Contemporary music composers lament that the human voice is limited in its contribution to music. They would have more control over intonation, they say, if they could have the vocal sound made artificially by a synthesizer type of instrument.

A mechanical instrument has not yet been invented, nor ever will be, that can match the infinite musical ability of the human voice.  The piano can only produce whole tones and half tones. The voice can produce at least 24 more tones between each half tone and 48 between the whole tones. There are four kinds of stringed instruments, and countless number of instruments of brass and wood that are used to try to match what the human voice can do.

We have done a fair job of imitating the human voice with the classical stringed instruments..  This family of instruments has a sound that is vocal in quality that can be heard as in voices humming.  These instruments, like the voice are not limited to whole tones and half tones and depend on the human ear to make adjustments.

There is a phenomenon call the tempered scale, which means that we can’t play every tone to its assigned frequency.  We have to make adjustments to those frequencies so that our ears can tolerate the sounds. For instance on the piano the only perfect interval is the octave, all the rest are adjusted in to a few waves sharp or flat.  That is why string players, along with wind instrumentalist are always “rocking” their fingers.  The voice simply makes the adjustment with the physical and mental abilities God built in.

God’s instrument has heart.  Paul J. Christiansen founded the Concordia Choir and directed it for 50 years.  He taught musical integrity and won national and international acclaim being recognized as the foremost authority on the application of artistic discipline to choral works.  His choirs did not always have great solo voices because his concern was the character of the singer and the secret worth of every individual.

A cappella vs unaccompanied

Singing with instrumental accompaniment, or without it can be a cappella (in church) if the words and accompaniment are suitable.  The Latin word a cappella means chapel. The Vatican choir sings in the chapel mostly unaccompanied, therefore the words unaccompanied and a cappella have become synonymous.

In Medieval times they called serious unaccompanied vocal music motets. The light and “vulgar” unaccompanied vocal music they called madrigals. A motet could be sung in church (a cappella), while the “vulgar”  words of the madrigal could not, but both were sung unaccompanied.  Example: “I wish I wuz and apple a-hanging in a tree, and every time my Cindy passed she’d take a bite of me. A great little folk song effectively done unaccompanied, but you would not sing it a cappella (in church).

Music is a cappella if it can be sung in church services, accompanied or not.  Early church music manuscripts might appear unaccompanied, but this can be misleading as the simple instruments only played what the voice was singing.

North and South

How did this unaccompanied/accompanied singing become such a dividing element in the restoration movement?  The churches of Christ are actually “Johnny-come-latelys” to the fray as Amite’s own Bro. Merton Andrus (song leader in Amite for well over 50 years) would attest to.  Bro. Merton was once a part of a Methodist group that thought it ridiculous to seek the help of instruments in singing.  From them he learned a system of reading music called solfeggio, developed in Colonial America.  This system was frowned upon by “sophisticated” musicians who regarded it a “dunce music.” A Connecticut man, Lyman Beecher (Harriet and Henry’s father) led the movement against it.

The new American singing schools grew up outside the churches. They advocated this method of reading music without the aid of instruments by using syllables and shaped notes making understanding “key signatures” unnecessary.  It found its way into the churches and was not well received with its lively rhythmical songs, jigs and patriotic songs.  The sophisticated deacons and stubborn partisans of the Psalter were horrified at the unsophisticated music. (A Psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms and other devotional material).

Shape note (unaccompanied) singing was driven south out of the path of “civilization.”  This high-minded reaction of Lyman Beecher and his Calvinist colleagues to shaped notes singing led to other debates that would ignite the Civil War.

Unaccompanied singing became a thing of the “uncultured South.”  Then Daniel Sommer in 1889 at Sandy Creek, Ohio gave the name Church of Christ to a branch of the “Restoration Movement” and tagged on some rules and regulations.  He appealed to the South, which had the biggest representation, adding “no instrumental” music supporting it with two verses of scripture and a lot of Southern Pride.

There are Churches of Christ in Ohio that proudly display their organs and pianos.  There are Christian Churches in Kentucky that will have nothing to do with those instruments.  Research might reveal that the division over accompanied versus unaccompanied singing might be the rivalry of a developed sophisticated North and a culturally developing South.

Unaccompanied Singing comes of Age

Early in the last century unaccompanied singing reached new heights of sophistication  thanks to F. Melius Christiansen and Norwegian Lutherans.

Unaccompanied singing in Europe enjoyed a high place in worship, especially in the Lutheran Church.  In Colonial America it was considered “uncultured” and related to the “poor” folks who couldn’t afford the instruments.  The “poor” folk developed the system of reading music independent of instruments and it is now called solfeggio.  A system universally required in all degrees of music.  However, the stigma of “dunce” music or “music of the lower class” hung on for awhile.

In 1903 came F. Melius Christiansen from Norway with his Lutheran background of unaccompanied singing, and German training, pioneering the working of the art of unaccompanied choral music.  His intent was to improve the quality of choral singing and reacquaint the church with its heritage of chorales and unaccompanied singing.  For more than three-quarters of a century, he and his sons, Paul and Olaf, set a standard of choral excellence that remains at the forefront of choral artistry. (And they did it with “uncultured, unsophisticated” immigrants and their working farm hand children.)

FMC wrote in 1927..”..the spiritual condition is very important in this work (singing).  We must give genuine expression to those beautiful works and not mere “vain representation.’”

I got my introduction to this “spiritual condition”, coincidentally, from another Scandinavian, Dale Jorgensen, whose intense spirituality comes through when he takes over a singing group. This spirit filled intensity is the key to congregational not just choral singing.

When I was at LSU the premier performing ensemble was called “The A Cappella Choir”. Ninety-five per cent  of our repertoire was for unaccompanied  voices.  When the director saw “church of Christ” on my audition sheet he just smiled and said “Welcome.”

The best musical offering we can make is with our voices – “the only instrument made by God.”

John Fulda, 702 So. Laurel, Amite, LA 70422

Ed. Note: John Fulda was a teacher of music for many years at both college and high school levels.  He taught music and directed the chorus at Southeastern Christian College in the early 60s.  He retired from teaching music and directing choir and musical productions after many years at Amite High School.