Tuesday, March 1, 2011

LDS Music (which some would call an oxymoron)

I attended LDS (Mormon) services on Sunday and was thus subjected to the banal world of LDS music. Many LDS people think their music is of high quality because their church exposure has been limited to LDS churches, so they don't know any better. Other people think automatically of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when they think of Mormon music, and assume that since the choir is fundamnetally sound, LDS music in general is of adequate quality. Making such an assumption is akin to assuming that because the San Francisco Giants won the most recent World Series, San Francisco's Little League must be a solid program. While for all I know San Francisco could have a first-rate Little League, there's a better than average chance that youth baseball in the City By The Bay totally sucks. I just don't happen to know. Regarding Mormon church music, however, I do know; at the local level, I can state with authority that it sucks more strongly than the products of Hoover, Orick, and Rainbow combined.

I've been a church organist in a Catholic church. I actually had to audition for the job in front of a panel of church musicians and clergy. My cousin is a church organist in a Mormon church. Suffice it to say that she had no audition. Some misguided bishop received divine inspiration to "call" her to the position. Had any audition taken place, even a tone-deaf bishop would have had sufficient inpiration, divine or otherwise, not to "call" her as organist. On a good day my cousin plays ninety per cent of the notes in front of her correctly. Ninety per cent may earn an "A" in most graded courses, but ninety per cent of notes played correctly on a given music score, depending upon the combination in which the correct and incorrect notes are played, yields a sound that is somewhere between cacophonuous and ghastly. Also applying here is the familiar adage, "You get what you pay for." I was paid one hundred dollars per mass as an organist of the parish for which I was employed. My cousin was paid zero, zilch, nada, or in blessings, depending upon how one wishes to view the form of compensation afforded not just my cousin but all organists in the LDS church, including those who, unlike my cousin, actually possess some level of skill.

LDS hymns range from standard Protestant works to standard Protestant old-time gospel songs, to corruptions and rip-offs of Protestant hymns, to original LDS works.

The opening hymn sung in the ward where I attended Sacrament Meeting on Sunday was the original LDS work, "The World Has Need of Willing Men." It features a repetitious if not rousing chorus, replete with tenor/bass echo: "Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along (push along). Do your duty with a heart full of song [full of song]. We all have work, let no one shirk [quite conceivably the single most absurd rhyming couplet in all of hymnology]. Put your shoulder to the wheel." I am sad to report that the verses offer no respite from the literary and musical disaster that is this hymn. Even the title is offensive, as though the world has such a burning need for men but not women. The savagely mysogynistic LDS church probably genuinely believes such to be the case. Never mind. What the world actually needs is men or women willing to ferret out and immediately shred, burn, or otherwise destroy all existing copies of this hideous example of Mormon hymnody at its very worst so that no one ever has to sing or hear this hymn again.

The second hymn sung, the Sacrament hymn, was "In Humility, Our Savior." The hymn tune, known in hymnology circles as "Hyfrydol," is a well-known Welsh hymn tune from the 1800's associated in Protestant and even Catholic circles with texts including "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." While I'm less enamored of the harmonization of the hymn as appearing in the LDS hymnal, and though I don't find the "Hyfrydol" tune particularly compatible with the crucifixion genre nature of the text, this hymn is at least pretty. I actually sang on this one. When I'm in an LDS church, I sing fewer than half of the hymns. I'm a bit paranoid, but people sometimes turn and stare at me when I sing. My singing voice isn't all that much weirder than anyone else's, so I'm not sure why I'm treated to the rudeness of being gawked at when I attempt to worship in song.

The closing hymn was one of the Protestant gospel song oldies that the Protestants have all but abandoned and left for the Mormons alone to use. "I Have Work Enough to Do" was the title of this hymn. This one I had never heard before. It did have some archaic text, but the text was at least not offensive. The song wasn't bad per se, but was the melody was not terribly conventional, and possibly unfamiliar to the congregation. It seemed that only the people who read music were singing.

What passes for special music in a Mormon church would be substandard in any church I've attended regularly. It wasn't so much the calibre or skill level of the presenting musicians (although no one would have mistaken them for Juilliard escapees) as it ws the amount of preparation time devoted to the performance. I heard the teenaged musicians hurriedly running through their vocal selection with piano accompaniment for what they indicated was the first time in a Sunday school classroom just before the service began. I'm a relatively skilled and experienced performer, but I would not disrepect a congregation so much as to perform so much on the fly. During the special music presentation, my PseudoUncle,who was sitting on the far side of my PseudoAunt, reached around her and squeezed my upper arm. I didn't know why, so I asked him after the service why he had done that. He said he wanted to warn me not to laugh. I wouldn't have been so rude as to laugh at a musical performance that was not intentionally funny, and I told him so, but the fact that he thought it was even a possibility that I would laugh would indicate that he thought it was a fairly pathetic offering.

I won't critique the organist of this particular ward (who was not my cousin discussed earlier in the post, by the way) because she appeared to be handicapped in more than one way. Enough said.


  1. You all think you're so smart. Just because your mom has degrees in music and your dad played professionally and you know how to play a little bit yourself you think you're smarter and more cultured than the educated people who collaborated to create an LDS hymnal. You don't know shi-. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the truth. You have nothing.

  2. Alexis you don't perform in public anymore so who are you to criticize those who do?

  3. I have firsthand knowledge that Alexis still performs in public. Incidentally, I saw the performance she critiqued. She was kind in her criticism of it. I'll say no more about that particular performance.

    Alexis takes performances and worship services seriously and wouldn't participate in one without adequate preparation. All musicians should have a sinilarly respectful outlook.

    Alexis may have limited knowledge regarding
    shi-, but she knows a great deal about music.
    If you don't like the things she writes, you do not have to read her blog. If you choose to read it, back off.

  4. Ah, First anonymous. You are one of those annoying Mormons who knows how everyone else should behave, yet seems to have problems understanding how YOU should behave.

  5. Hi Marr! Hi Jillian!

    Anonymous #1: Alexis knows how to play "a little"?!?!? Have you heard her play recently?

    Alexis, at least you didn't have to hear my personal un-favorite Mormon hymn, "Have I Done Any Good In the World Today." That refrain, "Then WAAAAKE UP! and DO SOMETHING MORE! Than DREAM of your MANSIONS above!!!!" rivals anything you've mentioned. Then there's the old, "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Profit" [spelling intentional]. Hymns that place stress on syllables that should be unstressed [We THANK thee for evERy blesSING beSTOWED by thy bounTEous hand] positively rankle me.

    I miss you and love you more than you'll ever know.


  6. Hi, Alexis' Dad! Bloody Hell! You bring back memories!

    It's been 30 years since I attended a Mormon Church service, but those dreadful dirge-like renditions of 'hymns' when someone not especially skilled tries their best to play the piano, which is not helping, as the damn piano seems to be fighting back!

    By the way, if you are ever in England, let me know, I'll buy the first round in the pub! Perhaps in an old pub, in an Elizabethan building.