Ammerbach’s organ endorsement: variety

I’d like to spend a few posts exploring the reasons the Reformation liked the organ so much. Their reasons are usually not ours. They did not endorse the organ because it was an old or traditional instrument; it was actually because it was so new. It was equipped with new technologies that could produce new possibilities for sound. They did not like it because it was huge and grand; oftentimes, the organs of this period were small enough to be fit in houses. They did not like it because it had religious connotations; the late Middle Ages and the Reformation invented the religious connotations for the organ, which had had a largely secular one in previous eras.

First example is Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach, organist at Leipzig in St. Thomas Church. He published a pedagogical anthology of organ music, sacred and secular, for organ and said this in his introduction:

“Among different musical instruments, however, of which I leave each as established in its worth, the organ—so nowadays employed in our churches and sacred service, and (as some suppose) unknown to the ancients—, in my opinion, justly has preference. For on it, thanks to its abundant stops (Regiester) and many kinds of timbres (stimwercks), one can devise and realize a great varietet and artistic change in the voices, which is not found on other instruments.” (lxxiv, “Source Texts”, Orgel Oder Instrument Tabulaturbuch, Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach)

The CREC in the Wilderness: A Parable

And they all cried out to God, and said, “God, sure we have Reformed theology, but we want to change the world with it! We want to do the work of your kingdom. Give us weapons of warfare. Give us food and nourishment.”

So God thought to himself, “I will give them the ultimate weapon of warfare and the most filling food: I will give them the ability to sing the Psalms. But I will test them and only give them 2/3 of the Psalter in a little red book, and see if they complain.”

So the people enthusiastically began singing the Psalms and even were enthusiastic about the Goudimel and the wild word order of the Scottish psalter. But soon the food became bland to them and they lost interest in using the Psalms as weapons. They complained against their leaders, and even some of their leaders began to complain as well: the settings were too hard. “We would rather go back to singing Egyptian songs than have to sing this stuff.” And so they did, or, if they sang the Psalms, they sang only a fraction of the 2/3 of the Psalter they had, and pretty gloomily at that.

And they looked around and saw some mildly disappointing results. Churches fizzled or split, reformations didn’t seem to happen, congregations were remarkably self-absorbed and acted confused when the evangelical Baptists would get the jump on them in ministering to the world. And they all cried out, “God, you need to come down and start a reformation! We need congregations that are aflame with faith, and free! You know, the single sword to Thee bit?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

And they looked around and saw the poor and destitute, widows and orphans, persecuted and helpless. They saw wicked men, tyrants, abusers, molesters. They saw abortion, genocide, all sorts of awful things. And they all cried out, “God, how do you expect us to deal with all of this? We need a battle plan, we need some paradigm, we need a mechanism for social justice, we need some totally different approach to this that will change everything! Why aren’t you the God of our fathers, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the God of the Reformation, of Luther, of Knox, of Calvin?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

The Church Music Program

I spend a lot of my time whining about how bad things are. And I try my best to spend equal parts whining about how good and how bad things were in the past. But I would be remarkably hypocritical if I didn’t actually try outlining a vision for how to make things better now, so I’m going to try to break that down and work on it piece by piece.

Broadly, I’m painting it like this, although it’ll probably change around:

1. Creating a Psalm-Centered Culture

  • What Psalm Culture Looks Like, but also
  • How to Actually Get There

2. Musical Education: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, or

Why Things Will Never Get Better Unless Composition Is the Capstone of a Classical Education in Music

3. Importance of Instruments in Worship

  • Why Money Is Central to Church Music
  • Internship-Mentorship Model
  • Our Competitors Are Symphony Halls and Music Conservatories


Not Recognizably Close to Bach

“Suggestions on Performance Practice” from The Providence Handbook:


There is no excuse for mistakes. The reasons should be obvious:

  • This is the house of God, and you are worshipping in his presence. When it comes to hymns, they are not difficult. Leaving out lots of notes or splashing around aimlessly while barely carrying the melody is sloppiness and laziness. Sloppiness of dress shouldn’t be tolerated in God’s house. Lazy playing shouldn’t be either.
  • If you butcher Bach, you don’t get any points for playing Bach. You may have thought that the fact that you played Bach separated you from the evangelical kitsch-factory down the street. You were wrong: I’m afraid you haven’t been playing anything recognizably close to Bach.
  • You are confusing the congregation. Perhaps you think you aren’t, because they keep faltering on and nobody says anything to you. (Well, hardly anyone.) But allow me to frighten you. You are stunting the growth of your congregation by not playing the simple right notes. It is one thing if your congregation simply sings the melody; even then, a dissonance in the harmony will throw them off. It is another thing entirely when you’re dealing with a congregation attempting to sing parts. Every mistake should cause you to wince, for you just destroyed the frail, thin confidence and concentration of a timid singer who will never again be bold and sing out because he thinks he has done something wrong. You wicked, wicked person.

