Thursday, July 12, 2018

Prelude, offering and postlude

Instrumental Music: What’s the Point? 

Recently, I’ve been pondering the role of instrumental music in the worship service.

During my various professional experiences leading music in different denominations and congregations, I’ve noticed that the variety of expectations people bring to worship extends to how they approach the instrumental music, specifically the prelude and postlude. What does this music mean to them personally? Congregationally? How do they interact with it?

Many years ago, I was invited to play for a Lutheran church in Montreal that really valued all the music in the service, and boy, I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard! Why? Because the congregation expected a very lengthy prelude (15–20 minutes). Their conversation stopped out in the foyer. When they came into the sanctuary, they expected the prelude to bring them into the realm of the sacred, to allow them to focus and use the music for preparation and meditation. This experience raised some questions: Can the prelude allow us to be still in the midst of our busy lives and block out some of the noise of the week? Can it turn our attention to the important things in our lives, especially our relationship with God and each other? Does it allow us to prepare ourselves for worship?

Other congregations, like a gathering I played for recently, may use and experience instrumental music in a different way. Is the music just for setting the mood? Or is it just for background behind the conversation?

Personally, I think the music, whether congregational, choral, or instrumental, should always enhance worship in some way by reinforcing the message, theme, readings, or season. Most musicians try to make the music relevant to what is happening in the service or in the congregation. As Luther supposedly said, “Music is the handmaiden of theology.”

The prelude and postlude play a special role in enhancing worship and theology. In his article “Prelude, Offertory, