Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Great Music is Great Music

A few weeks ago, as church was ending, I heard the organist start the postlude with 13 notes that sounded very familiar. Actually, they started to sound familiar by the fourth note. And as I heard these notes, I said to myself that he could be about to play only one of two pieces that I knew of; and since there wasn’t a wedding going on, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t Wagner’s Wedding March. After he got through the first 13 notes, the next four told me that he was indeed about to play the only other piece I knew that started that way…the Throne Room theme from Star Wars: The Original Movie, or Episode IV: A New Hope, or whatever you want to call it.

It’s a great piece of music, but one that, like the traditional Wagner and Mendelssohn wedding marches, many church organists wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, and won’t play for a wedding.

Why not?

Well, with the Wagner and Mendelsohn pieces, it’s because they know too much, they’re overthinking the sources, and ruining two perfectly good pieces of music for those who’d like to use them.

The problem for these people is that in the case of the Wagner Bridal Chorus, it’s the music from a wedding that’s doomed to tragedy in his opera Lohengrin, and therefore “inappropriate” for a church wedding. With the Mendelssohn, the problem is that it’s from the incidental music from a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a farce about love. This, in their eyes, also makes it inappropriate for church use.

Do I even have to tell you why many organists would consider any of John Williams’s themes from Star Wars to be inappropriate for church use?

These organists would insist that only “proper liturgical music” should be played in church…for preludes, postludes, offertory music, and for any movements of the bridal party. And yet, this rule is broken all the time. I challenge anyone to tell me that the Widor Toccata is a piece of liturgical music. Or the Finale from Louis Vierne’s Symphony #1 in D Minor. These are both well-known organ showpieces, that no organist worth their pedal shoes would deem inappropriate for church use. And what of selections from Handel’s Water Music? Jermemiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary? And please don’t even try to tell me that everything that the sainted Johann Sebastian Bach wrote was liturgical.

Here’s the thing…great music is great music…no matter what it was originally written for. A quick bit of research at Wikipedia shows that the Wagner and Mendelsohn pieces entered the popular mind as pieces to use for weddings the same way that many wedding traditions get started in the English-speaking world…as the result of a royal wedding. In this case it was the wedding of Princess Victoria (daughter of Queen Victoria) to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858. The Princess was a great admirer of Mendelssohn’s music, and whenever he was in England, he would come to play for her. Is it any wonder, then, that she chose one of his pieces for her wedding? She (or her mother) chose both pieces not because of any associations they had with either Lohengrin or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but simply because they were great music.

Indeed, it seems that those two pieces became the victims of their own popularity as organists and clergy later declared them verboten because of their sources, because they represented sentimentality rather than religion, or, ironically, because they’re too often used in movies and on TV. Consider that the Wagner and Mendelsohn marches wouldn’t be used in so many movies and TV shows if it weren’t already being used in so many weddings in real life.

But great music is great music, and let’s face it…John Williams writes some great music. So why should his music…or Wagner’s, or Mendelsohn’s…not be played for a church service simply because it’s not liturgical music? If we’re really going to apply that rule, then let’s apply it consistently, and strike anything from being played that’s not based on a well-known hymn tune.

I, for one, was thrilled when I realized what our organist was playing. And I look forward to hearing more great music played for the prelude and postlude.

No matter what its pedigree may be.

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