24 April 2007


Dirges. I recently heard the precious music of our Church referred to this way, and not with any maliciousness, mind you. But it always leaves me speechless.

I will never forget the first time I heard the music of the Lutheran Church - as a teenager sitting through the wondrous services of those days at the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew in Silver Spring, MD. The organist then is now the bishop of the English District: Dave Stechholz.

The music was a huge part of what drew me. I'd never HEARD music like that before. I speak not only of the stunning preludes and postludes - BACH! - but of that unique shading of light and darkness that fills the classic Lutheran chorales. You knew you were singing of nothing frivolous but of the ultimate matters of life and death - and underneath it all ran a current of unmistakable joy.

Dirges? I just don't get it. Nor was it a kind of music that I had to "grow" to love; it was not an acquired taste for me. I heard it and fell in love.

What say you all? I ask in utter bewilderment. I do not understand how anyone experiences our music as dirges!


Nathan said...

I am a Lutheran Director of Parish Music and I get that exact comment from one particular congregation member almost every Sunday. When I hear that I think back to what I learned in Music History (from Dr. Joe Herl, by the way), that in Bach's time (and before) Major keys weren't "happy" and Minor keys weren't "sad." Instead, Major was considered more trite and Minor was considered more strong. For what it's worth...

William Weedon said...

Joe is absolutely right about that. Not sadness, but seriousness, the ultimate stuff of life.

We were discussing the whole subject at the breakfast table this morning, and mentioning Dave Stechholz reminded me of the Gigue Fugue. I think both he and Karl Bachman gave us renditions of that. Talk about an explosion of joy! What an unbelievable place - and as fun to watch the organist play it as it is to listen to the music.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Thanks for the discussion. This resonates with several things in my skull:

First, in some churches I visit, the organist accompanies the congregation rather than leading with it. As the cycle of feedback progresses with the congregation slowing down to meet the organ and the organ trying to follow the congregation, music actually gets slower and slower.

Secondly, some musicians do play things slow, like they hadn't practiced enough during the week. This may be understandable when one every once in a long while pulls out "Thy Strong Word" with all of its flats, but it's not understandable with we're dealing with weekly liturgy.

Third, some people don't know that slow is appropriate in some situations. Just try running through "Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God" from LSB DS3/TLH at a good clip. The somber prayer just sounds wrong. :)

And fourthly, we rob people of the association between God's gifts of Word and Sacrament for us and religious music when our religious music consists of country, rock, and jazz stuff where we groove to the music without gaining any (or any true) theological content from the words. But that's a can of worms for another day.

I started really listening to classical music when I was in high school too.

Classical music in Divine Service is a musical cue that one is not in the world any more, that one is in a "house" of Go, that now is the time to focus on the gifts we receive rather than the things we have to do. If we refuse to let ourselves make that association, we will think that the service doesn't provide any spiritual satisfaction for us.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Argh. House of God, not house of Go. I don't even know how to play that game. :)

Dixie said...

LOL! I actually have never been a fan of organ music...church music or otherwise. “Dirges” has been an expression that has rolled off of my tongue to describe such music before. Oh sure...Bach was a genius (so I am told). His Brandenburg Concertos rank right up there with my favorite Handel pieces, Wassermusik and Royal Fireworks and who couldn't love Sheep May Safely Graze? But Bach aside, I have heard The Church's One Foundation sound like a funeral dirge. The organist has a lot to do with it…?.

Music is a talent, like art and like math to some. Not everyone is gifted at math and not all will marvel at an ingenious mathematical proof. Likewise…not all can marvel at a clever musical composition or appreciate the richness of Lutheran musical composition. It is in the ears of the beholder, I think.

I wasn’t nuts about Byzantine Chant at first either…but it is growing on me. Then again...it ain't all about the pretty music and there I think Lutherans would have to agree. My little parish suffers from a severe lack of parishioners who sing on key and sometimes the singing sounds like a train wreck...but I am thinking in heaven it will be different.

It is good to know that not all people will appreciate the music in the same way. You can help teach such people about other aspects they can embrace…and generally a person who can marvel at an intricate mathematical proof can also appreciate the theology offered up in the sung words.

William Weedon said...


Oh, yes! Poor playing can be deadly. Our late organist, Marianne, had a cute way of putting it: you got to get behind them and push them along with the organ. :)

And she was firmly convinced that the piano had no pushing power. She was right.

