“The pendulum is always swinging,” American organist Christian Lane reminded me last week.
Another instance comes in the recent discovery that, out of the full demographic spectrum, young Americans are least interested in hearing popular music in church.
It’s the middle-agers, the aging groovesters who grew up on Vatican II and folk and praise music, who are the most game to tinker with music in order to keep church services relevant for the next generation.
It’s heartening news to anyone who is convinced art music has a place within contemporary religious worship.
I asked Lane how the ever-present tension between traditionalists and modernizers affects his personal mix as interpreter of traditional repertoire as well as advocate and commissioner of new music.
As part of his reply, he pointed me to that survey, prepared by the Episcopal Church in the United States. It wanted some background before deciding whether or not to update its hymnal, which dates from 1982.
The document, an enlightening window on a broad swatch of mainstream American Christianity, quotes a 22-year-old churchgoer, on page 57, who says it all:
I think there is a huge assumption made that the younger generation wants guitar- and piano-based praise and worship music….What we want to hear in a Sunday Eucharist are the classic hymns played on organ. And occasionally we want to chant. Church is the one place where our musical taste is not based upon fad, but instead links us with a much more important, more elegant tradition. If I wanted to listen to acoustic guitar and piano, I’d pick up Dave Matthews or Ben Folds. If I wanted rap, I’d listen to Lil Wayne…. For worship, I want music that connects to me a world outside of the in and out of my daily life.”
This response, which echoes many others, underlines a (frequently unconscious) need many have to layer our daily and weekly journeys.
Think of people who meditate to shut out the noise of the day. Others find aesthetic stimulus — or just plain escape — inside an art gallery, a novel, an opera or a classical concert.
The issues and questions raised by the survey are diverse, complicated and full of nuance (you can download the full document here). But it is safe to say that demand for art music in church is not about to disappear as the Silent Generation dies off.
Could it be that so many people’s fears about the future of the traditional Western art music concert are equally unfounded?
Thursday night’s ovation for Evgeny Kissin and the Toronto Symphony was laced with loud shouts and whistles from all the 20-somethings in the audience who had been swept up in the music as enthusiastically as the older, more reserved, patrons at Roy Thomson Hall. The expression was noisier, but the appreciation was the same.
To help us meditate on that, here are the Elora Festival Singers, organist Jürgen Petrenko and conductor, Noel Edison, with Arvo Pärt’s setting of The Beatitudes, as revised in 1991: