The Piano in Worship

Rate in the order of appropriateness for public worship:

a. accordion
b. guitar
c. organ
d. piano
e. zither

If Reformed Worship readers were asked this question, my hunch is that the majority would put the organ in first place, the piano in second. (All have been in use.) We'd answer that way because of what we've experienced: in our churches the organ has long been the instrument most used in worship.

But for a number of reasons that prominence may be waning. Many congregations are discovering that the piano provides an excellent alternative to the organ. Some use it only to provide variety and to give the organist a break. Others, especially smaller congregations, have consciously decided to use the piano instead of the organ on a regular basis. They have discovered that piano accompaniment is not only suitable but preferable to organ music for their style of worship.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Whether a pianist can successfully accompany hymns and provide service music for worship depends on a few key factors: the acoustics of the church, the quality of the instrument, and the performance ability of the musician. Although a good instrument under the hands of a com petent pianist can produce marvelous orchestrations of tone and articulate, crisp rhythms, the piano has neither the sustaining power nor the instrumentation possibilities of an organ.

However, often the problems people face when using a piano in worship have less to do with the instrument itself than with the apparent lack of appropriate literature: unlike the organ, the piano has no rich heritage of repertory explicitly composed for use in worship. This gap can partially be filled from other sources. For example, pianists have discovered that many classical piano compositions may be appropriately adopted for worship. Musicians need only make judicious choices on the basis of length and style, avoiding pieces that are very familiar and thus easily associated with experiences outside of the worship service. Other pianists have discovered a wealth of material usable in worship services in the repertory of organ music written for manuals only. This music maintains the dignity of a tradition, creates no tension by association with other styles, and generally supports the aim of worship. Only the sound itself is different: the pianist must decide whether a particular work is too idiomatic for the organ to be used effectively on the piano.

Apart from these two sources for piano worship—judicious selections from classical literature and from organ music for manuals only—pianists face an inadequate supply of commendable material suitable for worship. During the past century composers in the American pop-ularist tradition have attempted to create a body of "sacred" piano literature, most of it based on hymn tunes, which in itself is not unsuitable. But without the advantage of historical recedent available to the organ, pianists have adapted various models of piano style that may not be appropriate for the worship service: nocturnes, etudes, concertos, and cocktail music have all had an influence.

Most of these efforts at adaptation are unsatisfactory because they are obvious imitations, conjuring up associations outside of worship traditions, calling attention to themselves, forcing hymn tunes to be something they are not, and in effect intruding on worship. If a model for piano style in worship is required at all, a more effective one is organ literature associated with worship. However, due to the inherent differences between the two instruments, this model also has problems.

A most helpful source of suggestions for piano music suitable for church (unfortunately never published and therefore not conveniently at hand) is Richard Cole Shadinger's dissertation, "The Sacred Element in Piano Literature: A Historical Background and Annotated Listing" (DMA, Musicology, Southern Baptist Seminary, 1974).

Another helpful source will soon be available: a ten-volume anthology, compiled and edited by Dr. William Phemister, Chairman of the Piano Department of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, will be released by the Fred Bock Music Co. in May 1987.

The multi-volume collection will be comprised primarily of music originally composed for the piano. (Exceptions include three organ chorale preludes by Brahms.) Six volumes will be devoted to individual composers: Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, J. S. Bach, and Beethoven. Of the four remaining volumes, two include seasonal music (Christmas and Lent-Easter), another is a collection of duets (four hands, one piano), and the final volume contains selections by twentieth-century composers. These last two volumes may also include some organ transcriptions. While this ten-volume work is designed for church pianists, it will also be of value to student pianists.

Selecting Music

As with any genre of music, church music's quality or lack of it is associated with the names of publishers. Their boards establish the standards, which, if consistent, are of great assistance to the individual musician who faces a market of very uneven quality. The Lutheran publishing houses, Concordia and Augsburg, offer an outstanding selection of music usable on the piano, much of it published as organ music for manuals only. Other very reputable companies include Oxford University Press, Harold Flammer, Inc., and Peters.

