Warning: Unleashed Snobbery & Hoity-toity Pretentiousness (but I’m right).

I listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor on my headset this week. One of the items on my to-do list before I die was to hear it live. I did. Two years ago. A birthday gift. And here is what I wrote.

It was great! I’d gladly pay the $57 per ticket to hear it all over again. We sat three rows from the front, almost too close. Close enough to count the moles on the concert violinist’s forearm. But she only played 17 minutes. She regaled us with her mastery of Knussen’s Violin Concerto, Op. 30, a modern piece written in 2002. Jennie and I attended the pre-concert conversation and enjoyed hearing Knussen explain his work and tell us what to listen for. It definitely made the 17 minutes much more enjoyable. Then we heard Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. CIMG4056.JPGI had heard a not-so-great symphony and chorus perform this piece many years ago so I ended up being more impressed this time than I expected after hearing the the CSO and Chorus show us how it was to be done. This time, however, I was much more pensive and reflective as I listened to Stravinsky’s treatment of the Psalms. I listened as a Christian, a pastor, a lover of theology. I had many rich thoughts and contemplations (to me anyway) that I would like to share in a future post if time permits. This post serves basically as my journal of events.

Good music all of it, but just the warm-up gig so to speak. The crowd bait was the incomparable Mozart and his amazing work, Mass in C minor. I was disappointed that the scheduled soprano had taken ill and we were going to have to hear a soloist that I had never heard of (and I tend to be somewhat familiar with musicians in the classical and operatic musical world). The soprano has the bulk of the work load in Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and it is a notoriously difficult piece. The hastily printed profile of the understudy said that she was a native of Huntsville, Alabama and my self-styled haute culture snobbery that I presumptuously assume as soon as I drop $57. per ticket for anything instinctively snorted, “Can anything good musically come from the South?”

I dreaded the prospects of hearing Latin with a Southern drawl.

They should never have said that Susanna Phillips was from Huntsville, Alabama in the first line. And the name Susanna Phillips is so next-door-girl. Why not something Italian or Russian or Polish? But Susanna Phillips?!

Being a snob is very enjoyable, but because in the Bob and Jennie Bixby financial parlance $57.00 times 2 is a very large sum of money (therefore precluding the opportunity to be a snob with any sort of frequency), I sometimes rush to snobbish conclusions before I read the third and fourth lines; the quintessential illustration of high-brow parvenuism. The profile went on to say that though most of us had never heard of her (that was actually in between the lines) she had nonetheless won four of the world’s most prestigious voice contests and was a regular at the Santa Fe Opera. Ok, capturing four major awards is indeed impressive. But where in the world is Santa Fe? (snort, snort). The US has five of the top ten opera venues in the world. Santa Fe is not one of them.

We got the picture taken during the intermission. No flash. Very discreet. On Jennie’s head is the concertmaster. We heard him do a violin concerto once. The gracious patron made the picture blurry. Oh, well… I thought I’d just add that parenthetically.

Meanwhile way back over in the holler, seems like the folk of Birmingham, Alabama knew this would be a big night for their gal. “Cancellations can often lead to discoveries of rising stars, and although Susanna Phillips has had several early successes, she will get a boost tonight (Jan. 25) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” So ya’ll think of her tonight.

Well, she deserves the boost she got. We heard musicians say afterwards that she had not practiced with the orchestra or chorus or other soloists and, said one, “we were praying for her all night.” I don’t know how much that one musician knew, but if she did not practice with the other mezzo-soprano for the best two and a half minutes of two high voices singing something in Latin, the Gloria Domine Deus, then I tip my hat.

I know some of Mozart’s religious works so well that I can shut my eyes and mouth the Latin sans Southern drawl. Granted, it helps that there is so much repetition and melismata six miles long, but nonetheless I am as familiar with some of Mozart’s religious music as the average Baptist in Alabama is of “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s always best to hear great musicians perform music you already know and love. And as much as I would love to be a critic for pay I could never do the job because my emotions get in the way. My hoity-toity opining and self-congratulating pretensions of actually knowing what I’m talking about when it comes to music instantly dissipate as soon as the conductor lifts his baton. Especially at the CSO. So going to hear some of the world’s best perform some of the world’s best music (thereby checking off a simple item on my to-do-before-I-die list) was destined to be a great time.

Plus it was a date. With Jennie. The love of my life. (She sometimes reads my blog).

