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Performance in church?

Jeffrey Tucker has a post up defending the use of the word "performance" to describe what a church choir does during church service.
 
I'm not sure I agree with his analysis. He seems to think, quoting a 1987 document on liturgical reform (shown at right) that the principal objection to the word "perform" is that it means music which is too showy or just applies to "music they do not like". Therefore, he reasons, the term is abused to suppress truly artistic musical renderings in church. He wants to impose the sense of "perform" as meaning "bring to realization" as in "perform a task well".
 
But I think the principal objection to the word "performance" is that it suggests that those listening are an "audience" composed of observers. I'm sure he's right about the etymology of the word, but the connotation nowadays suggests a separation between performers and listeners which isn't the goal in church. Those who hear the music in a worship service are participants as well; their silent contributions are spiritual and metaphysical. The choir and congregation are engaging in a joint act of prayer.
 
I've gone to many a church service where everything is thematic — the readings, the hymns, the prayers, the sermon — until we get to the choir anthem. Then the service comes to a halt while the choir oh-so-carefully sings some music chosen not because it illuminates the service, but because it sounds impressive (if classical) or has a good beat (if popular) or the choir director happens to like it for whatever reason. Then the service resumes afterwards. That's the essence of performance, IMO, calling attention to itself. Conversely, I've been to many services where the music follows logically from the rest of the service, where it helps the congregation to concentrate on the lessons or prayers, and the artistry of the music only enhances the effect.
 
I'm sure Jeffrey would agree with all of the preceding paragraphs in terms of the role of the choir; I'm only quibbling about the use of the word "performance", which to me strongly suggests a presentation of music which has stand-alone value which interrupts, rather than fits into, the liturgy. It's just an unnecessary secular connotation; we shouldn't use the word "performance" for the same reason we don't refer to the sermon as a "lecture".
on July 18, 2010 4:16am
Bravo, Allen.   (ahem).... Amen.
on July 18, 2010 4:42am
While there is careful consideration offered on both sides of this discussion, I think I'm going to have to side with Jeffrey on this one. The deciding factor for me is that no one objects to the use of the word "perform" when the clergy performs a wedding or performs a funeral. As an organist or choir director I perform service music in exactly the same sense, and I find the word perfectly appropriate.
 
Allen's point about poorly chosen repertoire is certainly valid and there are lots of reasons to deplore it, but that, for me, is an entirely separate issue. Calling it by another name won't make it better, nor does calling it "performance" help to avoid it.
 
But English is a big language and allows each of us to choose our expressions freely. In the vast eternal scheme of things, if I'm wrong about this I think I would rather be wrong about an occasional word than about the repertoire I select for use in worship. Then again, I'm sure I have stumbled on both from time to time! ;-)
 
Dan Gawthrop
on July 18, 2010 11:27am
Hi, Allen. Strikes me a something of a tempest in a teapot, to coin a phrase. Not even a semantic difference, more a matter of the INTERPRETATION of a semantic difference. (Of course if memory serves, wars were fought over the sematic difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation!!)
 
The distinction I would draw is rather different, and is focused squarely on the FUNCTION of music in the service. If the music is the focus of the service, it is inappropriate. If the music detracts from the focus of the service (i.e. is poorly chosen), it is inappropriate. We had an organist at our church for a short time who considered her "performances" of preludes and interludes to be concert presentations, much to the disgust of our priest, and not too many months ago someone on this very forum was complaining that his congregations left during his postludes; both are inappropriate.
 
Historically speaking, the two functions music has fulfilled in cultures from hunter-gatherers to highly sophisticated have been two: entertainment, and the enhancement of ritual. Church music that attempts to be entertainment for whatever reason misses the entire point. Church music that actually enhances the worship experience "gets it." It's that simple, and the labels are irrelevant.
 
Concerts, in my opinion (and I claim nothing more), come under entertainment. But entertainment does not have to be low class, or poor music, or poorly-chosen or poorly-prepared music. Entertainment can be presented at the highest artistic and musical levels. In fact what we fondly call "classical" or "art" music originated historically as the entertainment of the upper classes of society, who could afford to support the best composers and the best singers and players. And concerts (i.e. entertanment) can certainly be presented in churches as they can in any other venues. But that does not make those concerts worship services.
 
