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Shall we still sing the choral classics in church?

Should we still sing the classics, the time-tested anthems of the choral repertoire in worship? We expect to hear them (at least occasionally) in concert repertoire but do they really connect with the people in the pew?

This blog will appear in two parts to answer these questions.

In part I, let’s consider why. Part II will address how.

Think about choral classics like a mature tree: there is the main trunk and then multiple branches coming off the trunk.

The trunk. These are the choral works that are the backbone of choral music education and often originated in the church. The time period ranges from the Renaissance to more modern times. They include Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” and William Dawson’s “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”

The branches. Then there is a large body of choral works that grow from this choral tradition. Even when technically more simple, you see these newer works are based on the older works: think Alice Parker, Rosephanye Powell, Dan Forrest and Howard Goodall, and many others.

Did you know that at the end of the 19th century the great redwood forests, the sequoias of northern California, were not protected by national parks and were cut down indiscriminately? John Muir, a naturalist, writer and the first president of the Sierra Club, led the charge to establish Yosemite National park and to preserve many of the remaining trees that were hundreds of years old.

Visiting the redwood forest of Muir Woods today is like walking through a cathedral. Your eyes are drawn upwards by the height of the towering trees and you are often astounded by the circumference of the trees at their base. Visitors tend to speak in whispers because you sense you are on holy ground.

I asked my colleague, Tim Sharp, to add to this blog and he offers this:

These classical pieces move us out of our contemporary zone to how people reflected on our faith at a different time and different circumstances. If a limited view is only "fashion", then perhaps there is a case for irrelevancy. But if music explores the life of emotion, then it gives great insight into theology at different times throughout history which is incredibly relevant. When we ponder a great Redwood or Sequoia, isn't awe and transcendence our first thought and experience?

Why should we sing the choral classics in church? Only transcendent music can evoke the worship of the God who is immortal, invisible and hid from our eyes (to quote a great hymn).

The great legacy of choral music is like these sequoias, towering above us and drawing us to worship a God who is beyond our understanding. May we be spiritual guides as we include this choral music in our ministry of music.

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