Music in Worship

"There is no art which has not been used in worship. Architecture is, in a sense, the most important of the arts as used in religion because a building for worship is almost a necessity. But music is, in another sense, the most important as it can carry the listener into regions far beyond the reach of painting and poetry@" These words are taken from a short history of church music from the Oxford Companion to Music. This may not meet with the approval of you all, but for me, a lover of music, it means a great deal. The words and tunes of many hymns have given me comfort in times of stress, particularly during the war when far from home, during the night watches with nothing to look at but the sea.

Music in the Christian Church developed in various ways from the Jewish religion. The existence of the Book of Psalms is sufficient evidence for this. In the books of Samuel and Chronicles we read that "David played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of wood, even on harps, and on psalteries and on timbrels and on cornets and on cymbals". David too was said to play on his harp to soothe King Saul when he was in a bad mood! When Christianity came there was at first no break with the Jewish Church, but the only record of a communal song was at the Last Supper - "When they had sung an hymn they went out into the Mount of Olives".

If you have read Thomas Hardy's novel 'Under the Greenwood Tree' you will know that late in the 18th century the parish church orchestra was being replaced by the barrel organ and harmonium to accompany the hymns sung by the choir and congregation. In that same century Methodism was born. The first Methodist tune book was one published by John Wesley in 1742 which cost only 3d [about 1p].It gave only the melody line. Although he was musical he completely lacked any technical knowledge of the art.

The Methodists were a singing people. The Archbishop of Canterbury at that time commended the design of one of the clergymen to bring out a new psalm and hymn book with tunes. "Something must be done" he said, "to put our psalmody on a better footing: the Sectaries gain a multitude of followers by their better singing". Towards the end of the century the Rev Dr Dodd, chaplain to George III, in alluding to Methodist singing urged that "it is lawful to learn even from an enemy". John's brother Charles was the author of over 6000 hymns and both of his sons, Charles junior and Samuel, were child prodigies. "Charles could before he was three years of age, play on the harpsichord any tune he heard, adding a correct bass to it". He later, like his brother Samuel, became organist at various London churches.

It is not surprising therefore with this background that music and singing plays such a large part in the Methodist church. Although we and other denominations still sing and enjoy the old Methodist hymns and tunes we must add to our repertoire many hymns by more modern and contemporary composers. I know that musical appreciation depends to a large extent on personal taste, and I for one do not really feel inspired by some of the songs and choruses in Mission Praise, but there are many that are growing on me!

I would like to conclude my reminiscing on the music I have enjoyed as a member of Martin Way Methodist Church Choir over the past 60+ years. Before the war the choir numbered in the region of 30 voices at Sunday services and anthems were generally sung at the evening services when the congregations were usually larger than in the morning. On Palm Sunday every year there was a rendering of Stainer's 'Crucifixion' or Mander's 'Olivet to Calvary'. During and after the war Miss Vida Brown led the choir, ably assisted at the 'harmonium' or piano by Mrs Grace John and Mrs Vi Bolton. Then we ventured into oratorio, beginning with selections from Handel's 'Messiah'. Later we gave a full rendering of Mendelssohn's 'Elijah', 'Hymn of Praise' combining with the Wimbledon choir, and also a full rendering of Handel's 'Messiah'. In many of these our own choir members took solo parts. More recently, before the choir became too small, we also repeated 'Elijah', Haydn's 'Creation', Thiman's 'Last Supper', Somervell's 'Passion' and Faure's 'Requiem'. The Methodists are a singing people.

Douglas Gear