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New church music fills a niche, but its staying power is less certain

By David Wilson

On a sultry night last summer, after a bountiful dinner and amid much gaiety, three women, former members of the junior choir at Trinity United Church in Peterborough, Ont., gathered around a piano and sang together for the first time in 30 years.

They were rusty, to be sure. But prodded by one of the women who remains active in choral music, they eventually found their voice and settled into their parts. Glorious harmonies rose into the night, as if released from years of captivity. Kids who had never heard their mother sing, let alone sing complex pieces like Lift Thine Eyes and O Lovely Peace, wandered by to listen, eyes wide and sparkling.

It was clear this trio had been taught classically, and taught very well. You can't fake harmonies like those. In the gaps between phrases, you could hear echoes of the choir director urging, "Let's do it again." You could hear the crunch of snow underfoot on cold practice nights, giggles rippling through the alto section, and the magical, holy moments when it all came together. Junior choir had been about more than singing; it had been a musical education.

I was thinking about this as I watched the 39th General Council unfold in Thunder Bay, Ont., last summer (Report, page 18). As always, music played a big part in the proceedings. It was played and sung with skill and passion. It re-energized commissioners. It helped to bring 800 people packed into an oversized sardine can on the Lakehead University campus closer to their God.

And it was thoroughly contemporary, a showcase for the United Church's new hymnbook supplement, More Voices. You could have counted on one hand the selections that might qualify as "classical" church music.

The music offered at General Council reflects a drift away from traditional church music that began a couple of decades ago. The difference between church music today and a generation ago is the difference between hymns and songs. The melodies today are catchier, the rhythms snappier and the language plainer. The songs are easy to learn and geared to the musical tools of the moment: guitars, electronic keyboards, flutes and conga drums.

You might say it's more democratic. It's certainly more outward-looking: repertoires now routinely contain songs with African, Latin American and Aboriginal origins.

And yet.

It's entirely possible that current and future generations of church musicians will grow up without ever sinking their teeth into Handel or Mendelssohn or Bach. Imagine a generation of readers growing up without ever having been exposed to Dickens or Austen or Melville. Popularizing church music clearly means more people will sing more songs, but is something precious being lost in the bargain?

It's fruitless to pine for yesterday. But in its zeal for contemporary music, I wonder if the church is in danger of turning its back on a part of itself. The three women who gathered around our piano last summer each have a different relationship with the church today. The one thing they have in common is a deep and enduring love for the music they learned in church when they were young.

In 30 years from now, will people who are young today feel the same about the music they learned?

Time will tell.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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