The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Case of choral conscience

You’ve been a member of a choral society for some years. You’re asked to sing about lecherous abbots and fornication. What do you do?

Making your decision isn’t helped by the fact that the words are mostly in Latin, so no one (probably including you) knows what they mean. Furthermore, the piece is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, one of the most popular works for audiences, and therefore a staple in any choral society’s repertoire. Making a fuss about it is going to make you look like a right prude.

Voicing the vices

In February I looked at possible responses of paid Christian musicians being asked to accompany heresy. But how about if you’re a voluntary member of a choral society, who is singing simply for pleasure.

Carmina Burana is an obvious example — it’s a secular piece, which explores some of the pleasures and perils of lust, drinking and other vices. It’s a guaranteed sell-out (pun unintended but effective).

Christians, as you may have guessed, have differing views. Some simply enjoy singing the piece to celebrate God’s common grace of music without worrying about the words: ‘Why can’t we enjoy art simply for what it is — a work of art?’ Others would have a more tender conscience when it comes to singing lyrics publicly, and decline to be involved.

Carmina Burana may be an easy target, but if we inspected every work (even ‘sacred’) that has lyrics not taken purely from Scripture, we’d find things with which we might be uncomfortable. The Dream of Gerontius is a case in point, with all its invocations to Mary. Requiems include prayers for the dead. There will always be a degree of compromise, especially in ‘secular’ performances. It’s one of the hazards of being involved with a choral society!

Let conscience be your guide

Without encouraging anyone to sing things they deem inappropriate, individual consciences must decide whether they feel they are simply performing a work of art, or whether they are actively communicating truths they believe. However, at the same time, I’d like to challenge all Christians who sing in voluntary choirs to consider carefully the words they are singing. I was totally unaware for years that I’d been praying for the dead in the various requiems that I’d performed, and I’m grateful to a Christian brother for waking me up. Happily, however, now that the pendulum has settled itself, I find myself enjoying the music of most of Mozart’s Requiem, while heartily harrumphing through the bits I think are dodgy.

Helpful response

The kind person who replied to the last article pushed me further as he wondered whether he should feel guilty enjoying Mozart’s Requiem at all. He wondered whether it should only be playing on his music system when he did his admin, and not during sermon prep. He also asked whether he would distinguish between allowing a choral society to perform it in church for a concert (it’s not a service), and using it for an evangelistic event. He made the helpful point that, at least in an evangelistic film night, ‘the film’s questionable message can be a launching point to say that the Bible has different answers to the same questions…’ Lots of things to think about!

If we feel that it is worth making a stand, then it would also be worth thinking carefully when and how this is communicated to those in charge and to other singers. I once directed a children’s choir, which I withdrew from a performance of Carmina Burana. Unfortunately, I didn’t commend the gospel very effectively as I was shirty with the overall music director in the process. And then, to placate him, I ended up singing in the concert myself, which was hypocritical in every way. The lesson I learnt is that it’s a much better idea to speak to the director about concerns at the earliest possible point, gently and clearly, using the God-given opportunity to speak about and model grace.

To conclude, I think we end up in Romans 14, where some have stronger consciences, some weaker, so that each decision has to be made case by case, preferably with the advice of those who oversee our spiritual growth, while modelling gospel godliness and grace.

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.