

Similarly, Buxtehude's "Toccata in F" (BuxWV 156), with its Pastorale sections and Gloria outbursts, is a musical retelling and interpretation of the story of the Nativity. The tidings of great joy, the shepherds running with haste, the babe in the manger, and Mary keeping all these things in her heart—-they are all there, some almost naively so. In fact, the piece makes no sense without an awareness of a background such as this.

Or take J.S. Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in F" (BWV 540), which is clearly inspired by the story of the creation. The opening, with its long pedal point and flowing counterpoint above it, is a very beautiful musical picture of the creative Spirit of God brooding over the deep. The six days of creation can be found in the toccata, while the fugue is the picture of the Sabbath rest. It is a double fugue, since there are two Sabbaths; Jesus represents the reality of the second Sabbath.

Just a few more examples:

  • Bach's "Prelude and Fugue in G" (BWV 541), with its fanfare-like fugue subject, and hand-clapping repeated chords in the prelude (not to mention the key, which is the key associated with the element of air), is clearly inspired by Psalm 47, the so-called "Ascension Psalm."
  • The "Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C" (BWV 564) is a picture of Israel's exodus from Egypt, their passing through the Red Sea, and the Egyptian mothers' lament (Adagio). The fugue and its odd ending (without pedal) make a lot of sense when seen in the light of the Song of Moses and Miriam's dance and song (Ex. 15). Throughout this song of victory there are frequent references to God's right hand casting the enemy into the sea.
  • Buxtehudes"Praeludium"(BuxWV146), in the tense key of F-sharp minor, has melodically angular and rhythmically dramatic fugal subjects, because it is a "Battle Piece" and should be seen in the light of the feast of St. Michael and All Angels (Rev. 12).

What is perhaps most interesting and significant is that this tradition's validity lies in it being a player's "guide." It would be unhelpful to use specific words ("this" means "that") to try to explain a given piece. The music's source of inspiration cannot be captured or expressed by words alone. The essence of the story is more exactly and more gloriously communicated through music alone. As Oliver Messiaen stated in Ms book Saint Francois d'Assise, "Music draws us to God past Truth."

Think of how natural it was for an organist-composer, sitting at Ms console, to depict musically the stories he saw illustrated in murals and paintings all around him on the ceilings and walls of the church. We would do well, in our search for "authenticity," to remember how inextricably music and the Bible were connected until not so very long ago. Many examples back this up—so-called "secular" works that have their counterpart in church music, such as the opening chorus of Bach's "Cantata 146" and the middle movement of Ms D-minor Klavier concerto. The whole point is that no text, religious or otherwise, is needed to make this music appropriate for church use.

Worship Through Music

No one, whether musician or theologian or whatever, ought to categorize music as "clean" (hymn-based) or "unclean" (free organ works). Where, for example, would that leave the music of Messiaen, Franck, Tournemire, or Langlais? None of them made much (if any) use of chorale tunes, yet all of them, like Bach, had only one aim: to glorify God. And all of them deliberately worshiped God through their music.

The measure of acceptability for music is not some veneer of religiosity granted through a textual connection. It is the extent to wMch the music is a sincere act of worsMp on the part of both the performer and the congregation who listens. And tMs is not something that anyone can lightly judge. Even the performer may not be totally aware of his of her own intentions. And "it is on the intention that all depends" (C.S. Lewis). To whatever extent the performer's intention is genuinely to glorify God, he or she is blessed and privileged to honor God like the angels, and

for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labor, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that umty they would have had before the Fall.

[CS. Lewis, in Tlie BusinesS of Heaven, p. 292]

Let all that is within me praise the Lord!

Jan Overduin (joverdui@wlu.ca)is professor of music emeritus, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. In 2006 he retired as director of music at First United Church, Waterloo, where he supervised the installation of a 44-stop Gabriel Kney mechanical action organ. Also in 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Awards Foundation.


Reformed Worship 30 © December 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.