Now, don’t feel too bad about the occasional slip. We all get nervous or side-tracked. Maybe our church pianist is single and a particularly cute person just walked in during the prelude. Well, alright. There are some excuses for mistakes. But not many.

In all seriousness, don’t be a perfectionist (if you can’t reach a tenth, oh well), but in the case of four-part harmony, it’s really only laziness and a serious lack of initiative that allows anything but one or two wrong notes per hymn. This is a serious problem in the CREC music world, and there is (almost) no excuse for it.

Getting to the place where you make almost no noticeable mistakes in a hymn should be the work of an hour or two of solid practice per week on the hymns over the course of several months. If you have trouble even after this point, you need to have the humility to recognize that (a) perhaps you need music lessons, (b) you are too busy to be a church pianist or (c) you should hire on some extra help. The task of being a church musician is not a side-job in the Bible. The least you can do is not make it an exhibition of your laziness. My harsh words are only meant to emphasize the gravity of the position. It is not a trivial thing.

And perhaps I should also say a word here to the elders and sessions of churches. If you are discontent with the quality of your church musicians, consider that you’re getting what you’re paying for. I recommend not firing them but giving them more money. If you treat music trivially enough to not really budget for it, don’t be surprised when your musicians treat it trivially too.

Not That You Should Insult Their Intelligence

“We mean by ‘congregational sense’ the capacity for composing what people who are unmusical without being tone-deaf can sing readily. This means making one’s point in language which does not itself give trouble to the singer—language he is more or less used to. The piece may be composed by a person who has a very large vocabulary at his command, but in writing what people ‘catch on to’ he is obliged to use that part of the vocabulary which is common to him and them: just as a preacher whose sermons tend to contain words like communicatio idomatum and hypostasis, no matter how excellent his arguments, is unlikely to hold the attention of a parish congregation.” (Erik Routley, Music of Christian Hymns)

Most Frequent Words in Hymns

I’m trying an experiment. At this point it’s just with the lyrics of 80 hymns (a fairly typical sampling, with sources from 19th, 18th, 17th c. and a little in either direction) and it’s an unfair sampling in some ways because I’m going through the “A” section of a huge corpus. Words like “Abide”, consequently, get a pretty high ranking. I’d like, someday, to do it with a much wider sample base, but the preliminary results are pretty interesting:

Out of 13,000 words, first place (besides its, buts, and ands) goes to “Thy” with 173 occurrences. Shortly followed by “Thee” at 118. “Lord” and “God” are in 4th and 5th place, “Jesus” is in 11th below “glory” and “day”. “You” and “Your” do not appear anywhere in the 200 most commonly found words. More in the top 50 are “Ye”, “Hath”, “Hail”. “O’er” and “‘Tis” appear 14 times, ranking above “cross”, “lamb”, “prayer” and “faith”.

Our hymns, it seems, are populated with words nobody actually uses.

But I need to upgrade my search and printing techniques before any more specific trends appear. I’m particularly interested to see how “crystal”, “crimson” and “footsteps” do.

For the curious: the search did not include its, buts, ands, et al. I also couldn’t take seriously the high ranking of “refrain”, because, uh, for obvious reasons. Although maybe that’s telling too.

Epic Fail Battle Strategies

Church music should always feel similar to hearing a really convicting or pertinent sermon. Its mission is not merely to declare (very poetically) the wonder of God’s goodness—a task, in the abstract, I absolutely do not dismiss—but its mission should also be to fight the relevant battles of today. Think of the way a prophet didn’t simply wax metaphysical on God and pearly gates and Jesus’ tears, but he offered the king tactical advice on present concerns. Church music must be relevant. There, I said it. Church music must be relevant to what we’re facing today. But there are two ways to be relevant, or so I’ve noticed.

Think of a battle. There are many ways to lose a battle, but I can think of two that are perhaps the worst. First, you can lay down your arms and embrace your enemy. That’s pretty bad. Or, you can leave the battlefield and go pretend to fight in the battle of Agincourt against imaginary French chevaliers. That’s maybe even worse. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two camps of Church music: the contemporary camp, for whom the word “relevant” is holiness-code for “worldly”, and the traditional camp, which can’t think of anything so dangerous as actually fighting the battles of today.

