Written in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Wessler, Kantor at First Lutheran Church of Boston. Jonathan is a super awesome Lutheran organist who has a lovely wife and two wonderful children. Along with being a consummate organist, he also enjoys good beer, mocking terrible church music, and driving super fast on the Autobahn. You can learn more about the FLC music program at: https://www.flc-bostonmusic.org/
It’s the start of a new school year, and that means it’s time for choir season again. As such, we are providing you, the aspiring choir member/director/Kantor, with the tools you will need to overhaul your humdrum methobapticostal choir dominated with elderly warblers, schmaltzy heretical songs, and general baby boomer vibe. Our handy guide will transform you into a robust orthodox Lutheran choir, which can add reverence and awe to any service and raise the musical aptitude of your congregation. After all, a true Lutheran choir is infinitely superior to even the vaunted Baptist Gospel choirs both in terms of musicality and orthodoxy. Beyond that, Lutherans have a rich musical heritage that should be the envy of all denominations. To reclaim that tradition and rightful place in ecclesiastical music, we humbly provide this 10-step plan of action:
- Burn Your Music Library: Like Cortez burning his ships, you too must part ways with your library of terrible music. Most Lutheran church music libraries are filled with music of mediocre quality written in the last 50 years by Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Lutherans pretending to be them. Purging this music is the first step towards reforming your choir, as you can’t actually be a Lutheran choir without good Lutheran music from excellent composers. Since you are likely tossing several hundred (horrible) octavos onto the bonfire, we employ the five-second rule: if it takes more than five seconds to evaluate a piece, we purge it. And if we accidentally purge something good as a result of this rule, it’s not a big deal as there’s no doubt something even better that we would sing in its place anyway. It may be difficult to do this, but believe us, you will thank us later.
- Learn the 4-Part Settings in the Hymnal: What do you sing now that there’s no going back? Start with the hymnal. It contains a wealth of great settings by eminent composers: orthodox in text, sublime in harmonization. This songbook of the church is your first task. Not only will your congregational singing improve, but your choir members will learn the fundamentals of reading music. Many of the motives they will learn in hymn singing will return in more complex music. Also, many great works by Lutheran composers use hymns as their basis—thus knowing the melodies gives you a leg up on learning these pieces. If you want to take this to the next level, look up alternate settings to these hymns in other Lutheran hymnals, or even do some research of your own on other settings from Lutheran composers.
- Sing the Propers: Integral to the theology of each Sunday and feast day, yet wrongfully neglected since Vatican II (why a heterodox Roman Catholic council would impact orthodox Lutheran worship is another topic entirely), the musical Propers are historically the choir’s purview. Start with chanting the Introit, Gradual/Psalm, and Alleluia verse to the LSB psalm tones. This will both catechize your choir in the fundamentals of the liturgy and also teach them the very valuable technique of chant. Learning to chant will help your choir sing with a healthier, more focused tone. It will also assist in teaching the congregation to chant, a win-win. If you want to go beyond the LSB tones, try using Gregorian psalm tones or even Anglican chant for a bigger challenge. You can also sing motets on the Proper texts instead of chanting them and use Sequences (such as Victimae Paschali laudes (LSB 460)) on feast days. And if you want to continue some congregational involvement, consider chanting the Psalms responsively between the congregation and choir.
- Buy the Red Book: Seriously, purchase Lutheran Choral Anthology: The 16th Century, edited by Carl Schalk. It is worth its weight in gold. You will find a wealth of great motets written by Lutheran composers on various hymns. You can use these settings to sub in for hymn stanzas or as stand-alone choral pieces. It may be a bit intimidating at first, but be of good courage: you can do this. Once you get into the mode of singing these pieces, you are well on your way to being an awesome Lutheran choir.
- Appoint Section Leaders: It is always easier to sing if you have someone to follow who knows the part and is confident. Select, or hire, the best musicians you can get for each voice part to be section leaders who can help lead the other singers. Mine your local college or university for good vocalists. Work with them outside of rehearsal so that they come prepared.
