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Monday, April 10, 2017

The decline and fall of liturgical music

If the church organist goes the way of the buggy whip, who’s going to remember JS Bach?

Carrying the Cross, pastel, Carol L. Douglas
I go to a modern church with a praise band, but I love traditional church hymns. There is nothing like Easter to remind you of great music like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and the power of church liturgy.

My children were raised in the Episcopal Church, specifically at St. Thomas’ Episcopal in Rochester, NY. They learned to sing under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Ferris, music director and organist. Rob is my age, so it shocks me to imagine that he could be contemplating retirement. The real question is, is he replaceable?

A recent story in the Baltimore Sun points out the growing shortage of pipe organists in the United States. That echoes a story in the Washington Post last year. A 2015 survey by the American Guild of Organists (AGO) shows a similar demographic picture.

Just 11% of AGO’s members were younger than 37; in fact, about 60% were nearing retirement age (58 or older). Almost the same number had played at the same religious institution for at least 31 years, with only 14% doing so for less than a decade. This pattern is true for both black and white churches and is most vivid in small communities.

Rob has a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. For a young person facing the harsh realities of the 21st century economy, investing in such an expensive degree is hard to justify.
Gambling, Carol L. Douglas
The pipe organ is one of the oldest instruments in western music. Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria is credited with inventing it in the third century BC. Since it involves both hands and feet, it’s more complex than the piano. Organ music doesn’t translate well to other keyboard instruments, since it needs an entire church nave to rumble to its profound tones.

One of my current tasks is to teach an inner-city grandmother. This week I am assigning her Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This is one of the masterpieces of western sacred music, but it’s long and sung in German. (Since I am nice, I’m giving her a version with English subtitles, here.)

The Curtain of the Temple was Rent, Carol L. Douglas
I’ll start by telling her what a Passion is: a musical, artistic or dramatic setting of the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Christ. That’s a term that had meaning in my youth, when a majority of my fellow Northerners went to liturgical churches. Today, membership in those churches is falling, while membership in evangelical churches is rising. That’s a more serious and complicated question than just art, but it does mean that the art forms of the church, so lovingly cultivated over centuries, are in danger of falling away.

If Helen takes anything away from the St. Matthew Passion, it should be that Bach wasn’t just phoning it in. He felt and believed the story he was telling. That, I hope, is the nature of all great art, religious or otherwise. Can Helen see beyond the formal concert hall and imagine this music as it was first performed on Good Friday, 11 April 1727?

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