Sunday, March 12, 2006

Would the real LDS Beethoven please stand up?

I have often complained bitterly to Jenny about the apparent lack of "real" musicians in the Church. I'm not talking Janice Kapp Perry here, and to an extent not Mack Wilberg either (though I think his style of hymn arrangement is one of the better ones out there). I'm talking about the true musical geniuses that either revolutionize music, or at least are able to compose brilliant pieces of music that buck the current trend of mediocrity that I feel exists in our church's music. I mostly refer to choral pieces sung either in sacrament meeting or other ward or stake functions. The most moving and brilliant piece of music that I have sung in a Mormon choir in the past 5 years has been The Messiah, and that's like 300 years old. Is there really no Mormon out there that can write something like that? The closest I've found is John Rutter. If you ever get a chance to influence your choir director (or get called as one) I highly recommend his work. Maybe there are some very good Mormon composers whose work I'm just not aware of, but that I've never had the opportunity to sing because ward choirs that are up to the challenge of a higher piece of music are rare. Maybe there just aren't any because we've grown complacent as a church in our music. We've got the green book, we've got a choir where most the members aren't exactly Motab material, so we choose music for the lowest common denominator since it would just be too hard for the whole choir to learn a more advanced piece- and who in the congregation would really appreciate it anyway? So my questions are: who are some good Mormon (or at least religious) choral composers? Is the state of church music as bad as I think it is, or just in the few wards I've been in? If I'm right in my assessment of the state of church music, is there any hope for it?


Jenny said...

Querry: Why are all the hymns arranged in four-part harmony (intimidating to the unitiated) and then pitched high enough that one should be a true soprano to sing the melody anyway? Wouldn't a (lower) melody line and words be sufficient? If someone knows enough to follow the parts, they probably know enough to sing harmony even without it being written there explicitly. Maybe more people in the congregation would sing if the format were simpler. And if more people grew up singing, then more people might like singing, and then they would join the ward choir, and then we'd finally have enough people to work on more challenging and fun music ... but this isn't really responding to the questions Nick asked. It's just my take on the ground level of church music.

Jared said...

Is John Rutter a Mormon?

An excellent man to look to for great compositions and arrangements is Randall Thompson. If you want to check out his stuff (besides looking at sheet music available in stores) you should listen to the MOTAB's recent release "Choose Something Like a Star." It's all Thompson. I highly recommend his "Alleluiah," but it is pretty difficult for beginning choirs.

I don't know, Jenny--I like having the four-part harmony laid out. I'm not an especially strong singer, so I rely on hearing the bass part from the organ while I look at the lower line of notes. I do agree with choosing lower keys for most of the hymns, however. Maybe we should teach more music reading in Primary. And use that Relief Society practice hymn time for musical enrichment. And use Enrichment for musical enrichment. I've also heard of Bishops calling people to be choir members.

And finally, I think you've been given some bum wards, Nick. I think it's pretty hit and miss in the church: you've got some wards with lots of talent, and some with not a lot. Better luck next time you move.

Jenny said...

Jared--I'd settle for just pitching them lower so that when non-music reading singers sing they can make it through a hymn without straining. I still feel like a lot of people don't sing just because four-part harmony looks intimidating. But after I made my original comment, I went through my hymnbook and realized that I really do rely on having the harmony written out for me already. So maybe what we need is a two-part hymnal system: one with just words and melody, for those who want it straight, and one with the four parts laid out, for organists and people who like to sing harmony. What I'd really settle for is just more people singing strongly.

And I think Nick's being a bit unfair--our last few wards (and this one too) have plenty of (musically) talented peopel. It's just that if someone's willing to do choir, they usually are willing to work hard in the church and so they get put into callings that conflict with choir ...