Music in Worship - a reflection

Music Matters – September 2018

The Director of Music writes…

Music plays a central role in worship not just here at St Peter’s and All Saints’ of course, but in chapels, churches, cathedrals, mosques and temples around the country and around the world.  We sing hymns, we listen to choirs sing, we listen to the organ playing. As a musician, it is perhaps unsurprising that I believe music can communicate human emotions that can be difficult to express using spoken or written language.  Indeed, I’m sure many readers will recognise the sensation of hearing a piece of music – of any type – that sends a shiver down your spine, or that moves you in ways that you might find difficult to explain using words. When we gather together in church at moments of great emotion such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, we so often rely on music to express what we are feeling.

In our parish, we are proud to maintain what you might think of as a ‘traditional’ approach to music in church – we have an organ and we have a choir, we don’t have guitars and drum kits!  Each to their own, of course, but I believe that when we are in church, our worship should be something special, something different, something unique in our weekly routine – not using the same sort of language and the same style of music that we hear out on the street and on the TV or radio, but rather a type of language that makes us think about what we are saying and a style of music which lifts our hearts and minds to a higher place than the experience of daily life.  Furthermore, I believe that maintaining a tradition (yes, for its own sake) is important. Some of the music we sing or listen to in church has existed for centuries – it connects us with the past in a real and tangible way. At our monthly service of Compline, much of what the choir and congregation sings uses the monastic plainchant style; these ancient melodies have been sung in the church since at least the third century, and themselves derived from the chants of the Jewish temples at the time of Christ.  This represents something rather extraordinary – a real, solid connection to the time of the very foundation of Christianity. Indeed, apart from being exceptionally beautiful, I think there is also something profoundly comforting in the timelessness of this music – it has existed for centuries and will continue to exist long after we do (whilst, one could argue, genres of ‘popular’ music come and go). When my father died just over two years ago, I certainly found it very comforting to know that the music he loved and the music that he inspired me to love will continue to be performed and heard for centuries to come.

The act of making music is also a powerful force for good.  Readers may be familiar with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; conducted and co-founded by the great Daniel Barenboim, its players are young musicians from Israel and from the Palestinian territories.  Whilst their respective governments fire rockets on one another, when these musicians sit next to each other and make music together there is no hostility – there can’t be – they must play with a united bow stroke and with a united breath.  As their conductor puts it “people who listen to each other, both musically and in all other ways, can achieve greater things.” Those of us who sing in a choir or play in an orchestra will know that musical ensembles are the ultimate example of collaboration – a section of violins, or a section of sopranos, altos, tenors or basses must play or sing with a single voice, not with a single singer or player sticking out, or imposing their way on others, but with everyone balanced to one other, united in a common purpose.

Music can communicate the deepest emotions of the human experience, it can connect us with our past, it can comfort us, it can encourage collaboration, friendship and a sense of common purpose.  Music, as Plato said, gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.