“There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in worship where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere…It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or the alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range…There is also the solo voice that drowns out everything else…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 40 - 41.
This is a passage that could have been written differently, with a pastoral instructional “voice” in order to help us see how we can be sensitive to one another in the Lord when we sing together. The image of elements of singing being “very rigorously weeded out” is not helpful without pastoral guidance, and may indeed result in damage to life together should an overzealous and legalistic person aggressively apply the admonition to others. I can visualize Bonhoeffer viscerally reacting against groups and people he has experienced with a lingering aversion. We have all likely had times in which we’ve been in group settings that were not a good fit for us, settings in which, try as we might, we could not find harmony and comfort. In these settings it can be difficult to separate the visceral from the objective; sometimes what we feel may not be what is actually there – in other words what we think is objectively true as a result of our feelings may not be true. Sometimes our feelings deceive us, sometimes our minds deceive us, sometimes they both deceive us, sometimes they both testify to the truth – let us hope the latter becomes our norm.
I am surprised by Bonhoeffer’s comment about “the improvised second part” because he loved the distinctive singing of the African-American church and he played recordings of its singing to friends and students. So he must have been thinking of another environment when he wrote these words about “the improvised second part”; this is a caution for all of us as to what can happen when we allow a bad experience to color our thinking to the point that we make blanket statements that cause us to forget the beauty we’ve seen elsewhere and which can adversely affect the thinking and actions of others. Living with imperfection is an element of life together and we can called to cultivate the virtue of longsuffering.
Singing “parts” and background and improvisation can be just as much an expression of gifts and graces as it can be of vanity; it can be joyous when there are those among us who know how to provide dimensions to singing and music that complement the music and singing of the rest of us. Yes, there can be much vanity involved in singing and music – but there can also be much vanity in preaching and teaching – there is the potential for vanity, vanity, vanity everywhere, both in us and among us – I have more than my share – not to mention the collective vanity we can cultivate as congregations and traditions and movements. We do well to remember Bonhoeffer’s admonition that the music must be the servant of the Word.