In selecting music the musician should take into consideration principles of quality, moderation, and appropriateness. Some more specific, but not exhaustive, suggestions include the following:

  1. Do not choose music that is too difficult. Unless you can play the music well, you should not play it at all.
  2. Avoid obvious virtuosity. The music should assist worship and never be confused with a recital performance.
  3. If the music is based on a hymn, be sure its arrangement does not injure the original character of the tune and associated texts, either by excessive chromaticism or technical demands.
  4. Avoid any style that has strong associations with music outside of the context of a worship service.
  5. Avoid banality. Regard the music as an offering to the Lord, and make it the best in style, content, and rendition. Avoid obvious "formulas" for accompaniments, figurations, and modulations.
  6. Giving careful thought to the place of the music in the liturgy will help you decide whether to choose something quiet and meditative, or festive and celebrative. The mood and associated text, if there is one, should be compatible with the church season and/or worship theme.

The bibliography that follows is not intended to be exhaustive but simply suggestive, with the hope that it lead the pianist to be aware of other good possibilities.

It should be apparent from this bibliography that piano worship music need not be limited to the type associated with evangelistic tent services or summer Bible conferences. The piano can be a versatile instrument for use in worship and can draw on a rich repertoire.

A. Collections of Organ Music for Manuals Only
  1. All Glory, Laud, and Honor, by David N. Johnson. Augsburg Publishing House, 1981. 11-5085. 31 pages. $5.00.
  2. Baroque Music for Manuals, ed. and arr. by S. Drummond Wolff (3 volumes). Concordia Publishing House, 1976 ff. 97-5341; 97-5406; 97-5813. Approx. 35 pages each. $5.50 each.
  3. 80 Chorale Preludes, ed. Hermann Keller. C. F. Peters, 1951. 4448. 123 pages. $10.00.
    Although this volume is intended for organ, many of the preludes can be played on the piano: 56 of the 80 works do not require pedal. Index of English titles.
  4. Free Hymn Accompaniments for Manuals, by David N.Johnson. Augsburg Publishing House, 1966. Book 1: 11-9185; 59 pages; $6.50. Book 2: 11-9186; 53 pages; $7.00.
  5. Hymn Preludes and Free Accompaniments. Augsburg Publishing House, 1978 ff. ll-9397ff. $2.50 to $4.75. This series includes 16 packets of loose-leaf publications that feature a variety of arrangers and selections.
  6. Hymntune Preludes for the Organ, by G. Winston Cassler. Augsburg Publishing House, 1960,1961. Vol. 1: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany; 11-9205; 16 pages; $3.00. Vol. 2: Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter; 11-9206; 17 pages; $1.75.
  7. Just for Manuals, compiled and ed. by Darwin Wolford. Harold Flam-mer, Inc. Vol. 1: HF 5090; 32 pages; $4.50. Vol. 2: HF 5091; 32 pages. $4.50.
  8. Ausgewahlte Werkefur Kleinorgel, by J. S. Bach, ed. Hermann Keller. C. F. Peters, 1942. 70 pages. $9.00.
  9. Manuals Only, compiled and ed. by David N. Johnson. Augsburg Publishing House, 1965. 11-9290. 31 pages. $6.50.
  10. Old English Organ Music for Manuals, ed. C. H. Trevor. Oxford University Press, 1966 ff. 6 vols. Vol. 1: 31.201; 24 pages; $7.75.
  11. Organ Music for Manuals, ed. C. H. Trevor. Oxford University Press, 1972 ff. 6 vols. Vol. 1: 31.215; 32 pages; $8.75.
  12. Sing and Rejoice: Hymn Settings for Organ and Congregation, by Gehard Krapf. The Sacred Music Press, 1878-86. 6 vols. Approx. 32 pages each. $5.95 each.
    As noted by the composer in the preface, these settings are suitable for piano.
  13. Sixty Short Pieces, by Flor Peeters.
    H. W. Gray Publications, 1955. GB 289. 80 pages. $9.95.
  14. Thirty-Five Miniatures and Other Pieces for Organ, by Flor Peeters. Summy-Birchard Music, 1975. 602. 64 pages. $11.25.

The "Miniatures" are delightful, and vary in moods. They can easily be combined in groups to provide the needed length. The long, sustained notes are definitely intended for the organ, but they can be musically rearticulated on the piano.

