Cantata Series: Imagine That

For many of us who grew up in the late 50’s and early 60’s, one fixture of the Christmas season was the choir’s presentation of the latest John W. Peterson cantata from Singspiration.   Purists criticized them for their “secular” styles while many musicians compared them unfavorably to the great Christmas masterworks, but choirs and congregations–at least in medium-sized churches like my home congregation–ate them up.   By the time I was choosing music for choirs, we might do the occasional Peterson anthem on Sunday night, but the cantatas were passe, and a host of other composers and publishers were cranking out seasonal works with popular appeal in a variety of styles.   Some were close to “classical” in content, others echoed the sounds of the Jesus movement, and others remained in that warmly sentimental style that Peterson had found to be such a popular niche.   For those churches not quite ready for Vivaldi or Bach, there were many options.

And through the years I have done my share of those programs, which for purposes of this article we can define as primarily choral, primarily narrative, and typically associated with Christmas or Easter.   I have had those conversations with colleagues that begin “What are you doing for Christmas this year?”    I’ve helped put food on the table for Tom Fettke and Joseph Martin and Pepper Choplin, and had some glorious worship and musical experiences in those presentations.   Yes, they can be formulaic (here comes that Magi number with the Oriental flavor), and in any given compilation not every tune will be one we would have chosen.   But at their best they provide both choir and congregation with a meaningful opportunity to celebrate what God has done for us in Christ.

So in the evolving world of church music, is there still a place for the seasonal cantata?   Based on the flyers and samples that cross my desk, it is alive and well–and I suspect will continue to be for the forseeable future.   Many churches that rarely use choirs still consider a Christmas program a non-negotiable tradition.   And since Christmas and Easter are peak attendance times, churches will continue to seek ways to maximize participation in the various events surrounding those seasons.  And to the publishers and writers credit, it seems that these seasonal works can elicit some of the most creative writing, dramatic elements, and “outside the box” approaches to communicate in fresh ways a story that is generally already well known to those listening.

Which leads us to the primary consideration in this article: the challenge of taking such familiar material and bringing it to life for those both telling and hearing the story.   This to me is a crucial question for the future of the seasonal musical.    And I have one suggestion that will certainly resonate with me, and perhaps with others.

This is my suggestion:   Remember that a story’s best friend is the imagination of the listener.

Retelling the Christmas or Easter story means we are attempting to convey events that cannot be replicated, or even compared.   Incarnation, angel hosts, atonement, resurrection–these elements are far beyond our human experience and ability to portray.  But in our media-saturated, special-effects world, we feel compelled to get as close as we can to recreating those events with image and drama and life-like detail.   Or we burden the narrative with the recitation of the obvious so no truth is left unrevealed.  And in my opinion, none of these approaches do justice to the mystery and majesty of the gospel story.

As an alternative let me hold up an example from the distant past–the 70’s–and a musical called “The Witness” by Jimmy Owens.   It invited the imagination of the listener to be an equal partner in at least two ways that I remember vividly.   First, there was a storyteller–an eyewitness in the person of Peter, who as a rough-around-the-edges fisherman recalled events that still perplexed and amazed him.   He was a real person the listeners could identify with on his pilgrimage of faith.   And he was allowed to be just a storyteller, full of questions and most decidedly human.   There were certainly opportunities for dramatic vignettes–a scene where Judas sings in despair comes to mind–but most of the action takes place in the mind of the hearer.   This is what a well-written monologue or dialogue or narration does–it invites the listener to create the space and sounds and sights and smells of the event.

Secondly, the musical has one of the most powerful evocations of the crucifixion I have experienced.    Peter doesn’t describe the scene in gruesome detail, but with massive understatement simply says “and there they crucified the Son of God.”   Then we begin to hear a lullaby, sung by Mary the mother of Jesus.  It is the same lullaby heard early in the musical when the story of His birth was told.   Now those sweet words of comfort are accompanied by the strikes of a hammer in random counterpoint to the gentle music.   No need for a cross, no need for soldiers, no need for stage blood, for in our imagination the power and horror of that scene are indelibly imprinted by those sounds.

More recently, a program entitled “A Christmas Tale” from Willow Creek used a diverse (motley?) crew of storytellers and singers to convey the wonder and joy of Christ’s birth with humor and movement and poignancy–opening the door for those listening to join in the story for themselves.   It included some optional low-key video effects, but the power and wonder came from the spoken and sung word, and the truth came to life in the personality of those telling the story.

So what am I proposing to our writers and publishers?   Continue to give us seasonal cantatas, but give as much attention to the elements of story-telling as you do to the beauty and appeal of the music.    Give us the perspective of a character with whom we can relate.   Paint unfinished pictures and give us the tools to finish them within our own hearts and minds.   Remember the power of passing the bread in “Celebrate Life”, and give us some more ways (beyond singing) to involve our listeners.  We live in an age which seems determined to replace our God-given imaginations with the force-fed input of electronic gadgetry.   I propose that our seasonal events (and all our worship) counter that trend.   I recommend that you create works such that when people leave they marvel not at the beauty of the music or the cleverness of the effects or even the emotions that were stirred, but they marvel that God would do what he did in a story that was heard a hundred times before, but never seen and heard like it was this time–in that amazing theatre called the mind’s eye that God gave to each of us.

I would order that kind of cantata.

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