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Lutherans probably beat out even the Anglican communion when it comes to active liturgical worship. While it’s not exactly true that Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, the congregation in a Lutheran church is expected to do more than just hunker down in silence. No, silent hunkering is only for those periods of worship where silent hunkering is required – in which case Lutherans are really quite good at it. The rest of the time, though, Lutherans are expected to do stuff. Read together, sing together, pray together. To this day, my lapsed Lutheran family thinks there’s something “papist” about worship services where the congregation can get by without singing.
In a previous post, I described how, even when art strives to imitate nature, it produces something more than just nature, and I used this imitation of nature as an example:
That was simply music inspired by the natural world – indirectly inspired by God, since God is its author, but not explicitly worshipful. Writing music of similar intensity for corporate worship is considerably more daunting. The musical friction of several imitative lines at once can be challenging for your average church choir to get through. Asking the congregation to join in, too, well, how do you do that? Making music beautiful is hard enough. Making music beautiful and accessible is even harder.
It is very easy, while making music more accessible, to simply make it less beautiful. I have begun a quintessentially Lutheran project – composing a small-scale mass not for the choir to simply sing at the rest of the congregation, but one where the congregation sings along, too, though not at all times. Also, it has handbells – even Lutheranier!
The idea for this short mass began as a very short chromatic fugue on Kyrie eleison, a pale imitation of JS Bach’s stile antico writing. But a congregation cannot sing along to that. How can the congregation participate? In a simple opening Kyrie, perhaps, after which the choir continues with the Christe eleison, then the fugue. A handbell first summons the congregation to order, the choir intones the first Kyrie eleison, the congregation responds in turn, and then the choir is off to the races:
Now, is the simpler music as beautiful as the fugue on Kyrie? To my mind, no. Doing that kind of simplicity beautifully requires a discipline I don’t yet have. But by listening with a critical ear between drafts, I may eventually approximate beautiful simplicity well enough.
Perhaps the most Lutheran thing you can do with a mass is to have the congregation Sing. Every. Single. Darn. Word. Of. The. Creed along with the choir. Expecting the congregation to sing along emphasizes both the personal and corporate nature of the Creed as a statement of faith. But how do you get through such a big wall of text without lapsing into stodgy, choppy musical phrasing? How do you keep it musically interesting without losing the congregation?
To be honest, I’m not sure. but I’m giving it a go. The choir intones Credo in unum Deum, the congregation responds likewise, then choir and congregation continue together, with the congregation led by the choir altos, sharing the altos’ part. Will it work? Maybe not. So far, though, I have a draft worked out through the middle of the Crucifixus/Passus section of the Creed:
The Creed echoes the opening Kyrie, and also fragments of Christos anesti. Portions still strike me as too perfunctory and disjointed. In larger-scale works not meant for congregational participation, this is often managed by elaborating at length on each statement of the words, breaking the Creed into several dissimilar movements, if necessary. Getting the congregation through it all means not elaborating very much on the plain statement of the words, just elaborating enough to be, well, not disjointed and perfunctory.
Making beauty accessible without making it perfunctory, without losing the intensity that makes it beautiful – it’s quite a challenge! But if beauty isn’t accessible, who do you share it with?