In our parish we're suffering from our lack of pipe organ - the piano simply cannot PUSH. Fine for a small ensemble but not our congregation gathered for worship.

God willing, the time is quickly coming to an end and we'll have the pipes leading the way again.


I love the music of the Russians, but the Byzantine chant and especially the Arabic chant, well, not my cup of tea at all.

As to not liking organ music, I double dare you to download Bach's Gigue Fugue and tell me that you don't care for it. If you do, I'll have to travel to Atlanta to smack you one. ;)

Seriously, I know that musical taste is a hugely touchy subject and that folks many, many times fall under Schalk's dictum: "They may not know what they like, but they like what they know."

The challenge as a Lutheran is to be aware of this unbelievably huge and great musical heritage and to struggle with how to help a congregation appropriate it in "bite sized" pieces.


Christine said...

Dirges? Well, I think it may be part of the cultural meltdown that Western society is undergoing. Lutheran music is one of the most precious gems of the western church.

Of course, even in Roman Catholic circles Gregorian chant and the splendor of Palestrina and Victoria have been replaced by evangelical ditties. I also read comments from a former Roman Catholic who has become Orthodox at how much he missed western hymns at Christmas.

Having returned to the LCMS the first Sunday I heard classic Lutheran hymnody at the church where I now attend it almost brought me to tears of joy.

No, we need never apologize for our musical heritage. The glory of Bach will never fade.

Father Hollywood said...

Somehow, long before I became a Lutheran, I heard E. Power Biggs' rendition of Toccata and Fugue in G Minor (I think I was in 7th grade). It blew me away! That led me to drink in other great compositions from the Great Kantor.

I wonder if the bite of the Bach Bug helped spread the poison of Lutheranism in my blood. Like David Scaer says: "Lutheranism is like lead poisoning - once it's in the blood it's very difficult to get rid of."

Bach is simply sublime. Our organist played Sheep May Safely Graze as the postlude last Sunday (being on the one year lectionary, Misericordias Domini).

William Weedon said...

I was actually already at Bronxville when I good friend - James Krauser (now Secretary of the Metro Synod of ELCA) introduced me to Virgil Fox. What a hoot! Same deal though: spell binding music.

Much of it was familiar, though, because my home parish really did have some incredible musicians offering up the Lutheran greats week by week.

Melethiel said...

When I began taking organ lessons, it was the music of Bach that drew me to the Lutheran church.

Maria said...

In case anyone doesn't know my alternate screen name, the above comment is by me. Not sure what happened there.

Past Elder said...

One of the things for which I shall be forever grateful is having learned my underclassmen music theory in the form of the old Eastman series based on four part writing after Bach. Wow. Yes, you learned your Bach, but in learning that, you learned so much more. I taught myself how to improvise Jazz from Bach, from applying part writing and improvising from a figured bass like he did. I am able to hear the linear movement and structure in any kind of music from anywhere because of Bach moreso than any "mutli-cultural" approach. And, one learns how to think, how to compose, not just notes of music.

This has always been under assault. Even his own kids, some of them recognised musicians themselves, thought he was a little embarrassingly old fashioned and stodgy. My Eastman trained professor, came the Revolution, er, Vatican II, was ousted from the music faculty and from the abbey schola cantorum -- shortly before his departure some of us (monks and students alike) recorded some chant lest it vanish. In my last teaching job, a visiting assitant professorship, I taught from JS and CPE Bach and Fux' Gradus ad Parnassum, and was passed over for the regular appointment for someone more in tune with the "Comprehensive", "interdisciplinary" approach.

Though I no longer teach or am involved with music, Bach remains one of the great gifts in my background, not just for music but mental habits generally. He once wrote that music exists for the glory of God and the permissible delight of the human spirit -- what else is there to say about it?

If you want a Bach experience, go find a copy of the Modern Jazz Quartet's "Blues on Bach". It's a suite of several arrangements of Bach pieces for jazz quartet, with a Blues between each of them, one in each key of the letters of his name (in German, B is b flat and H is b natural). Man. If JS were around, I think he'd have listened real hard, then sat in (as they say) and given John Lewis a run for his money!

William Weedon said...


I agree! The more I listen to Bach, the more amazed I am.


