Friday, June 28, 2013

Wind, Pipe, and Voice Unite: Leading Diverse Assembly Song from the Organ

Association of Lutheran Church Musicians
2013 Biennial Conference, June 30-July 3
God is Here: Worship in a Wireless World
Valparaiso, Indiana

Wind, Pipe, and Voice Unite: Leading Diverse Assembly Song from the Organ

Mark Mummert, workshop leader
                Christ the King Lutheran Church (ELCA), Houston, TX

Monday, July 1, 1:30-2:30
Wednesday, July 3, 1:45-2:45
Organ Gallery at the Chapel of the Resurrection

Inspired leadership from musicians at organs requires attention to style, breath, pulse, context, and images. In this time of worship renewal, organs can still lead a wide variety of music for the worshipping assembly. This workshop will give participants opportunity to hear, sing, and play hymns at the organ with attention to introductions that invite, techniques that lead and support, and sets of priorities that determine how hymns led from the organ can assist our assemblies in proclaiming the gospel in song.

A musician at the organ leading hymns is a:
Curator of Style
Steward of Breath
Maintainer of Beat
Arbiter of Context
Seer of Images

The instrumental introduction of a hymn should:
                establish the key and pulse
                inform the vocal style
                invite eager participation
                point to purpose
                adapt to context


This Is My Song, ELW 887, finlandia
                Text: Lloyd Stone, 1912-1993, sts. 1-2; Georgia Harkness, 1891-1974, st. 3
                Music: Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957
                Half note pulse = 50-60 (MGELW)
                Aspiring, trusting (MGELW); prayerful
                Challenges: fullness of long beats, phrases that begin off a downbeat, communal tempo

In Thee Is Gladness, ELW 867, in dir ist freude (July 1)
                Text: Johann Lindemann, 1549-1631; tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1827-1878, alt.
                Music: Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, 1556-1622
                Dotted half note pulse = 50-56 (MGELW)
                Energetic, dance-like (MGELW); confident
                Challenges: communal tempo, implied hemiolas, assembly breathing, link between stanzas

The Risen Christ, ELW 390, woodlands (July 3)
                Text: Nigel Weaver, b. 1952
                Tune: Walter Greatorex, 1877-1949
                Half note pulse = 62-70 (MGELW)
                Majestic, energetic (MGELW), prophetic
                Challenges: repeated notes, communal breath, tempo, shifts from legato to marcato

To You, before the Close of Day, ELW 567, iam lucis (July 1)
                Text: Compline office hymn, c. 6th century; tr. John Mason Neale, 1818-1866, alt.
                Tune: Plainson mode VI
                Tempo: “A fluid tempo that neither rushes nor moves too slowly works best.” (MGELW)
                Comfort, prayerful, expectant
                Challenges: fluidity, eighth note “rests,” the character of unaccompanied song

Thee We Adore, O Savior, ELW 476, adoro te devote (July 3)
                Text: Thomas Aquinas, 1227-1274; tr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889,
and James R. Woodford, 1820-1885, alt.
                Tune: Plainsong mode V; Processionale, Paris, 1697
                Tempo: “A fluid tempo that neither rushes nor moves too slowly works best.” (MGELW)
                Meditative (MGELW), “As with all chant, this hymn flows according to the natural textual
 accents. For chant, depending on the text, the beats will be grouped in twos or threes.”
                Challenges: beat groupings, phrase momentum, communal breath, fluidity

O Living Breath of God, ELW 407, vÄrvindar friska
                Text: Osvaldo Catena, 1920-1986; tr. Gerhard M. Catford, b. 1923
                Tune: Swedish folk tune
                Quarter note pulse = 80-100 (MGELW)
                Joyful, prayerful (MGELW), danceable
                Challenges: adapting combo, guitar, or piano accompaniment to organ, bolero style (MGELW)

Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading, ELW 401, njoo kwetu, roho mwema
                Text: Wilson Niwagila; tr. Howard S. Olsen, b. 1922 (d. 2012?)
                Tune: Wilson Niwagila; arr. Egil Hovland (1924-2013)
                Quarter note pulse = 82-92. A relaxed unhurried tempo works best. (MGELW)
                Confident, joyful (MGELW), imploring

