“The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul. Where this is not observed there will be no music, but only a devilish hubbub.” – Johann Sebastian Bach.
The liturgy coordinator calls me with the funeral requests. They are typical: “Be Not Afraid,” “Here I am Lord,” “I am the Bread of Life,” and, yet again, “Eagle’s Wings.” I am relieved and frustrated at the same time.
I have been a church organist for over 30 years and I am continually conflicted about the music choices. I don’t need to practice the hymns for funerals, or most Sunday masses. In many ways, that makes my life easier, but I miss the intellectual challenge of something harder. I get bored playing the same things over and over. Sometimes I even find it difficult to focus on familiar hymns because my mind drifts to other things when my fingers know what to do.
Playing hymns is dramatically different than playing classical music. I stay after the funeral to practice some Christmas arrangements; one is a chorale prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach. A chorale prelude is a short liturgical composition for organ that uses a chorale tune or hymn as its basis, a harmonization of a melody. It was a Baroque-era style perfected by Bach, who spent much of his career writing music for Lutheran churches in Leipzig, Germany.
“Organ playing is nothing remarkable. All one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself,” Bach said. I practice and practice his “Chorale on Savior of the Nations Come”; the instrument does not “play itself.” To play Bach without mistakes takes a tremendous amount of discipline, concentration and time. I don’t practice or play the Bach pieces much anymore. I am too busy playing hymns and Mass parts, interludes and glorias.
I started studying the pipe organ while a student at Penn State University in the 1980s. I fell into it by accident when the organ professor at Penn State heard me practicing Bach’s Two-and-Three-part Inventions on the piano, stuck her head in my practice room and said, “if you can play that, you could play the organ.” She was a master organist and Lutheran, like Bach. Her students spent a lot of time learning his music; but, she insisted that all of us – religious or not – learn how to master hymn playing. She made all organ students buy a hymnal (in the religious tradition of our choosing) and practice the voicing, articulation, introductions, tempo and registration (sounds on the organ such as flutes, principals, strings). I bought Worship II, a hard-back, spiral-bound, red, Catholic hymnal, published by G.I.A. in 1975.
I lugged it with me when I trudged from East Halls to the music building, learned how to play “Now Thank we All Our God,” “Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” and “The Church’s One Foundation,” with something called articulation and breathing space – in other words, tying the notes together in a way that supports a flowing melody and giving space at the end of a phrase, allowing the cantor to breath and the congregation to catch up. She insisted that we see the music through the eyes of a singer. The hymns were to be played for the purpose of leading the congregation in worship. In no way were they to be a performance.
We were also required to purchase and perfect pieces in Bach’s Orgulbuchlein (The Liturgical Year, Forty-five Organ Chorales). Thirty-seven years later, the gray cover of my copy is tattered, completely removed from the musical score; the pages are marked with pencil and sticky notes, demarking organ registrations, articulation points, suggested metronome markings.
It is believed that Bach wrote the Orgelbuchlein in the years 1717-1723. He originally outlined 164 preludes and 162 chorales, with the intent of covering the whole Church year; however, he only completed 45 pieces which focus on the main feast days of the church. Three-quarters of Bach’s 1,128 compositions were written for use in Lutheran worship, but, arguably, his greatest piece, written the year before he died, is the Mass in B Minor, a project assigned to him by a Lutheran music director, which includes the musical settings for most of the Catholic Latin Mass. It is uncertain why this deeply religious Lutheran composer spent the last years of his life writing Catholic Mass parts. There are various speculations, among them: he was writing for a new Catholic ruler in the hopes of furthering his career or, more likely, wanted a complete summation of his life’s work. Regardless, Bach’s legacy was his contribution to church music – both the massive sacred pieces that are too long for a church service and the hymnody that dominated his work.
Two of the most well-known Bach compositions on hymn tunes were written by Catholics. “O Sacred Head Surrounded” was a Latin text penned by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent” was written for the 4th Century liturgy of St. James. Bach’s music is complex, logical, organized – just like the Catholic liturgy.
John Eliot Gardiner, regarded as one of Bach’s greatest interpreters, says his 628-page tome on the great composer: “He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.”
Deeply religious, Bach signed his music with the initials I.N.V., a Latin abbreviation that means In Nomine Jesu – In the Name of Jesus.
