The One-Voice Choir: An appropriate role for soloists in worship

Do solo singers have a place in our worship services today?

In recent years many Christians have struggled with that question. Some insist that soloists are superfluous, unrelated to the heart of true worship. Others are convinced that soloists call attention to themselves rather than lead the congregation in worship through music. Still others believe that all parts of the worship service should be marked by participation rather than observation and that hymns, which involve the worshiping people directly, are therefore more appropriate than solo numbers.

All of these objections have validity. But they reflect the need not to rid our services of soloists but rather to find ways to use them more appropriately.

The chief vocal music used in our worship services should be congregational, but a choir can also fill an important role in worship. Congregational singing, of course, is an integral part of every worship service we attend. Not so with choral music. Sometimes a choir is not available. At such times one can view the solo singer as a "one-person choir" (C Halter and C. Schalk, A Handbook of Church Music).

Of course, our worship should never be interrupted by solo singers singing "special music"—solos that call attention to the singer and add nothing to the fabric of the liturgy. The solo singer, like the choir, has an obligation to lead the congregation in worship, directing thoughts toward God, building up the body of Christ. If a vocal solo is chosen carefully, performed well, and integrated into the service, it can be a valuable addition to the worship service, providing variety when choral music is not available or even, on occasion, used in addition to choral music.

Important Considerations

Placing the Musicians. Deciding where to place musicians can have an impact on how the congregation views their contribution to worship. For example, placing the organist and soloist in the balcony, out of view of the congregation, tends to focus attention on the music itself rather than on the musicians.

If a singer must sing from the front of the church, it is important that personal appearance in no way distract from the dignity of the service or bring undue attention to the singer. Some churches provide a robe for soloists to discourage the congregation from focusing on appearance and behavior.

Selecting Music. It is also important for soloists to choose material that is well within their range of expertise and for the songs to be well prepared and rehearsed with the accompanist before the service. Furthermore, soloists should keep in mind the congregations for which they are singing. A simple but well-chosen hymn may be best for a congregation whose accompanists have limited skills and whose members are not familiar with more complex styles of sacred music. Poorly performed music or material that upsets the congregation calls attention to the singer and does not contribute to the worship of God.

In his book The Practice of Sacred Music, Carl Halter suggests three considerations that musicians should keep in mind when selecting music for the worship service:

  1. Its value for the praise of God; since worship is God-centered, not people-centered.
  2. Its suitability for the particular service in which it is to be used.
  3. Its ability to communicate to the hearers.

Halter sees the third consideration as a problem of language rather than quality since "not every group of people will be able to understand every worthwhile musical language [or style]." He continues, "It is the duty of the musicians patiently and lovingly to develop the needed understandings by the use of the best examples of whatever language is employed" (Halter, p. 37).

Conscientious singers will find material that is not too ornate. If a composition is filled with operatic tendencies toward virtuosity, the singer, rather than the message of the song, again becomes central.

Deciding on a Text. A song has two parts, text and music. The text of a song is extremely important and must be consonant with Scripture in order to belong in a worship service. Perhaps the best texts come from Scripture itself, but versified Scripture or well-crafted poetry that is in harmony with Scripture may also be very edifying to a congregation and worthy praise of God. In Music and Worship in the Church (p. 126) Lovelace and Rice mention four tests for determining whether a text is appropriate for worship:

It is necessary to study the text of every anthem, even if it is scriptural, to determine if it is theologically acceptable, profound in its message, beautiful in its expression, and meaningful to the listener of today.

These tests apply not only to anthems but also to every hymn, psalm, Bible song—to any words that are sung during worship, by congregation, choir, or soloist.

Evaluating Music. It is more difficult to formulate tests to evaluate the music we use in worship. In his preface to A Well-Appointed Church Music (pp. 12-13), Howard Slenk writes

In church music more than any other facet of worship, the idea of entertainment or performance has done the most damage. "Play what the congregation likes" is only one of the frequent comments that shows the encroachment of the entertainment world into worship. The idea of word and music as an offering to God rarely exists. We forget that worship is not entertainment but participation. Worship requires an active congregation, not an audience. The question "Will they like it?" must be replaced by "Will He accept it?" The question "Does this music please me?" is not as important as "Is this music worthy of God?"

