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In praise of sacred choral music

In praise of sacred choral music

Nico Muhly’s essay in the New York Times is part book review, of O Sing Unto the Lord, by Andrew Gant, and part song of praise for choral music in the English cathedral tradition.

We have reported on the resurgence of Choral Evensong in churches across the Communion; Muhly agrees that while a new wave of interest in the music of Evensong is welcome, its primary vocation is worship.

English choral music was originally meant for worship and would be heard in a state of quiet meditation. …Nobody is meant to clap, and the music is not presented to an audience for approval; rather, it is meant to guide the mind out of the building into unseen heights and depths. It was not originally intended to happen at 7:30 at night for the pleasure of an audience coming from work, with just enough time for a rushed Chablis before the warning gong goes off …

On the other hand, he says, some of the large choral works might not find their place in modern worship settings; if they are to be heard, it will be through performance and recording, rather than through the experience of worship.

Muhly descries the difference between sitting to receive the music in concert, and standing for the anthems of Evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral: “You’d be amazed how the body perceives musical detail when standing up.”

It seems that the tide of interest in and affection for sacred choral music is still rising. The question seems to have become whether it will continue to serve its original purpose, to lift the prayers of the people heavenward, or whether it will turn in on itself, singing praise the composer and the singers, and the ears of the human audience, in place of the divine.

Nico Muhly wrote in the New York Times about Andrew Gant’s, O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music (University of Chicago Press).






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Randall Stewart

A fine article, thank you for posting to a wider audience than it probably received.

I would note that I once was part of a choir that sang Finzi’s ‘Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice” as part of a Good Friday three hour service. Perhaps not best for every Sunday, but even larger scale works can have their place.

Michael Smith

Thanks for amplifying this terrific article by one of our most talented young composers. I feel that the issue of praise vs. performance rests as much with the reception as with the execution; praying the text while the choir sings is still very much active participation; I would hope that we can recognize that balance in things/work done by the people and things/work done “on behalf of the people” (the actual definition of liturgy) makes our common worship stronger. Any single way by itself is limiting.

Alan Christensen

“. . . things/work done ‘on behalf of the people’ (the actual definition of liturgy)” — Thank you!

The paragraph about standing up for the anthems resonated with me as one who has attended Compline at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle many times. When I listen on the radio one of my favorite moments is hearing the rustle and commotion of bodies getting up out of their pews for the Apostles’ Creed.

David Allen

I thought that was the younger ones getting up off the floor. They lounge around all over the floor during Compline at St Mark’s.

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