Faith Works 1-24-15
Why a choir?
My little series for 2015 on "why?' about various aspects of church life needed to shift a bit this week from my original, semi-methodical plan.
(Stop laughing. I can be methodical, if not Methodist. Sometimes!)
Today, at Second Presbyterian Church, we will have a celebration of the life of Ann Glaser. Ann was a musician herself, and a music teacher in public schools (most notably in heath), but I knew her as a church choir director. She had been retired for many years, in very poor health these last few, but she never stopped singing.
Ann was a member at Second, and I thank Rev. Charlie Smith and their organist Rick Black for letting me be a part of Ann's homegoing; she directed both vocal and handbell choirs at Second, then when they hired a full-time music director she shifted to St. John's UCC, then came to Central Christian where I met her in my previous time at the church I now pastor, then as the associate.
She loved handbells, and her daughter Kris and I believe she was the first to bring handbell choirs to Licking County, a form of group performance that is now in many congregations around our area. She and Kris also put on the first handbell festival for the area in the early 90s, affirming and celebrating the unique qualities of these musical devices; the sound of eight handbell choirs playing together is something I hope never to forget.
But why do churches, most of them, have choirs in the first place? Well, like so many of these "why" questions, it goes back to monks. The monastic enclosures and customs that shape everything from school commencement ceremonies to Harry Potter iconography.
You catch a hint of this history in the names of the standard choir sections. A monastic choir would have been all male (convents are a completely different story, parallel history, for a later telling). The tenor voice "holds" the melody – think "tenacity" or "tenant" and you get the linguistic hook – so then lower voices form a "bass" from the Latin and Italian for "low". Higher voices were, of course, "alto" and those higher, supra- to the musical line, make up sopranos.
Most musical terms come from Italian, because the more Latinate history is also more one of chant, the sung form of religious service and worship that would carry through a vast stone church in the time before electronic amplification. Singing in a monotone can have its charms, but harmonies and polyphonies steadily developed through the centuries, and the parts we associate with a "standard" Western choir.
Even in the Protestant era – think Bach in Lutheran Germany – the idea that the music for a worship service is best delivered by a trained choir held steady, monks and nuns aside. The profession of choral singing developed, there and in Anglican churches of the English-speaking world.
In the resistance to state churches that gave birth to Congregational and Baptist forms, there was some reaction against choirs. A paid, set-apart group leading worship was displaced in favor of congregational singing, hence the rise of hymnody and hymns for all to join.
Early America in this, as most things, saw all sorts; the last century has seen a general leveling, with fewer churches having paid soloists let alone choirs, but more congregations of all types emphasizing everyone singing (contemporary worship we'll also leave to another day). But we've also all seen that, left entirely on their own, congregations don't always sing out, let alone get an enjoyment of parts and harmonies. A few trained, even if voluntary singers in a choir, can bring out the best in the whole gathering, and a special worship offering or two can add even more at the same time.
Ann Glaser gave over a big part of her life to being that key trained professional, a choir director, who could lead the chorus but was always mindful of the congregation. I'm blessed today to have Patty Comisford and Susie Morris in those roles with our choirs at Central, and a strong chancel choir (that also has a great fellowship spirit together). Most pastors know that good choir directors are, as Proverbs 31 almost says, more precious than rubies.
I should know; when I found a good choir director, I married her!
For my wife Joyce, for Patty and Susie, for Kris and her mother Ann whose passing we mark today, for your choir director wherever you worship: let us all give thanks.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your use of music in worship at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.