I'd love to hear more of your story! I remember the FIRST piece of Bach I ever learned - some little minuet in G minor - and I STILL play it for fun. I was never able to get beyond the two part inventions, though, and really only completely learned three of those. : (

Past Elder,

Not jazz. I despise jazz. My last experience with jazz: attending a jazz concert that my daughter's boyfriend was in at the time. And I had a migraine. I did manage to get home without tossing the proverbial cookies, but just barely. It confirmed my every thought about jazz: it's nauseating. ;)


Dixie said...

Not jazz. I despise jazz. My last experience with jazz: attending a jazz concert that my daughter's boyfriend was in at the time. And I had a migraine. I did manage to get home without tossing the proverbial cookies, but just barely. It confirmed my every thought about jazz: it's nauseating. ;)

LOL! Now this was priceless--you threaten to come to Atlanta and give me the smackdown because I find the organ one of the least appealing of all the musical instruments and jazz makes you nauseous???

So it is true that music is in the ears of the listener.

A jazz lover, with time served Kansas City listening to Kansas City jazz ;)


Fr. Hank said...

"There is Bach, and then there is noise." A C Piepkorn

Past Elder said...

Jazz, like Lutheran, is a word that means different things to different people, and based on what each of those words means to me, much of what is called Jazz or Lutheran, isn't! Since the whole Fusion thing some years back, most of what is now called Jazz I think is really Rock with a little Jazz influence here and there. To me Rock started out as a bad imitation of R&B and went downhill from there, and adding a little twist of Jazz doesn't improve things!

I guess it shows that musical taste is no barometre for religious faith. Father Hollywood and Uneasy Priest often mention Rock music that to me would occur only in a nightmare, but for things Lutheran I read them regularly!

My real musical loves: Wagner and the Blues. Know any pastors who would allow Siegfrieds Tod as funeral music?

William Weedon said...


I got no problem with Kansas City jazz as long as it stays in Kansas City and does not assault MY ears. ;)

Past Elder,

Oh, I love Wagner too. I even love "Kill de wabbit, kill de wabbit..."

Past Elder said...

Bugs Bunny (by which I mean his creators and writers) was a raving genius, a philosopher and commentator of rare insight. In addition to the Ring, do you know the Bugs Bunny Barber of Seville? Absolute genius.

You just don't get that sort of thing on Ed, Edd and Eddy!

William Weedon said...

Bugs wasn't bad, but the real rabbit was Brer Rabbit! That was one smart cookie. Pity that children are not exposed to Joel Chandler Harris' creation anymore!

Maria said...

Well, you asked...

I learned some Bach as a piano student, but it never really caught on. I was otherwise familiar with things like the Brandenburg concertos, but otherwise had little exposure to Bach. When I began university as a major in pipe organ performance (despite having laid eyes on the instrument maybe twice before.), I was Baptist. However, I had been unsatisfied there for some time and was investigating other traditions, mainly leaning toward Calvinism.

My teacher, as part of the transition from piano to organ, promptly introduced me to the Bach chorale preludes, along with the task of looking up the appropriate texts so as to get the "feel" of the music. The beauty of the music, along with the theological depth of Bach's compositions on the chorales, drove me to investigate Lutheranism further. Here I am. :)

Past Elder said...

Where "classical" music lost it was when composition, either on paper or improvised, ceased to be a normative part of what being a "classical" musician is all about. It's hard to defend yourself against the charge of simply recreating music written down by dead white guys when that is in fact all you do, and isn't even how those dead white guys arrived at the music you're now trying recreate.

Guaranteed, Bach looks a whole lot different when you can sit down with a figured bass and improvise continuo like he did, or when rehearsal for Sunday's music is on stuff you wrote, like he did. It is a relatively recent development in the history of music to apply the term "musician" to someone who cannot make music himself but only perform what a musician has written down.

Speaking of Kansas City, you know the inspiration for the Modern Jazz Quartet was the rhythm section of the Basie band.

CaptainCatechism said...

There is a sad truth that must be addressed here (ala these "Dirges"):

1. An increasing number of people are not familiar with sacred music. As an expression of "The Word". Therefore they cease to see relevance in singing a 500 (or more) year old hymn.

2. An ever DECREASING number of people are able to PLAY sacred music properly which leads to ...

3. An ever increasing population of people are hearing it incorrectly and THEREFORE are singing it incorrectly.

SO now, I would believe you might find it quite easy to see why people would see a Dirge (music for the dying) in what was intended to be music for the living. (Yet one more misinterpretation).