                Challenges: adapting rhythms to organ, encouraging harmonies, avoiding the “pick-up”

Monday, August 29, 2011

Making Music in Christian Assembly on the Anniversary of 9-11

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, Christians in the United States will undoubtedly come to the Sunday assembly aware of the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, when terroristic violence and hatred led to catastrophic death and loss in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. There has been much in print and in online discussions among pastors, musicians, and other worship planners on how to best observe this occasion. See, for instance, these:

It has also not escaped the notice of many that the Revised Common Lectionary for the day assigns three readings and a psalm focused on the themes of reconciliation, compassion, judgment, and forgiveness:
  • Genesis 50:15-21 Joseph reconciles with his brothers
  • Romans 14: 1-12 When brothers and sisters judge each other
  • Matthew 18:21-35 A parable of forgiveness
  • . . . and we respond to the first reading by singing of God’s compassion and mercy in Psalm 103:8-13.
For musicians planning appropriate music for September 11, these readings and psalm provide many invitations to deep consideration and thought. How does the gospel reading’s teaching regarding forgiveness in the Christian community extend beyond the community of the church? What shall we do with Paul’s urging that we not make ourselves judge over others? How does the compassion and mercy that God extends to us also inform the way we forgive one another? How do we help each other see that, guided by the reading from Genesis, confession and forgiveness are not the exclusive occupation of Christians?

Because of the intersections of the themes of God’s forgiveness and the anniversary of 9/11, some congregations and worshiping assemblies will plan worship to be an extended confession, or even a time of healing and forgiveness offered also to the terrorists from that catastrophic day. Some worship will be planned largely as a lament, or even a requiem for those who have died, mourning both the deaths on 9/11 and the ensuing deaths that have come about from the protracted war(s) since 9/11. Some musicians are planning to perform works composed in honor of the day, expressing the diverse postures of lament, confession, forgiving love, and remembrance.

Care must be exercised that the Christian assembly on this day not be marked by excessive nationalism. All of the counsels we have regarding worship on national holidays bear repetition here. The allegiance of the Christian assembly is to the triune God and not to a particular country or race. And certainly, any excessive trumphantalism or claims of victory, on the part of the United States or Christians, over the enemy should be silenced. Further, when proclaiming the forgiving love of God, we do well to encourage all to also forgive one another, but then not stand too proudly as if to say, “look how well I forgave those who sinned against me, us, our country, or our global community.” On the matter of forgiveness on this day, we should plan worship that is intentionally broad and deep, and not get narrowly focused on the sins only of others. Rather, Christian identity calls us to reflect honestly on all sin, and especially our own. Consider this counsel from John Chrysostom, preacher of the fourth century:

The evil of remembering past offenses is twofold: it is inexcusable before God, and it serves to recall past sins already forgiven and places them against us. Nothing whatsoever does God so hate, and turn away from, as cherishing remembrance of past offenses and fostering our anger against another. If we must remember offenses, let us remember only our own. If we remember our own sins, we shall never store up the sins of others. I shall make bold to say that this sin is more grievous than any other sin. Let us be zealous in nothing so much as in keeping ourselves free from anger and from not seeking to be reconciled with those who are opposed to us. Neither is this my word only, but the word of that God who shall come to judge us. (John Chrysostom, in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, IV, 289.)

All of this implies these practical suggestions:

1) do not abandon the lectionary on this day but rejoice in the opportunity to proclaim God’s forgiving love, especially in the face of the anniversary of 9/11;

2) sing some hymns and other choral music that brings to expression lament and confession, but also the promise of forgiveness, both as extended to us by God and also from one human to another, or one community to another. The section of hymns on the topic “lament” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship may be a good place to start, as will be the hymns and other music recommended for the Sunday in lectionary helps such as Sunday and Seasons or Indexes to Evangelical Lutheran Worship;

3) avoid excessive mourning or focus on our communal ability to forgive; do not be haughty or boastful, and do not imagine that the Christian assembly is a national assembly; it is not the recommendation of this blog to do a full-scale requiem as worship on this day;

4) take advantage of this opportunity to sing and make music that looks forward to reconciliation among all the peoples and religions of the earth, that promotes interfaith dialogue, and encourages love and respect;

5) encourage those who compose the intercessions on this day to be particularly sensitive to all of these matters and craft careful prayers of appropriate lament, confession, and pardon. Especially on this day, encourage intercessors to pray and not preach.

6) do not neglect music that expresses joy or gladness on this day; Sunday is always a celebration of resurrection, and the proclamation of Christ’s saving action for us and the world is able to hold all of the lamentable catastrophes we endure.

Prepared for and originally posted at

Friday, July 22, 2011

Thoughts on Leading Assembly Song

When one is called to be a musician for the church, one might imagine that the task is primarily about aesthetics. “How can I make our worship more beautiful?” one might first ask. While the pursuit of beauty is often the primary task for most visual and acoustic artists, the church musician is first called upon to bring the gift of music to the task of proclaiming – singing a word, narrating a story, giving voice or sound to God’s truth and wisdom. “How will this music I choose/lead/play make the good news of God in Jesus Christ heard in this assembly?” is the church musician’s first question. Will the music be beautiful or have aesthetic qualities? Almost certainly it will, but the beauty shines primarily when rooted in the truth of God’s saving and living word for God’s people.

When one is called to be a musician for the church, one might imagine that the task is primarily about praise. “How can I assist in bringing praise to expression in our church?” one might first ask. While praise is certainly a task assigned to music, the church musician will want to help the assembly express at least also sorrow, prayer, jubilation, disappointment, yearning, and delight. The word worship might lead us to think that Christian assembly is primarily about a group directing praise and honor to one seated on a judge’s bench. However, worship in word and sacrament will be more of a dialogue or dance, where the primary actor is a God of justice and mercy gathering, speaking, feeding, and sending, while the assembly responds with petition, praise, lament, thanksgiving, and going forth in mission to the world. “How will this music I choose/lead/play bring to expression the many emotions, postures, and actions of worship?” is another primary question for the church musician.

When one is called to be a musician for the church, one might imagine the task to be primarily rooted in one style. “How can I make our worship more contemporary or more traditional?” one might first ask. While we all have our own tastes, the rich diversity of the church is brought to expression when we set aside our personal tastes and work to use music in worship that is also richly diverse: from here and there; from now and then, from ours and theirs. Music in worship will be slow and fast, melodic and harmonic, familiar and new, consonant and dissonant, fugal and homophonic, ancient and modern, simple and complex, easy and challenging. While always being sensitive to local context, the music of the church will also link us to the wider church, receive gifts from the churches around the globe, and perhaps even go against the prevailing cultural values to assert a truth about the gospel. “How can this music I choose/lead/play transcend style and invite the assembly to be a local, global, catholic, and prophetic church?” is another primary question for the church musician.

The primary questions for church musicians today are these:

“How will this music I choose/lead/play make the good news of God in Jesus Christ heard in this assembly? Or – “How is our music participant in proclaiming the word of God?”

“How will this music I choose/lead/play bring to expression the many emotions, postures, and actions of worship? Or – “How is our music enabling this assembly to receive and enact sacramental signs?”

“How can this music I choose/lead/play transcend style and invite the assembly to be a local, global, catholic, and prophetic church? Or – “How can the best of all available styles of music be used in worship?”

When these questions are at the heart of the church musician’s task, then the musician becomes a servant of the gospel, called to use the gift of music given them by God in the act of worship rooted in word and sacrament that the world might come to know God’s love.

[Prepared for and published at]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Navigating the Great Divide

There is now a widespread practice in Christian congregations across North America to provide a menu of options on Sunday morning for worship oriented toward particular musical or ceremonial styles. Often labeling worship as “contemporary,” “traditional,” or “blended,” these congregations are responding to the perceived needs of congregants who desire or enjoy a particular style over another. Some of the planners of worship in these congregations have been persuaded by data that claims that offering such options meets the needs and desires of a great variety of worshippers.