Appropriate for the Occasion

The soloist who chooses excellent music and fitting language for the congregation will have done much to ensure that his or her offering is a meaningful addition to worship. But fine music and a pleasing text are not the only considerations the musician must keep in mind. It is equally important that each selection is appropriate for the occasion and fitted into the worship service so that it does not appear extraneous.

Several possible positions for a solo are the call to worship, response to Scripture reading, call to prayer, response to prayer, or benediction.

Soloists may also contribute to the liturgy of other services, such as weddings, funerals, and prayer services as well as to more informal programs and meetings in the church. Although the music used at weddings, funerals, and other services should be subjected to the same tests that we use for music in our Sunday services, selections sung for more informal and non-liturgical gatherings need not be evaluated by such rigorous standards.

For example, although I often sing Max Regerf's 'The Virgin's Slumber Song" for adult fellowship groups at Christmas time, I would never sing that song for a public worship service. Why? Because I judge that this text, while poetic and devotional, is merely a lullaby to baby Jesus and, as such, is not suited to a liturgical setting.

Special problems may arise for the solo singer at weddings and funerals. Often the family has certain preferences for music, and many times their choices are not appropriate liturgi-cally. It often takes a great deal of tact and firmness to refuse to sing songs that are either inferior in quality or inappropriate for the setting. Some churches wisely have attempted to eliminate this problem and to preserve the dignity and liturgical nature of weddings and funerals by setting guidelines and rules for the music used in these services.

Sources for Solos

In choosing vocal music for worship, the soloist can use a wide range of sources. First is the hymnal, which can often provide meaningful and useful music for the service (and can also help the congregation learn new and unfamiliar hymns). Other sources include vocal solo repertoire with sacred text, written originally as independent solos; the large repertoire of oratorios and cantatas that sometimes provide movements which can be used separately; and the unison anthem, which frequently makes an excellent vocal solo.

The list below includes suggestions soloists and other worship leaders may find helpful in selecting appropriate music for a particular liturgy.

Excerpt

SELECTED SACRED SOLOS

COLLECTIONS BY ONE COMPOSER

Bach, J.S. Sacred Songs from Schemelli's Cesangbuch (Concordia) [indexed according to topic]

Dvorak, Anton. Biblical Songs (G. Schirmer) [high and low voice]

I find the following useful for worship services:

4. "God is my Shepherd"
5. "I Will Sing New Songs"
6. "Hear my Prayer, O Lord"
9. "I Will Lift Mine Eyes"
10. "Sing Ye a Joyful Song" (4,5, and 10 are also useful for weddings)

Herbst, Johannes. Three Sacred Songs (Boosey and Hawkes) [high]

1. "Abide in Me:
2. "See Him, He Is the Lamb of God"
3. "And Thou Shalt Know It"

Schuetz, Heinrich. Five Sacred Songs (Concordia)
1. "Bring to Jehovah"
3. "Now Will I Praise the Lord With All My Heart"

[Rather demanding and probably more useful in non-liturgical settings because of lengthy vocal melismas on alleluias.]
Thiman, Eric H. The Church Soloist (Novello) [A collection of 8 songs]
"Jesus the Very Thought of Thee"
"The God of Love My Shepherd Is"
Vaughan Williams, Ralph. Five Mystical Songs (Stainer and Bell-Galaxy Music Corporation)

5. "Let All The World In Every Corner"

COLLECTIONS WHICH INCLUDE SEVERAL COMPOSERS

Bunjes, Paul ed. Wedding Blessings (Concordia) [high and low]
Bach, J.S. "Jesus, Shepherd, Be Thou Near Me"
Bach, J.S. "O Love That Casts Out Fear"
[useful as introit]
Bach, J.S. Duet: "The Lord Bless You"
Brahms, Johannes, harmonizer. "O Jesu, Joy of Loving Hearts"
Welsh hymn tune, setting Bunjes. "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"
Bach, J.S. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" [one version for voice and organ and another version for voice, organ and instrument].
Although the title of this collection suggests that these selections are useful especially for weddings, most of them are also appropriate for general use.