He served several royals, including Crown Prince Fredrick of Sweden, Prince Leopold and Duke Wilhelm Ernst, where he wrote his famous “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” a nine-minute tour de force that was made famous more recently by its inclusion in Disney’s Fantasia.
The “Toccata and Fugue” was one of the pieces I played for my senior recital at Penn State and the only one I cared about. I practiced it for hours every day, playing measures over and over again until my neck hurt from sitting in one position for so long. I was a journalism major and always felt I had something to prove to the music majors, especially on jury day. At the end of each semester, students in music performance classes present a recital for a panel of judges who determine whether or not students can move on to the next level. On jury day, we all stood behind the black stage curtain, pacing, humming our music, powdering our sweaty hands.
That year, 1987, I also had to present a concert of chorale preludes at a Bach’s Lunch, a regular concert series hosted by the Penn State school of music, and I wrote a thesis on the discovery of the Neumeister Collection, a group of 33 organ chorale preludes by Bach.
Immersed in the music of Bach for four years, I became familiar with the hymn tunes Bach built his music upon – “Jesu, Joy of My Desiring,” “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” “Hark! A Voice Saith All are Mortal,” “He Who will Suffer God to Guide Him” and “Jesu, Priceless Treasure.” After graduation, I used his compositions regularly as an organist in the Protestant churches, where I played for 15 years. Presbyterian, Lutheran and Brethren congregants all wanted me to play a prelude, an offertory and a postlude, in addition to four hymns and some service parts. I routinely practiced these pieces to performance level and played them on Sunday morning. There was no need to cut a piece short. The congregants appreciated sacred music. And they expected every verse of every hymn.
In the Catholic churches where I now play, there is not time during Mass for long meditation pieces. It is more usual to need filler music after the offertory or communion hymn is complete. Hymns, hymn tunes and short modulations in the same key as the hymn can be used to bridge from the end of congregational singing to the beginning of the next spoken Mass prayer.
Many Masses are being live-cast or recorded now because of Covid-19. The recording usually begins when I hit the first note of the first hymn and ends when the priest leaves the sanctuary. I play a prelude, a postlude, because that’s what I’ve been taught, but it never makes the recording. Oftentimes, my prelude is interrupted by someone with a question or the church bells. Hymns are played, “as long as they are needed.” When the Mass is ready to move forward, which I must monitor by looking in a mirror or by glancing over my reading glasses and turning my head away from the music, I must “wrap it up.” Sacred classical pieces, such as those written by Bach, rarely have a place in the Catholic Mass. They are too long.
The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” This led the Council fathers to decree that “the treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” But the traditions of the church are quite different from the hybrid that we are piecing together today.
The Catholic Church used monophonic (Gregorian) chant to sing the prayers of the Mass until about 1,000 A.D., when polyphonic music (based on several simultaneous sounds) started to be composed. In some churches, including one where I play, chant-based psalm settings are still used. Mass part accompaniment varies widely from simple to complex. Hymn selections also vary from one church to another, with some congregations hanging onto 1970s favorites like “Here I am Lord” and “Whatsoever You Do,” and others relying on traditional Protestant hymns like “Softly and Tenderly,” “Precious Lord,” “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.”
“The Roman Catholic Church has its own sacred music tradition, but that tradition does not include a long history of singing in the English language…Catholic parishes for the most part, have yet to experience the same vitality of song that echoes from their neighboring Christian churches,” the editors said in 1975 in the preface to Worship II, the hymnal I used when I was at Penn State. That has not changed much. Congregational singing in Catholic churches remains hushed, especially if there is not a cantor or choir to lead the singing.
If Catholics are to continue to satisfy and inspire congregants and attract trained musicians, we have to find ways to use familiar hymns and Mass parts, but also respect and encourage the use of classical liturgically-appropriate music for preludes, communion meditations and postludes.
We need to create space for sacred music. It has the ability to bridge the chasm between this world and the next. “As a manifestation of the human spirit,” said John Paul II in 1988, “music performs a function which is noble, unique, and irreplaceable. When it is truly beautiful and inspired, it speaks to us more than all of the other arts – of goodness, virtue, peace, of matters holy and divine. For good reason it has always been, and it will always be, an essential part of the liturgy.”
Beth Casteel is a mother, grandmother, organist and writer who lives in southwestern Pennsylvania.