Practicing Prayerful Paeans

St. James’ and St. Paul’s indelible musical traditions

Story by Richard H, Schmidt and photography by Kate Reali

Having sung in church choirs all her life, Tish Ansdell planned to join the choir when she began worshiping at St.Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley and thought she knew what to expect. “Where’s the music?” she asked.“Oh, we’ll just play it and you can harmonize,” she was told. That’s certainly different, but I’ll give it a try, Tish thought. She tried it and now she loves it.

John Talbert is lead musician at St.Paul’s. One reason there’s no music is that John doesn’t read music. Neither do some of the half dozen or so singers who show up an hour before church on Sunday to practice. “People don’t learn their part; they find their part,” says Lynn Talbert, John’s mother and a member of the St. Paul’s choir. “We know how we move together, but it’s never scripted.” The hour before Sunday worship is spent working on dynamics, but “for the most part, my choir just shows up and holds on for the ride,” John says. You don’t even have to be there for that hour of practice to sing in the St.Paul’s choir. Occasionally a Sunday worshiper hears the choir singing a song she knows, gets up, walks over,and joins the group. No one is turned away. Despite the lack of musical scores, John Talbert is a gifted musician.He plays piano and guitar by ear and can play virtually any song he hears. He is often joined by others playing percussion and other instruments. It’s “more like a band than a church choir,” Tish Ansdell says. St. Paul’s calls its Sunday worship an “acoustic family service.”

The Episcopal hymnal contains a few songs written for such worship, but the hymnal is mainly in four-part harmony and intended for accompaniment on an organ. St.Paul’s rarely uses their organ. They do sing traditional hymns, but John simply plays the chords while worshipers sing melody or make harmony on their own. Much of the music at St. Paul’s comes from other sources and is what is variously called “praise,” “renewal,”or “contemporary” music. Those terms can be misleading, though, since they could describe other kinds of music as well. “Whatever we call them, all worship songs are intended to do the same thing,” John says.

What are they intended to do?John sees music as “an amplifier of emotion.” Worship songs “spark a memory or feeling that is already inside us, but then they build on it and kindle it into a flame, making it stronger. Thankfulness, grace, penitence, awe—songs build up these spiritual experiences.” As in many churches, music at St. Paul’s is selected to illustrate or augment the scripture lessons read on a given Sunday. John meets with his father, the Rev. Keith Talbert, rector of St. Paul’s, to plan each Sunday service. “It’s important that all the words we sing, we hear, and we say work together toward a common theme,” John says.This may not have been what Tish Ansdell was expecting, but she finds it “absolutely fabulous.” She goes home“with a tremendous sense of being uplifted by the music. I feel like I’d like to get up and dance, and if I did,  know it would be accepted!” But Tish spends only half the year in Alabama and she also loves the very different music at the church in Amherst, N.H., where she worships for the other six months of the year. A large choir there rehearses two hours every week to produce music that Tish calls “perfect.”

What if Tish wanted to find such music in Alabama? She could travel just fifteen miles to the east to St.James Episcopal Church in Fairhope. The words of the Episcopal liturgy are the same at St. Pal’s in Foley and at St. James in Fairhope, and so is the understanding of the role and purpose of church music. “Music prepares our hearts to worship almighty God,” says Helen Van Abbema Rodgers, parish musician at St. James. “It softens our hearts to receive and be open to the scripture readings for the day. Church music is not a performance but a means of praising and serving God.”

The feel of the music at St. James, however, is a far cry from that at St.Paul’s. St. James has a sixty-six rank pipe organ, built by the Hermann Schlicker Organ Company of Buffalo, N.Y., and Helen’s organ playing is one of the things that makes worship at St. James exciting, says long-time parishioner Kay Jackson. “When Helen plays, it’s a glorious thing!”Helen has given organ recitals on some of the best instruments in Europe and the United States. St. James has four choirs, all under Helen’s direction. The 9 a.m.Sunday service is led every week by a twenty-five voice adult choir. A choir for grade-school children alternates with a choir for teenage girls at the 11 a.m. Sunday service. And at 7 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month, a men’s choir sings a quiet, meditative service, either Compline (the monastic office for close of day) or a service of simple, repetitive hymnody from the ecumenical Taizé community in France.

Choristers at St. James don’t just show up, start singing, and harmonize as they wish. All music is thoroughly rehearsed and choristers who can’tread music are taught to read it. Does this make for “perfect” music, as Tish describes the music at her New Hampshire congregation? “Well, that’s what we aim for!” says Helen.

Although some might call the music at St. James “traditional,” the hymns, service music, and anthems feature a variety of musical styles and idioms. “We sing music from centuries ago, like that of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis,” says Helen, “but we also sing the work of contemporary composers like Craig Phillips, the Director of Music at All Saints Church in Beverly Hills, and the English composer Philip Stopford.” St. James sings “renewal” or “praise” music as well, usually accompanied on the organ. Trumpets, violins, and other orchestral instruments are brought in to supplement the organ for special services.

St. James also offers the Eastern Shore three or four concerts every year featuring internationally-known organists, choirs, and musical ensembles. Frank Stabler is cantor at St. James. “We sing some modern songs, but our music at St. James encompasses Christian history,” he says. “It means as much to us today as it did to those who first sang it. Being part of a centuries-old Christian tradition is important to us. Our voices join with those of the great saints of the ages.” Musicians and choristers at both parishes agree that there is no “right”style of music for worship any more than there is one “right” way to pray. “In fact,” says Kay Jackson, “singing in church is praying for me.”

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