The baritone-bass, Eric Owen,. was exceptional even though, as you all know, the baritone has only one very small role in the entire 55 minutes. The choir was powerful, the orchestra as always was perfect, and the entire evening was something my wife and I have been re-living over and over again in our conversations.

Mozart’s music is superior. Period. People who don’t like classical music are simply ignorant. And people who think that all classical music is the same are almost equally as ignorant. Now, there is nothing necessarily ungodly about being ignorant. It is not even illegal. In this country you can pay $57 to go see a gyrating teenager scream obscenities or, worse, actually dupe yourself into thinking that some contemporary Christian musicians are “artists.” The Mozart Effect may be disputed, but one thing that cannot be disputed is that no person in their right mind is going to suggest that listening to anything “Christian” these days will make you smarter.

(Not that I’m saying that “make you smarter” is a criterion for Christian music, but why can’t we at least settle for music that doesn’t “make you dumber”? But I digress. That is for a later post. Here I wish simply to recount my evening.)

Several years ago I stood at the very back of the eternally long Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome pressed on every side by smelly Italians as we listened in complete silence to Mozart’s Requiem. I couldn’t help but thinking as I inhaled the body odor of the construction worker on my right, the store clerk on my left, and the hundreds of working-class plain people who politely and quietly stood – stood! – for the entire concert that somehow God’s people are among the most ignorant of the world, the most unsophisticated, and culturally banal. I couldn’t think why.

Last Friday as I listened to more than six score musicians powerfully and musically deliver the Mass’ Credo (I believe), the humbling explanation hit me. As Jennie and I drove home that night we talked about it. (And perhaps I can share part of that conversation on a later post even though I’m quite sure it will not garner universal agreement.)

Carrying sleeping children to their beds after having picked them up at our friends’ house, I thanked God that as starved as I am here on earth for good music at least every bit that I enjoy is merely a faint foretaste of eternal enjoyment reserved for me in heaven. For too many of the world’s best musicians music will soon be eternally silenced. Hell will be music-less.

What is Worship Music?

I’m going to buy multiple copies of Paul S. Jones’ little booklet What is Worship Music? and give them out to anybody who will read it and take his thoughts seriously. I like it that much. I will also promote the booklet in church.

Paul Jones’ premise is simple: “We need to follow biblical principles for worship music, not the world, youth culture, or ideas based upon mistaken notions of success.” Nothing original there and almost anybody in the gamut from “liturgical robes and organs to flip-flops and digital drum sets” would at least pay lip service to that premise. However, Jones goes on to give a very simple outline of the purpose for congregation worship music.

I. Praise: the lauding of God for his acts and attributes, acknowledging his supremacy in all things.

II. Prayer: communication addressed to God.

III. Proclamation: any activity that proclaims the Word of God – quotations, explanation, teaching, and preaching.

Recently I conversed with a man in a large church that had just acquired a new “worship leader.” (As we all know nowadays, “worship leader” does not mean pastor. It means the guy who plays the guitar.) Anyway, he specifically poked fun at my church because we have “the guy up front still waving his arms” instead of a “praise and worship team.”

Well, first of all, I have always wondered if the redundant “praise and worship” wasn’t a subconscious double emphasis on the part of its proponents to convince themselves that what they call “praise and worship” is really worship! But, secondly, in our church “the guy up front still waving his arms” is on the pastoral team, if not a pastor. When the music necessitates, he directs with his hands, but when it is unnecessary, he leads with his voice.

All that is secondary, however. The main point is that the pastors are the worship leaders and it is God’s plan that corporate worship be led. Period.  Even in heaven worship will be led by the elders. “Music is not in competition with pastoral work; rather, it is pastoral work” (Emphasis his). He says later, “Music in worship cannot be conformed to biblical standards unless it is actively supported by the church leadership in word and deed and is adequately funded.” I’d add “and led by the pastors” as well.

I personally do not have a problem with guitars, bass guitars, drums, and tambourines. I have grown past the superstition of my fundamentalist upbringing. And I love organs and grand pianos. I think they all have their place in corporate worship, but I strongly believe that if the pastor is to take his responsibility of worship leadership seriously he will diligently research the music choices he selects or allows to see that the ensemble of hymns offers up a balanced diet of praise, prayer, and proclamation. He will very soon discover that limiting himself to the best selections is not a matter of superiority or legalism, but merely of common sense. You can only sing so many songs in a year or in one service.  Also, once the pastor realizes that the congregational music is supposed to have a corporate emphasis (“we” instead of “I”), he will once again be limiting his selections. In other words, pastoral thoughtfulness naturally imposes huge restraint on what the congregation sings.