Kirby, W., compiler. Seventeen Sacred Songs (G. Schirmer, Inc.) [Includes selections from the Messiah and Elijah with others]
Michaelis, Ruth, compiler. The Church Year in Song. (G. Schirmer) [25 compositions from the sixteenth century to the present]
Pfautsch, Lloyd, ed. Solos for the Church Year
(Lawson-Gould Music Publishers,Inc, G. Schirmer, Inc. selling representative)

Bach, J.S. "Rise Up, My Heart, with Gladness" [Easter]
Franck, C. "Come Thou, Dear Redeemer" [Advent]
Pfautsch, Lloyd, ed. The Church Soloist (Lawson-Gould Music Publishers, Inc., G. Schirmer, Inc. selling representative) [high and low]
I have found this collection very useful; the following are my favorite pieces:

Franck, J.W. "Be Thou Still"
Handel, G.F. "O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless"
Mendelssohn, F. "I Will Sing of Thy Great Mercies"
Schuetz, H. "Give God the Father, Praise" [Same song found as number 1 of Schuetz's Five Sacred Songs.]

SINGLE SONGS FOR GENERAL USE

Bach, J.S. "My Heart, Ever Faithful" (G. Schirmer) in key of C (also high)
Bech, John Ness. "Song of Joy" (C.F. Peters) [difficult, wide range]
Handel, G.F. "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth" from Messiah (G. Schirmer) [This aria is published separately and comes in mezzo-soprano key D and soprano key E. Useful for funerals.]
McAfee, Don. "Psalm 139 (Abingdon Press) [high and low; makes use of obligato instrument—flute, violin or clarinet]
Mendelssohn, F. "I Waited for the Lord" (Boston Music Co.) 1085
Tate, Phyllis "Brother James's Air"— Psalm 23 (Oxford University Press) [medium voice and piano]
Wetzler, Robert. "We Wait in Hope for the Lord" from Two Scriptural Songs (Art Masters Studios Inc. Minneapolis, MN) [AMSI medium voice, flute and organ]

SINGLE SONGS FOR CHRISTMAS

Caldwell, Mary E. "A Lute Carol" (H.W. Gray Publications) [Optional flute obligato]
Caldwell, Mary E. "In the Bleak Midwinter" from A Christmas Triptich (H. W Gray Publications) [Not suitable for formal church service but excellent for recital or program.]
Niles, John Jacob. "What Songs Were Sung"
"I Wonder as I Wander"
"Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head"
All three Niles songs found in The Songs of John Jacob Niles
(G. Schirmer)
Reger, Max. "The Virgin's Slumber Song" (Associated Music Publishers) High, Medium and Low. [This song is not suitable for the worship service, but is appropriate for non-liturgical programs.]
Yon, Pietro A. "Gesu Bambino" (J. Fischer & Bro.) [high and low; also published with violin obligato.]

SINGLE SONGS FOR WEDDINGS

Many of the songs listed under general use are suitable also for weddings. Bach, "My Heart Ever Faithful," Beck, "Song of Joy," the Dvorak songs 4,5,9, and 10, the Scheutz songs 1 and 3, the Thiman songs listed, and of course, the songs in Wedding Blessings, edited by Paul Bunjes may be included in this category.
Beck, John Ness. "Song of Devotion" (G. Schirmer)
[Source of text: Phil. 1:3-11]
Bender, Jan. "Wedding Song" (Concordia) [A setting of Psalm 128]
Buxtehude, D. "Lord, Who at Cana's Wedding Feast" from Bunjes (ed) Wedding Blessings (Concordia)
Peeters, Hor. "The Lord's Prayer" (Edition Peters) [high, medium and low].
For me, this simple and unostentatious setting is a refreshing change from the Mallot.
Schuetz, Heinrich. "Wedding Song" (Chantry Music Press) [From the book of Ruth: Whither Thou Goest]
Wetzler, Robert. Psalm 128—A Wedding Song (Augsburg Publishing House) [medium voice and organ]

SOURCE BOOKS GIVING BIBLIOGRAPHY OF VOCAL SOLOS WITH SACRED TEXTS

Espina, Noni. Vocal Solos for Christian Churches. Third edition, revised and enlarged; called Vocal Solos for Protestant Services in second ed., Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984.
Laster, James H. Catalogue of Vocal and Duets Arranged in Biblical Order. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984.
Welles, Joan. Soloists' Guide to Selecting Sacred Solos. Indianapolis, IN: PGP Publishing Inc., 1985. [P.O. Box 51564, $24.95, Jan. 1988] "Over 650 sacred solos uniquely indexed for easy access by title, composer, biblical reference, topic, publisher and range."

SOURCE FOR UNISON CHOIR ANTHEMS

Hawn, Dr. C. Michael. "Use Children's Choir Anthems as Solos in Worship: Some Suggestions."
Chorister's Guild Letters (Jan. 1989): 169.