Michael Haslam, St James’s Director of Music, explains how we sing when speech isn’t enough.
Why do we sing? Why do we sing at birthday parties, football matches, church services, the bedsides of our very young, and very old relatives? We sing to express joy, honour, friendship, and love. We sing when speech isn’t enough.
We can’t sing without taking a breath first. The in-breath, the breathing in, the taking in of that which gives us life, the oxygen of the spirit: huhh’—as so many of us did at Easter—before the exultant Hallelujah!
The Foundling Hospital Chapel, London—Handel donated the copyright of Messiah to the Foundling Hospital, a charity for deserted young children
When we sing together in church we all breath together; before we start and whenever there’s a pause, a comma, a full-stop. When the songs are well-known to us we can sing them automatically, without thinking; when they are new we have to concentrate on the words, the grammar, the melody—it is sometimes uncomfortable daring to commit. “Mustn’t sing too loud, mustn’t make a mistake” we tell ourselves. But the deep joy of singing comes when we lose our inhibitions, when we know the song, when we don’t concern ourselves with the sound we are making. Sing like no one is listening.
Palestinian singer Rim Banna
I have always loved the connection in our worship to the past; to the hymn writers of the last 300 years, the liturgists of the Reformation, the mystics of the Middle Ages, the anonymous composers of our ancient plainsong melodies, the writers of the Epistles and Gospels, and to the texts of the Old Testament; the Psalms.
My first memory of being a choirboy in a church choir on the outskirts of Derby in the 1960s was singing, from Psalm 119, “Princes have persecuted me without a cause.” It may be fanciful but I think I remember as a 7-year-old understanding how the writer of those words felt. “Yes, I know what that’s like.”
Roman mosaic of soldiers fighting
Psalm 114 begins “When Israel came out of Egypt: and the house of Jacob from among the strange people” and it has been sung to a melody called Tonus Peregrinus for well over a thousand years. Scholars aren’t certain but it is possible that this “wandering tune” was used in synagogues at the time of Christ; it is certainly found in old Yemenite and Sephardic Jewish sources. I like to think of us singing a 2000-year-old tune that Jesus would have sung.
One of the many wonderful things about worship at St James’s that I discovered when I started here was its richness and the variety of styles of music. We sing Glorias from Peru and Argentina, Kyries from Greece and Ghana, songs as we gather around the altar from Iona, South Africa and the Taizé Community. Hymns range from standards by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley to words and tunes written in the last ten years, by way of key figures from the 1960s and ’70s. What makes these different styles fit together without jarring is, I think, down to commitment and honesty. What we can’t allow ourselves is contentment; we must always be developing our singing and our music. I have just discovered a simple Kyrie from Ukraine which I hope we may introduce in the next few weeks, perhaps at Pentecost.
Let’s continue to sing with the spirit, whether it’s Handel or Leonard Cohen. And let’s share our understanding.
Israeli singer Keren Ann