- Learn to sing in German and Latin: Luther’s Reformation did encourage singing in the vernacular, but it certainly did not exclude singing in other languages. In fact, Latin and German co-existed happily in the liturgy through the time of Bach. Not only are Latin and German awesome to sing in, many of the truly great works of Lutheran music are written in these languages and have not been translated into English. Recall the adjuring of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 about speaking in tongues and provide a translation for your hearers in the bulletin. If you can get over the intimidation of singing in a different language, a whole world of music opens up to you.
- Sing Through the Piece Several Times Before Fixing Problems: Trust your singers’ ability to read music. Many times, multiple run-throughs of the music will fix 90% of the problems. Plus, the consistent flow of the music will help people stay in the moment. Most good choral music will be self-reinforcing: the right note will be more obvious—therefore easier to sing—than the wrong one. (In fact, whether a piece of music follows the rules of musical grammar is a very important indicator as to whether it’s good or not. If the piece you’re singing doesn’t make sense, it may deserve to fuel the bonfire.) Certainly fix egregious errors if they pop up, but also understand that it will take several run-throughs before your choir is capable of dealing with the finer points of the diction or music. This approach will also increase your choir’s reading ability, which means you can absorb music faster.
- Sing Music By Great Lutheran (And Non-Lutheran) Composers: While Bach may be the most well-known Lutheran composer, there are others that are his equal and are underappreciated in Lutheran circles. Composers like Schiedt, Schein, Praetorius, the other Praetorius, Schütz, Senfl, and Hassler—just to name a few—may not be household names, but they should be. Become familiar with these composers and their works and you will find a wealth of great church music at your beck and call. And while Lutherans may have the best music, it doesn’t mean that other traditions have been slouches. Some of the best choral works were written for the Anglican church by English composers such as Tallis, Byrd, and Sheppard. Many of these are in English, a bonus if your choir is struggling with Latin or German. Even music by counter-Reformation composers like Lassus and Handl entered the Lutheran tradition (Bach had his choir sing Handl’s very accessible Ecce quomodo moritur justus every Good Friday—so should you!), and Luther himself revered Josquin as the most brilliant of composers. It is well worth your time to learn more about these composers and their works. Many of them are amenable to sing in Lutheran churches, as they are just settings of Scripture or liturgical texts.
- Sing Polychoral (aka Multichoir) Music: Some of the most striking and fun pieces to sing and hear are polychoral. Lutheran composers wrote in this style for hundreds of years and produced countless fantastic settings of liturgical texts for two (or more) choirs. If you’ve appointed section leaders, you can follow Schütz’s lead and put your section leaders, one-to-a-part, in one choir and the rest of your singers in the other choir. It’s even more fun if you spatially differentiate the choirs: one in the chancel, the other in the balcony. (Not enough singers? No problem: count your singers as one choir and have the organ or instruments play the other choir’s music.) Do you want to beat the pants off of any Baptist Gospel choir? Sing one of these works and you will inspire awe in your congregation.
- Sing Cantatas: This may require hiring professional singers and instrumentalists, but it is worth doing: the Lutheran cantatas, especially those of Bach, are eminently Lutheran and full of musicality. Because Bach’s cantatas are by far the most difficult and sophisticated in the tradition, they have overshadowed literally thousands of great cantatas by Bach’s contemporaries such as Graupner, Telemann, and Buxtehude. These cantatas are often more musically accessible, fairly short, and require fewer instruments than Bach’s (and are therefore less expensive to produce), but are still extremely interesting. Try using one on Easter during communion (perhaps this one by Buxtehude), when there’s probably plenty of extra time to fill.
There you have it. By the end of this process, you too will be blowing the socks off of your congregation, putting to shame any praise band, and enjoying the fantastic musical tradition of the Lutheran church.