I have suggested elsewhere that the “three C’s of congregational music” are:

1. Content.

2. Continuity. This is singing songs that have been in the Body of Christ for a long time and help us celebrate the unity of One Body. As T. David Gordon said in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal about Bernard of Clairveaux’s 1153 “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,

Set to Hans Hassler’s 1601 musical setting, translated into German by Paul Gerhardt in 1656 and into English by James Waddell Alexander in 1830, and, yes, harmonized by an obscure German composer named Johann Sebastian Bach in 1729.  From Bernard to Alexander, 677 years passed.  It took nearly seven centuries for this hymn to travel from medieval Latin to modern English. After seven centuries of input form some of the church’s finest musicians and theologians (James W. Alexander was the son of Princeton Seminary’s first professor, Archibald Alexander), who was I to prevent my church from knowing it?

Ouch! It’s so obvious. But we regularly have educated Christians pass up our church because they can’t tolerate the old hymns. Gordon graciously refers to these people as idiots! “I observe from the term idiotes (from the adjective idios , “one’s own”)  was not originally a term of contempt (as our word idiot normally is); rather, it was used to describe people who could speak only their own language, their own idiom, and not those of others.” We minister to people who are naturally “idiots,”  but we need to teach them a different musical language. Thus, you will see in a service that offers a variety of styles (as our does in a moderate sense) some people only responding to the music that is “one’s own.”

I notice, for instance, in “blended” or “supplemental” worship services that the congregation dutifully, and sometimes surprisingly, heartily, sings the traditional hymns and musical rubrics, such as the Doxology, Gloria Patri, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. But when the guitars come out, and we sing the contemporary songs (with repeated refrains between the verses), the place takes on another aura: it gets funky.  At this point, middle-aged women start to get down with Jesus, swaying and singing as they did thirty years ago at Grateful Dead concerts.  People who would find it odd if we repeated the Gloria Patri  or Doxology four times don’t find it odd that we repeat the refrains to these choruses numerous times, even if they are less theologically significant. (Gordon 11).

Gordon acknowledges various cultures and the legitimacy of dance, even, in some cultures, but his point is that there is a huge problem of “one’s own”-ism going on in the worship service. Pastors need to connect the local body with the Body.

3.Thirdly,  Contemporaneity. By this I mean what Jones says: “We must meaningfully interact with people immersed in popular culture, yes; but we do not have to take on its character or speak with its trendy musical accents.” Granted, Jones might not like some of our musical choices (or even instrumentation), but I think that we agree in the main and our selections are far, far from being trendy. They are, however, conscientiously interacting with the culture of our day.

I strongly encourage the members of my church to read Paul Jones’ book. You’ll see that we don’t see everything eye to eye. For example, I’m not sure that we must sing Psalms every time we congregate. However, I am willing to be corrected on this matter if I can be convinced that we are erring at this point. Nonetheless, the main heartbeat of his booklet is something that mirrors our heartbeat.

If you want to go a little bit deeper, read T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing. This would be a particularly good read for the many people throughout the years who have sniffed at my insistence on hymns in the church as legalistic obscurantism or who have blown off my concerns by saying I am being elitist or — usually this is the case — that they don’t understand it so it doesn’t matter. Maybe they’ll see that I am probably not the one who is ignorant. ;-) Gordon again:

I am not suggesting that is is sinful or shameful for an individual to be unfamiliar with the sociology or philosophy of music.  Each of us is ignorant of many things.  I, for instance, do not understand the fundamental theorem of calculus, and could not explain differentials or limits (when “x approaches zero,” my understanding of the fundamental theorem approaches zero also).  But I do not deny that the teorem exists, nor do I deny that it is important.  Similarly, it is fin for some individuals to take no interest in the sociology of music, or in musicology per se; but it is not fine for them to deny that such areas of study exist, or to deny that significant individuals have taken them seriously.

It’s sort of like my third grader telling me that studying math makes no sense to her and will be totally un-useful. Ignorance always pontificates on the invalidity of the subject it knows nothing about. At the very least, if you want to admit that it is a complex matter and that your leadership takes it seriously, Paul Jones’ booklet will be a great introductory read. I’m going to order some right now!

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