4 Reasons Traditionalism Is Modernism

1. Recording Technology

Rewind 100 years. Say you wanted to hear a decent performance of Bach. You would probably have to go on the right weekend to a big city. If you found that weekend, and had enough money to secure the tickets, and did so before they were sold out, you would then be in the extraordinary and rare position to hear a performance of Bach that would in no way resemble what Bach actually would have sounded like. Why not, you ask?

2. Performance Practice

Performances of Bach 100 years ago were rare, but they were also steeped in egregious error of performance. The tempos, orchestration, the very quality of the instruments, and, above all, the style of singing would be enough to have made Bach alienated and estranged in his own ears from what is his own composition. That is because music is not simply about what is on the page. Musicologists, realizing this, have spent the last century developing serious advancements in how to perform the works of a period distant from our own with accuracy, and this has allowed us, for the first time, to actually hear it in ways that would be recognizable to the composers themselves.

3. The Printing Press

But if you rewind 200 years, the sheet music of Bach would be nowhere found. It might be in a box in some palace or church or house or, later, museum, but it would likely be hand-written, never published. This is because at this time music was not rarely intended to be performed more than once after its composition. This changed for all sorts of reasons, but one of the main ones was the proliferation of sheet music. Music was some of the earliest printed stuff after Gutenberg’s revolution, but, still, it was unlikely that a publisher would spend that much money publishing works that were not modern and popular, until such a time as it became popular to like the non-modern stuff. Think about times before the printing press—how on earth was a church supposed to use old music if it had to have a trained reader travel hundreds of miles to a library to pay serious money to get a manuscript copied, at great length and labor, by a monk who might not let him see the manuscript beforehand anyway?

4. Economic Prosperity

Traditionalism requires a certain amount of economic risk, risk which would be unlikely to pay off in less opulent times. Today, to release an album of Bach, you need to rely on a market that likes Bach because you have to pay a handful of the most highly trained musicians in the world lots of money to record it. On top of this, the conductor is smart to have a team of musicologists researching the music and verifying the performance practice decisions. But imagine the risk of releasing a CD of Josquin or Regis. Sure, the world needs to hear them, but if you’re a recording label, you have to face the fact that the world has never heard them. Investing money in old dead composers people have never heard of is just less of a financial priority than investing in living ones. I complain as much as anyone that the Tallis Scholars pander to their client-base of people lustful for angelic choir-boy music at the expense of accuracy, but that is an eminently first-world problem. Not only should other centuries have not worried about traditional music, but they could not on any meaningful scale.

Money Sings

The church music debate has reached a sort of cease fire recently where people are largely so sick of talking about it that they’re willing to just get along grumbling. Articles are still appearing claiming to have the solution. So, here’s mine. My solution is correctly identifying the problem. The problem is money.

It isn’t really about the music. It really is about the money. Think about it this way. Your options are

  • A band that requires little maintenance, little rehearsal, and produces music that the congregation is more familiar with
  • Some hapless organist who has a PhD and expects a salary that befits 10 years of slavery toward becoming professional, and who produces music that congregation will probably be less familiar with.

Which one is a church budget in America going to go with? The valiant defender of traditional church music (whom I have tried my best to critique here) has two options: he can leave the Church and go to a place that can actually give him money, like the concert hall, or he can accept the pay cut. But if he chooses the latter option, inevitably, he will start playing the way he gets payed.

This has actually happened for decades, to the place where Americans no longer even have traditional music. They have low-payed professionals playing the notes according to their paycheck. It in no way resembles the way the music is supposed to be—so shockingly short of the mark, in fact, that Americans are always incredulous when they hear European church music. There’s a reason the European youth are more tolerant of traditional music (again, check out my critique: I hasten to add that traditionalism in music is oftentimes the devil in church). Europeans still know what traditional music is like, because they have no sense of budget cutting and consequently pay their musicians and do everything else they want.

Imagine if churches in America recovered a robust understanding of worship and decided to start prioritizing it as such. Priorities aren’t really priorities until there are dollar signs by them, so let’s say they start a music budget at $50,000 a year. First of all, a contemporary band isn’t even going to know what to do with that (maybe more smoke and lasers). Second, all of the sudden your traditionalist musicians will start sounding different. Think about it: you get bored going to your local community orchestra playing, but it’s harder to get bored at a Michael Tilson Thomas concert. And it’s not because somebody’s crowd surfing. It’s because musicians are getting payed competitive rates.

Mere thought experiment. But in the Reformation era, it was no mere thought experiment. Good churches had whole orchestras—well, more like an almost-chaotic multitude of ensembles with an insatiable desire to improvise and show off—along with their choirs and organs. But that’s not the best part. They also had new compositions every Sunday. This was pretty normal. How does that work?

There were two things at play. (1) The cultural center of music was at Church, especially in Germany (less so in Italy). That meant that the professional musicians were anxious to play in church. When you became a professional, you didn’t look for a job at a university or with an orchestra, but with a church. (2) Paying 40 people to play their hair out every Sunday gets pricey, but the Church back then had a ministry to orphans: put a violin in their hand. It’s really a brilliant observation, but when you’re poor, having one thing of value in your life that you can invest your future in is the best gift you can get. The Church provided a music school education for orphans from very young. You essentially got work in the field every Sunday, once you were good enough. The system back then oftentimes abused the orphans, of course, but there could be a modern-day analogy that would work.

I suggest churches start budgeting money to hire 5 or 6 professional musicians for church, but also providing an umbrella (facility, overhead, studio expenses) for all of them to teach kids from the church who otherwise couldn’t afford it. On top of that, they could run their own studio out of the facility. Not only would you have 5 or 6 professional musicians on your hands, but soon you’d have them wanting to put their students in the church service for field experience.

The key ingredient would be competitive prices for the teachers. Money ends up defining where the cultural center for musicians is. This is not crass or pragmatic. If you really prioritize music in church, give your musicians a way to feed their families.

One more thing. My ethos. I am, after all, a musician. I’m writing a polemical post vying for money. And I’m doing it in a theologically charged way. Does that begin to look suspicious? Well, maybe it does, but I can’t help that. The case needs to be made. The simple fact of the matter is, churches are paying their musicians far less than the market dictates, and, for what it’s worth, the market does not pay exorbitant prices anyway for the musician’s 10,000 hours of work.