I mean “relevant” in the sense of anti-worldly. We need to be relevant to the world in the sense that we can attack it, not in the sense that we imitate it. So when David Erb or Mark Reagan writes something contemporary that sounds absolutely nothing like anything anybody else is writing, everyone says, “Well, that’s not really contemporary.” What they mean is that, in order to be contemporary, you have to mold yourself exactly to what the world is doing. Otherwise, you’re just a paltry imitation of the past. But the strange option of actually being contemporary and doing something different from the zeitgeist, well, is not to be borne, Miss Bennet.

Church music needs to be like the sermon. It must ride between the twin ditches of the contemporary camp and the traditionalist camp. It cannot plaster over zits, it must pop them. But it needs to pop the zits on my congregation’s face, not on the face of a congregation from 200 years ago. Toby Sumpter doesn’t lecture his congregation on the evils of alcoholism, urging temperance to all the indolent fathers, so why should his congregation sing hymns written by Sanky? (Thankfully, they don’t.) Douglas Wilson doesn’t urge his congregation to withdraw from public schools. They already are. Nor do either of them, though, compromise on homosexuality just to appeal to a broader crowd. No, pastors are supposed to prophetically fight the battles they’re faced with. Petty sins of individuals, and broad cultural battles.

So, that’s why, even though it’s 100 years old, “O God of Earth and Altar” is not, for now, a traditional hymn that can receive censure as such. It’s terribly relevant. “From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men; From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord!” Fuguing tunes have a fighting, impertinent independence about them, as attractive to us as is the 18th c. New England politics they grew out of . This church music is pragmatic. These weapons are particularly deadly to the enemy.

But, I feel bound to stress, that is the best and, perhaps, the only reason for using older music, music of a different era. Because older music is traditional? Because it connects us with past saints? Because it indicates we have a healthy respect for the past? Show me these principles in the Bible. If such principles exist, they poorly justify the wanton traditionalism that infects much of the conservative Church. The principle, on the other hand, that falls everywhere out of the Bible is to sing a new song. Every time a prophet comes along, he sings a new song. He does it by reminding us of older things, like Jeremiah reminding Israel to find the old paths. But he never just parrots David’s psalms, he retells David’s stories. He never quotes lengthy passages of Deuteronomy, he glorifies Deuteronomy in the retelling with new melodies and poetry. So we should write contemporary music.

But Jeremiah never thought that being a prophet meant encouraging allying Israel with Pharaoh. He never thought that imitation of the world was a prophet’s message. That is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking that being relevant means inviting a metal band on stage so you can say on FB for all your pagan friends to hear, “Worship really rocked this morning.” So we should write better contemporary music.

That’s a Big Psalm Sing

“In 1560, Bishop Jewel wrote to Peter Martyr,

A change appears more visible among the people; which nothing promotes more than the inviting them to sing Psalms. . . . Sometimes at Paul’s Cross, there will be 6000 people singing together.

Years later, long after the age with which we are now concerned was past, great throngs gathered in York Minster when that city was being besieged during the Civil War in 1644 and, according to Thomas Mace (Musicks Monument, 1676),

Always before the sermon the whole congregation sang a psalm, together with the choir and the organ. . . . When that vast concording unity of the whole congregational chorus came, as I may say, thundering in . . . I was so transported, and rapt up into high contemplations, that there was no room left in my whole man, viz. Body, soul, and spirit, for anything below divine and heavenly raptures.

This glance at a century of communal enthusiasm for expression of devotion in song is presented only to emphasize the brilliance which Elizabeth’s own age achieved, when all England was musically awake and literate.” Music in Elizabethan England, Dorothy E. Mason.

Luther Plundering Egyptians

From Music in the Western World: A History in Documents: “One of the ways in which the Lutheran church met the problem of quickly acquiring a musical repertoire of its own was to take existing songs, often secular ones, and adapt the words to devotional use. This method, known as parody, had its detractors, who held that the inclusion of familiar popular songs in the religious service could only demean it. Luther, on the other hand, saw in their very popularity an asset to the chorales’ acceptance and potency. According to what is undoubtedly his most oft-quoted remark concerning music, Luther could not see why the devil should have all the best tunes.”

Music and Sacraments

“When the Israelites remember the Exodus, they are participating in it.”

Vander Zee, in Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper describes the connection between remembrance and sacraments. During the Passover in the Old Testament, the saints were participating in the act of deliverance. “The feast is not merely a historical reconstruction but is a way of making the past event present and of making each participant int he meal a slave freed by God’s might hand.” Putting it in perhaps more popular terms, he quotes the Negro spiritual, “Were you there?”, pointing out that “we can respond at the Lord’s Table with a firm ‘Yes!'” It’s really about moving beyond reading the story and moving toward becoming characters in the story. “As we hear the story of that first supper over and over in our worship, it becomes our story, our memory; we were there.”

Read More