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Church Music Reflections: Part 1

August 16, 2010

I have been doing some thinking this summer about church music and want to put the thoughts out there to see what you think. They are not all fully formed or fleshed out, butideas that I think are important and could use some discussion, or at least serve as a reminder for those involved in church music, which is actually the entire congregation.

“A kantor must be a theologian first.” This idea, which I have seen attributed to J.S. Bach, seems strange at first glance. Indeed, for most churches the first question asked of a possible church musician is “Can you play the organ (or piano, guitar, etc)?” A theological question may never be asked. It is absolutely imperative that the person leading the congregation musically is capable of doing so effectively on whatever instrument (or voice) the congregation may use. However, I suggest that it is equally, if not more, important that the candidate have a good fundamental knowledge of theology.

I believe this is important because a kantor (that is, the leader of the congregation’s song) is primarily concerned with the texts of the Psalms, hymns, and liturgical pieces used in the service. He must understand what the particular text is saying and be able to communicate that to the congregation. For example, the text of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) used during the communion service ties together Isaiah’s vision of heaven in Isaiah 6 with the shouting crowds at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  It should then be played in a majestic & triumphant manner, not as a pondersome funeral dirge, for Christ is truly the Lord of Heaven and Earth, come down to save all mankind.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heav’n and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. (from LSB Divine Service, Setting 3)

This is a fairly obvious example. Others are not as obvious. Advent hymns can be especially vexing, as there is so much of the “already but not yet”-ness in them. One example is Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (LSB 338). This text captures the longing of all people on Earth for Christ’s coming, knowing that He will come, and yet has not come yet (in our church calendar year). Here is stanza one:

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art, Dear desire of ev’ry nation, Joy of ev’ry longing heart.

There is a tension in this hymn, which is heightened by the tune (JEFFERSON). It can be accompanied to sound like someone trudging down a road, with the end in sight, but never seeming to get nearer. There is indeed hope, but will the Savior ever come? But then stanza two breaks through the gloom:

Born Thy people to deliever; Born a child and yet a king! Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine all-sufficient merit Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Stanza two is the fulfillment of stanza one. Christ has indeed come and He has fulfilled all that must be done to bring the entire world out of sin and darkness! And there is joy, such great joy! This is what a kantor must be aware of and can bring to bear as he leads the congregation in singing this hymn. There are many ways to do it, both simple and complicated, but the kantor must know what is going on in the hymn and ask the question: “How does this hymn deliver Christ to me and the rest of the congregation?” For Christ is the center of the Divine Service and all parts point to Him.

One Comment
  1. I would add that the Kantor should have studied both systematic theology and liturgical theology. Systematic theology will tell you what the Sanctus means. Liturgical theology will tell you why we sing it.

    Oh, and for pastors, a course on worship should be more than a first year requirement at the seminary. It should be integrated into as many classes as possible!

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