Church music′s discordant sounds | Music | DW | 27.09.2013
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Church music's discordant sounds

For centuries, Christianity has seen controversies regarding the style and the role of music in church services. The issue takes on greater urgency in an era when churches' coffers are less full.

Music represents "a wealth of inestimable value" for the church, as Pope Benedict XVI once put it. The now retired pontiff went on to say that music is a bounty that can't be "frozen" but must be open to influences from the present.

His appeal is not without reason. Things have gotten frosty for sacred music, and that's true in both Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany.

Religious institutions are increasingly cutting costs on music, ranging from choirs to church-affiliated music academies.

Stefan Klöckner Photographer: Dominik Schneider

Stefan Klöckner fears for the future of sacred music institutions

Fewer opportunities

Stefan Klöckner, who teaches church music in Essen, Germany, views this development with concern. He describes the former pope's appeal as "certainly correct - theologically speaking - but a very idealistic point of view."

In truth, Klöckner continues, music for churches faces growing challenges on account of budget restrictions. One factor in Germany is the growing number of people leaving the church altogether. The country collects a tax on those who register as belonging to the country's Catholic or Protestant churches, funds earmarked church activities.

In 2010, the Protestant Church took in a total of 4.3 billion euros ($5.8 billion), 2.4 percent less than the year before. Over the same period, the German Catholic Church's finances sank by 2.3 percent to 4.8 billion.

A group of Cisterian monks singing Gregorian chants Photo: Bernd Thissen dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Cisterian monks performing Gregorian chants

For Stefan Klöckner, finances are just one side of the issue. The music professor sees greater cause for concern in the lack of interest in church music among young people. "Here at the Folkwang University in Essen, we had to close our institute for church music for lack of students."

The Lutheran Church in Württemberg reports in a 2012 study a "catastrophic drop" in the number of students taking up the subject of church music. "Full-time church music positions will vanish in Germany if massive efforts aren't made to win over young people," the report's authors said.

The Allgemeine Cäcilienverband (ACV), the umbrella association for Catholic church music, has sounded similar alarms. In its position paper on the musical landscape, the group criticized the recent loss of jobs and the closure of a sacred music academy in Aachen as "a rash course of action during budget consolidation" and spoke of "a lack of vision" among those responsible.

Theology and music 'inseparable'

Wolfgang Bretschneider copyright: DW/Marita Berg

Wolfgang Bretschneider: The church needs music

ACV head Wolfgang Bretschneider believes the church is inseparable from music, saying, "Music and theology naturally go together. The church needs music, sound, harmony and rhythm to speak to people and to reach them."

He points to the growing number of members in youth and children's choirs, saying, "There, the church is becoming a leader in music education and influence on younger people at a time when singing plays a less important role in society at large."

The Catholic choir association, Pueri Cantores, currently has 400 boy, girl, children's and youth choirs with more than 16,000 singers. The association's chair, Oliver Sperling, knows first-hand how important working with children is. He leads a girl choir in Cologne associated with the city's landmark cathedral.

"Our kids come from the whole city and well beyond it. And the number of inquiries is growing. Meanwhile, we have problems finding enough space. We actually had to rent practice rooms," he said.

A children's choir performs at the Frauenkirche Church in Dresden Copyright: imago/Thomas Eisenhuth

The ranks are swelling in religious youth choirs in Germany

As such, Klöckner is convinced that the church must see music as an opportunity. He adds, "With music, you can win over children and young people over a long period of time, in children's choirs, in boy choirs, then in youth choirs."

But, he goes on, the church hierarchy must grasp that and invest in the future generation.

Tradition vs. techno

Those who work closely with young people inevitably run up against the question of how traditional sacred music should be and how open one should be to new forms of musical expression.

The 20th century brought heavy controversy in this respect with the rise of religious songs influenced by pop music in the 1960s and their continuation in various forms ever since. Church leaders often feared that the dignity of religious services was being damaged, while supporters argued it was much easier to reach young people using elements of popular music.

German pop group Die Prinzen perform in a church in Meiningen Photo: Michael Reichel

German pop group Die Prinzen perform in a church in Meiningen

Do young people in fact want to come to church to hear masses accompanied by hip-hop, pop or techno? Stefan Klöckner finds the notion absolutely misguided. "The church has to challenge young people and offer high quality music. Only then can you reach them."

Wolfgang Bretschneider takes a more open view: "What has always damaged sacred music is ideologues and fanatics who are blind and say: church music can only look this way or that. I'm with the Bible, which says: try everything, examine everything, and what's good will be preserved."

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