I am particularly and newly concerned about the church we cultivate by the division of worship according to musical styles. This concern has been enlivened by a number of recent conversations and circumstances which I will consider over several blog entries. Here is the first situation:

N’er the twain shall meet

Consider an individual who has attended for the last fifteen years only a Sunday liturgy where the music has been all from the current “pop-contemporary” genre. This person has not, over these years, sung one classic hymn, any of the lyrical poems of Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts, nor any of the melodies of plainchant, the chorale tradition, or even Victorian hymnody. This person also has learned all of the music of this genre while reading the words projected on screens and led by a band singing with microphones and a variety of electronic and acoustic instruments.

Imagine that this same individual goes to worship at a regional synod assembly or denominational convention where the music is intentionally diverse, including some songs from the pop-contemporary genre, but also global and classic hymnody. Such a person might be led to believe that all worship should look and sound like the worship they have experienced in their congregation’s contemporary service. Further, when provided with a hymnal or a printed worship aid that includes the words and melodies of the music sung at such a churchwide event, the individual has no capacity or inclination to access the song outside of their contemporary repertoire, having never been challenged to “read” musical notation or endure longer poems or strophic stanzas.

Or, on the other hand, consider a congregant who has gone only to a “traditional” service for the last fifteen years where the musical repertoire has only consisted of hymns from the German chorale tradition. This person has not sung one text written or one tune composed after 1850. This worshipper has only ever sung to a hymn accompanied by a pipe organ and feels confident that the only hymns appropriate for Christian worship are the hymns they know, or ones that are included within the boundaries of their denominational hymnbook.

Imagine that this believer goes to the same regional synod assembly or denominational convention above and again encounters diverse music, some of it accompanied by piano or guitar, and some of it with newer poetry informed by changes in language or translation, or informed by the contexts of world wars, global poverty, and needless hunger. When presented with a hymn from the Asian churches or a freedom song from the South African peoples repurposed for the expression of Christian freedom, this individual can’t imagine that this song has anything to do with them.

Both people are impoverished by our Sunday morning Great Divide. The worshipper informed by only the German chorale tradition may only understand God as a “he,” or may think the only way out of the trials and tribulations of life is death and heaven. The worshipper informed by only the pop-contemporary repertoire may only hear God through the din of electronics and drums, or may never experience the layers of metaphor, other poetic devices, and the vast biblical allusions inherent in classic strophic hymnody.

Toward more unity

This blog is written on the day when the church commemorates Irenaeus, the bishop of the third century who was one of the first persons to use the word “catholic” in reference to the church. “Catholic” means that congregations do not exist by themselves, but are linked to one another throughout the whole church. We have many signs of “catholicity” in our worship: the inherited pattern of worship that transcends time and place; a common lectionary used by a growing number of churches around the globe; the sharing of communion and ordained ministers and other leaders among a great many churches; and common signs and symbols that represent God and God’s presence among us.


Can we expect music in each of our liturgies to also, in some ways, reflect our catholicity – our connection to each other and our connection to the body of Christ made alive in the church around the globe? Can we expect that we will share in at least some ways the texts and tunes of our songs? Is there benefit in forming Christians to know and love at least some common musical elements? Should we encourage all Christian liturgies to include the very best of every possible musical genre, all of it answerable to the whether the music serves the purpose of worship – namely the praise of God, the proclamation of the word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the prayer of God’s faithful people? Can we get past the obsession with musical style and focus our attention on what God might be doing in and through us in the great diversity of the world’s music?

