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.

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Not Recognizably Close to Bach

“Suggestions on Performance Practice” from The Providence Handbook:

Accuracy

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.