B. From the Classical Repertory

1. J. S. Bach. Selections from:

a. Little Preludes and Fugues Number 4 from 12 Little Preludes, for example, is very appropriate when paired with a chorale in the same key (such as "O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee," No. 83 from 101 Chorales, Schmitt, Hall & McCreary, 1963. SCHBK 9065. 96 pages. $4.00).

b. The Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach

c. The Little Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1720)

d. Suites (French, English, and Partitas)

Although these are collections of stylized dances, any such association in the twentieth century is very remote. Sarabands are often especially useful.

e. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vols. 1 and 2

Prelude No. 22 in B-flat minor is a beautiful hymn-like meditative prelude. It can be successfully paired with the B-flat-major fugue if contrast to the sobriety of the minor mode is desired.

2. Ludwig van Beethoven. Selected slow movements from the Sonatas. For example:

a. Op. 13/ii (Andante Cantabile)
b. Op. 26/i (Theme and Variation 1)
c. Op. 57/ii (Theme and Variations 1 and 2)

3. Johannes Brahms

a. Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 1
b. Intermezzo, Op. 119, No. 1
c. Romanze, Op. 118, No. 5
d. Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9 (Theme and variations I-IV)
e. Variations of a Theme by the Composer, Op. 21, No. 1 (theme and selected variations)

4. Cesar Franck. Selections from:

a. Prelude, Aria, and Finale
b. Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue
c. 46 Short Pieces for Piano (nos. 16,19,20,21,44,46)

5. George Frideric Handel

Six Little Fugues. Concordia Publishing House, 1962. 97-4626. 19 pages. $1.50.

Cleanly edited; interpretation of ornaments provided at the bottom of the pages.

6. Ludwig Johannes Krebs.

Klavierubung, ed. Kurt Soldan. C. F. Peters Corp. P4178. $9.25.

Contains 12 chorales with preludes based on each.

7. Franz Liszt

a. From Harmonie poetique et re-ligieuses
(1) "Pater Noster"
(2) "Cantique d'amour"

b. Weinachtsbaum

8. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Selections from Songs Without Words, including:

Op. 19, Nos. 1 and 4; Op. 30, Nos. 1 and 3; Op. 38, Nos. 2,4, and 6; Op. 53; No. 4; Op. 62, Nos. 1 and 4; Op. 67, Nos. 1 and 3; Op. 85, Nos. 1, 4, 5, and 6; Op. 102, Nos. 2 and 6.

9. Robert Schumann

From Album for the Young, Op. 68: No. 4 ("Choral"), and No. 42 ("Figured Choral")

10. Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Hymn Tune Prelude on Gibbons Song 13. Oxford University Press. 1930.

C. Sacred Music Composed, Transcribed, or Arranged for Piano.

1. Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, by Johannes Brahms, transcribed for piano by Ludwig Miller. Breitkopf & Hartel, 1941. EB-6129.

2. Greensleeves, by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Oxford University Press. 32.115. $5.00.

3. Piano Hymns for the Church Year, by Jack C. Goode. Hope Publishing Co., 1968. 24 pages. $2.50.

Goode is an organist, and although his effective settings may reflect this, they were composed for the piano. Goode's hymns are refreshingly contemporary, yet accessible to the congregation. While the technical demands of the compositions are not insurmountable, musical ones are challenging. This volume (currently out of print) should be made available again and used by thoughtful pianists.

4. Piano Preludes on Hymns and Chorales, arr. Reginald Gerig. Hope Publishing Company, 1959. 48 pages. $3.00

The selections, two of them composed by Mr. Gerig, are of mixed levels of difficulty. A hymn setting and text precedes each arrangement. An excellent collection.

5. Piano Voluntaries for Use in Church and Home, collected and arranged by Howard D. McKinny. J. Fischer & Bro., 1963. No. 9458. 51 pages. $2.00.

This is a very useful collection of piano arrangements, principally from organ repertory. The variety of styles is broad.

6. Transcriptions of Works by J. S. Bach:

a. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," transcribed by Myra Hess, from Cantata 147, S. 147. Oxford University Press, 1926. 32.049. $3.50.

b. "Sheep May Safely Graze," transcribed by Myra Hess. Oxford University Press, 1926. 32.110. $4.25.

c. "Sleepers Awake, a Voice Is Calling," transcribed by Myra Hess. Oxford University Press, 1926. 32.301. $4.25.

Noel Magee is professor of music theory at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music and coordinator of music for Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis.


Reformed Worship 3 © March 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.