More will follow in blogs about these matters, but especially these questions: what does it mean for North Americans obsessed with individuality and consumerism to use music in worship that is primarily created for individuals to sing and in styles not different from the music we use to sell and entertain? what do we say about African congregations only using African music, and does that compare at all to North American congregations only using 20th and 21st century music? how might the multi-lingual character of the mass inform an expectation that Christian worship always have some cross-cultural elements?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Assembly Required

Some of us relish the activity of uncrating a new piece of furniture from IKEA and opening the materials to begin putting together the myriad of parts that make the final product. It’s the act of assembling the furniture that gives us more investment in the ongoing use and care of the piece, whether it’s a chair or a table or a bed. When we participate in the creation of anything, we have a stake in its very identity. It’s the same when Christians assemble for worship. We make and cultivate an investment in the ongoing life of the assembly and its relationship to all of the other assemblies meeting together. Christian assembly pulls us into our identity as body of Christ.

The church that Martin Luther was born and raised in had developed a worship life that was primarily acts done by a few to be viewed or heard by many. The active and full participation of the gathered assembly at worship was not a primary value at the time, but instead, worshipers attended worship to watch or hear the mystery of God unfold before them. In many cases, the sounds of worship were foreign to them. Often the language was not comprehensible to those sitting in the pews. And the music and ritual action was performed by choirs or ministers on behalf of the assembly, but did not involve them physically or audibly.

Assembly is necessary!

Luther longed for Christian faith to be embodied by the baptized — to be lived out and owned by each one of us. To that end, in his renewal of the church he sought to make the expressions of the Christian faith accessible so that all — lay people and clergy alike — could fully participate in the body of Christ.
He translated the Scriptures so that people could read and study for themselves. He made connections between what members did when they gathered with what members did when they were apart from each other. And, he began a reform of worship accessible to all, inviting the full participation of the assembly. For Luther, “some assembly required” is an understatement. Lots of assembly is required in Lutheran worship!
In order to engage worshipers in the music of worship, Luther relied on the practice of the church in the past.
He knew of the hymns of Ambrose (340-397) that were sung by believers to combat the heresies of his time. He also knew many of the hymns of the faith had flowered and developed so much that their complexity meant that they were best sung by choirs. He knew that the book of Psalms was a collection of communal songs sung by the Hebrew people as they worshipped.

Something borrowed, something new

Luther was not really an innovator with music. Instead, he took traditional material, translated it, paraphrased it, learned from it, and out of what he learned crafted something new. He then made it singable by all the people, not just a few. How did he make it singable? At the time, Luther enjoyed a culture where guilds of singing musicians traveled from town to town, organizing public singing festivals (contests?) of communally loved folk-art music.

The musical style of the songs was in the rugged syncopations of the renaissance motets that lingered in the ears of the listeners of the day. The musical form of the songs had an opening section that repeated followed by new material at the end, often borrowing some material from the first section. This musical form (AAB) is known in music history as a “bar form,” probably because a “bar” was included at the end of the first section, indicating a repeat. We have no evidence that Luther used tavern songs in his renewal of assembly song. (Could someone have read the music history books and thought bar form was about taverns? Really?) Instead, this form and style was a communally accessible musical form already in the hearts and on the lips of all the people.

From community to individuality

Much has happened to music since Luther’s day. Probably the most significant developments since then have been the invention of opera (and later the concerto) in 1600 and the invention of the microphone in about 1900. Both of these developments changed music from a largely communal endeavor, where each individual part was equal and dependent on the other, to musical expression where one voice or instrument is primary and others are secondary or designed to accompany. Certainly the invention of the microphone has made it regularly possible for singular sounds to be amplified above all other sound. When music begins to be driven by an individual voice or instrument, and, therefore, can be more complex melodically and rhythmically, the communal character of music is often lost.

Some take Luther’s methods of reforming assembly song and apply them in our time. For instance, someone might attempt to take a popular melody from our culture today and create a scripturally based poem to be sung with it. The problem with such an application is that much popular music in our culture today is expressly individual in construction and not designed to be sung communally. The result of such an exercise is usually that the pop-song-transformed has to be sung by an individual or a small group for it to feel stylistically honest. When this happens with music in worship, the communal nature of the music is obscured, just as in Luther’s time, when music had flowered such that it was best left to the voices of the choir.
This is not to imply that we cannot create music for worship in our time with some of the instruments and styles present in our culture. But, we will often need to break the individual character of our current styles and make them communally accessible.