Conversely, nobody can realistically argue that music for services cannot or should not be "performed" (or "realized" if you prefer) at the highest artistic level possible, either. If "praise teams" enhance the worship experience for some people, more power to them! (There are many rooms, and all that.) I just won't be attending any of those services. When my late wife took over our "Children's Choir," some parents (intelligent, thinking parents at that) argued that "all gifts are equal in God's sight." Her response was that "not doing our very best insults God and the gifts He has given us." You can take your pick.
 
She also worked very hard with our priests (some of whom were kind of hard to work with) to make sure that the music chosen WAS appropriate and DID match the sermon and message of the day, as it very properly should, while also being something that her singers could sing reasonably well. Lessons and Carols were a different thing, and did take longer and somewhat more elaborate preparation, but they were still presented as sevices, never concerts.  Even when her Choristers sang at Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg at the end of the school year, it was a Lessons & Carols service, not a concert.
 
Ths, by the way, is how I present to my students how to decide whether to sing in the original language or the language of the audience. Functional music should be understood. The Bach wedding cantata sung at our wedding was sung in English. Concert music should observe the composers' intentions and language setting. That same cantata would have been sung in German in a concert. No big philosophical deal, just a little plain common sense.
 
All the best,
John
on July 18, 2010 11:43am
Certainly the word perform has many meanings depending on the context around it. One hears "The Star Spangled Banner" at ball games. Rarely is it sung; it is usually performed. The latter case uses the anthem to display, show off, with meaningless, distracting vocal antics which shout "ME" rather than "I love my country, don't you!" The same thing happens in churches through over emphasis of the heraldic, or sometimes, even the so-called CCM Rock or bland "Worship" material. All in all, perhaps minister is the best word; if that is the goal. Uncanny, but the people know what is sincere and meaningful!
on July 18, 2010 9:14pm
This is a very interesting topic.  As a church choir director, I always felt it was my job to choose music to illuminate the lectionary for the day or to reenforce the sermon topic or even give the congregation time to catch their collective breaths or to meditate about the above mentioned things. Never was it my purpose to "perform".  I believe we should give our best to God and if that means beautiful, complicated music, sung from the heart or some something popular, than so be it.  I chose music from Renaissance to modern to "folky", depending on the lectionary, the pastor, who would be available that Sunday.  I also chose my language carefully, never speaking of my choir "performing" but "singing" for the service. And I corrected anyone who would say "perform".
 
I often sang myself and filled in for my choirs during the summers and one of my favorite things to sing was "Simple Song" from Bernstein's "Mass". Most of the time, congregates loved to hear me do it.......and would often remark on its sentiments.....they loved the thought of singing God a "simple song"......never realizing how quirky and NOT simple the darn thing is!  But isn't that just the case, often the simplest sounding things are the most difficult to carry off in a church situation?  And we know it......but the folks who feel they must point out, with a snarl, about "performing" in a church do not have a clue.
 
I haven't had a church job for a few years but my youngest son, who took his first steps in a choir loft, began a job as director of music at a church last week. We have been discussing these very things the last few days........very topical for me, Allen.
 
Marie
on July 19, 2010 5:42am
Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard asks the question, "What is Worship?"  some people say  "Worship is like a drama. The Pastors, and Assisting Ministers and Choir - - they are the actors. God is the prompter, and, we are the audience."  Kierkegaard says, "No, the Pastors and Choirs and Assisting Ministers --- they are the prompters. We are the actors and God is the audience."
 
Bob
on July 19, 2010 7:45am
I think that insistence on the meaning of 'performance' as 'theatrical performance' does a grave injustice to the language.  A quick check of the OED will show that the primary meaning of 'perform' is 'execute, officiate'.  The application to specifically theatrical productions is both later and secondary.  The nice thing about 'perform' is that it has the sense of fullness, of completing all that was intended - hence the phrase 'perform successfully'.  True, language does evolve and devolve, but there is no reason to go along with the reduction in scope of a word as a conscious decision.  To say that the choir performs an anthem is to say no more than that they are fully completing their part of the liturgy.
 
On the other hand, it might be interesting to hear what happens when a choir executes an anthem.
on July 19, 2010 8:53am
I bet the first definition of "gay" in the OED is "happy," but I doubt you'll be using the term to describe your next upbeat choir anthem. We're talking about connotation here, not dictionary definition.
on July 20, 2010 7:30am
Actually, the first definition of 'gay' in the OED is 'noble, beautiful, excellent, fine'.  But in any case, while it may be an exception, it is not a counterargument.  I think you are giving up control of your language too easily.