There is a line in one of my favorite British thriller series where a highly educated detective sergeant is listening to a distinguished professor of English literature at a very respectable college in Oxford. The professor is discussing some of the great poets of Britain, referring to several of them by name. The DS, being of a somewhat lugubrious demeanor, stated that during his time in college, the students referred to them as “The boys in the band.” The professor nearly had a stroke, although sometime later in one of his lectures when the DS happened to be present while on duty, the professor did refer to the poets as “Boys in the band.”
As a teenager and a college student in the 60s the boys in the band meant groups like the Beatles. Granted, I’d never heard of those particular boys in the band until I went to college, but I liked rock ‘n roll, and listened to it quite frequently. But my heart belonged to an entirely different genre and an entirely different time.
My late lamented husband, a definite pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, encouraged me to go to church with him when we were first married. I went, but two things made me stop within a year or so, which did not please my husband at all. I told him that for one thing I couldn’t accept some of the theology that they preached, and I was specific about which ones. Growing up Protestant, actually Southern Baptist, it was hard to accept things like the adoration of Mary when in the church of my growing up she only appeared at Christmas and Easter and maybe, maybe a couple of times if the preacher decided to mention her in some other capacity. The second thing I disagreed with was the music. There was very little of it, and most of it was, to be honest, unpalatable to me because of the repetition of just a few favorite songs, and the fact that a lot of times, there was no music at all. I grew up in a singing congregation, and I missed the music. When I became an Episcopalian, long before I met and married my late spouse, one of the things that drew me to the church was the music. I couldn’t give up on something that important to me.
I looked at names of the commemorated for today, namely JS Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Henry Purcell and I started to smile. To me, these are the guys in the band. All three of them were noted church musicians, although they did compose music for other occasions such as operas, plays, court music, and commissions for the rich and noble.
Purcell has left us with some great anthems, Handel has left us a number of oratorios (like operas only set to Biblical or theological themes), and Bach, well, there might’ve been a lot of Bachs, but there was only one Johann Sebastian. These three people left us with a legacy of music that was rich, powerful, and interesting. It wasn’t just singing the same word over and over without doing something different with it, it wasn’t a repetitious type of music, most of it was far from simple to sing, and it layered voice on voice to create intricate harmonies that were almost like a taste of heaven.
They all lived within a relatively small time frame. They were born in 1685 for Bach and Handel, with Purcell being estimated as 1659, just a short time earlier. It was a very prolific time when these boys (plus lots of others) were active all at the same time, yet they had their differences. Bach wrote for his Lutheran church using the Germanic chorale-type harmonies as well as counterpoint. With the chorales, the congregation usually sang the final verse with the choir in a simple block type of harmony which we notice in chorales like “A Mighty Fortress.” Start singing that in a Lutheran Church and there will seldom be a dry eye anywhere. But that was only one tune out of so many that Bach wrote for the church and it has been adapted and incorporated into many other faith traditions, such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others. To me, Bach is the highest pinnacle of organ music and cantatas, and I will be very disappointed to get to heaven and find him not in a place of great honor.
Purcell wrote a number of works for the church and as a youth sang as a chorister in the Chapel Royal, for which he later wrote a number of great pieces. He wrote music for the coronation of James II and music for commemorations such as St. Cecilia’s day. He was an all-around composer, but he also made significant contributions to church music in general.
And then there’s George. What would Easter or Christmas be without a group singing of Messiah, his oratorio that combines prophecy, gospel, epistles and even Revelation. He also wrote music for the court and his Water Music and Royal Fireworks music have become standards of orchestral performance and features at modern royal venues. Although he was born in Germany, he spent much of his time in England and became a British subject. It is, however, the music of Messiah that brings all sorts of people into the church for a listening experience and is perhaps one of the best examples of vocal evangelism. At least, I think so.
When it comes my time to hopefully rise to the pearly gates and the Golden Street stretching forth to the throne, I hope there’s a lot of music going on and not just “Holy, holy, holy” sung by a group of angels singing in plainchant. I think God would probably enjoy the variety of music composed in God’s honor and also as part of the worship of the church, so I’m hoping that there’ll be plenty of concerts featuring the boys in the band with perhaps an angelic choir as backup singers and perhaps a choir that even us less than angelic folk can join. After all, it’s all going to be praise, and, as someone once said, the person who sings prays twice.
I can’t wait to hear the glorious sound that will be there. I’m glad we commemorate these three together and on this day. It’s a reminder to me of the value of music and the opportunity for it to be an uplifting and inspiring form of prayer. And that also goes for a lot of other great composers too – but they will have their days.
Image: Choir of Angels from Dictionary of painters and engravers (1903), found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.