Communally accessible music the key to worship

A congregation cannot — and should not — try to sing popular (entertainment) music styles from our culture unbroken to communal possibility. Every congregation should — and can — sing communal song from the widest possible array of places, times and peoples when it is crafted with care and expertise, lead with conviction and supported with love — all turned to and made accessible for the assembly. Christian assemblies gathered in song with communally accessible music are not unlike people who have assembled IKEA furniture. Because some assembly is required to be Christian and to make Christian worship music (and especially Lutheran music in worship), we all participate in and have a stake in the ongoing life and care of the body of Christ. When our breath joins the breath of the spirit of the resurrected Christ in making melody, we receive the gift God has meant for us — music, that all might hear the love and mercy of God for the world.

Posted first at , a communication of the ELCA.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hosanna in the highest!

We sing this too quickly, forgetting that "hosanna" is Hebrew for "save us," and "in excelsis" means (in a world that is not a three-story universe where heaven us up and earth is down) "beyond all things." Gail Ramshaw once translated "Hosanna in the highest," as "Save us, we pray, you beyond all." Our musical settings of Hosanna  often treat the word as though it were interchangable with "Alleluia" (a latinization of the Hebrew word for "praise YAH (unspeakable name of God)" -- but Hosanna is more petition ("save us") than praise.

Think about that while waving your branch around: "Save us, we pray, you beyond all."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Two Passions Each Year: Part Two

My opinion that the church read two passions each year is informed by an unusual context. This year I have the remarkable opportunity to prepare and perform Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Society at Christ the King Lutheran Church. Last year I was able to prepare and perform Bach's St. John Passion also with the Bach Society. Preparing and studying these two large works, created by Bach for the Good Friday Vespers in 1724 and 1727 respectively, gives anyone who does such preparation a unique perspective.

Bach Society Houston

Bach's setting of Matthew's passion story accentuates Anselm's theory of the atonement. This theory understands Christ as a sacrificial lamb, willingly going to his death, out of love (aus Liebe) to redeem humanity of sin and death. Such was the orthodox Lutheran position that dominated Leipzig in Bach's day. Bach's setting of John's passion story illuminates the "Christus Victor" paradigm, where God in Christ goes deeply into sin and death and swallows it up in a cosmic battle, destroying death forever. For this, Bach goes back in time, skipping over Lutheran orthodoxy, and uncovering Luther's theology of the cross. See, for instance, Luther's Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden:
Our Savior Jesus, God's own Son,
here in our stead descended;
the knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended.
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death's gray shell --
its sting is lost forever. Hallelujah. (ELW 370, Stanza Two)
Bach inherited the pattern of presenting the passion accounts from the four gospels in the communal worship of his time. That he tried to balance the best of orthodoxy with the best of Pietism, and that he seeks to tell the stories of Christ's life, death, and resurrection in remarkably different ways can serve as a model for us in our time of competing pieties, where religion of the heart and mind always need to be held in balance and creative tension, lest we arrive at a practice that is either too intellectual or too emotional.

My defense of the RCL appointment of two passions each year is motivated by a hope that the church take the opportunity to go deeply into both (all?) of these ways of thinking about Christ's loving act for the world on the cross. I urge the use of the lectionary not only for all of the ecumenical churches that shared in its creation, but especially for Lutherans who have a history of honoring both (all?) of these ways of looking at the atonement. The passion stories from Mark and Luke, while different from Matthew, share the viewpoint of Christ in his humanity. The current RCL proposal is still very good for our churches -- we should embrace it.

The stated goal of liturgical renewal in our time toward the recovery of the Three Days, spanning sundown Maundy Thursday through sundown on Easter Day, and the encouragement to the church to attend the worship of the Three Days is still urgent. We should not discard the lectionary because current attendance figures show that people don't come on Good Friday. And we should not imagine that the RCL on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday was created out of practical concern that people hear at least one passion each year. Instead, we should commit to teaching about the bible, the liturgy, and even the lectionary, so that we encourage people to observe the richness of the year by attending both Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, so that our proclamation is like a deep well and not a shallow stream.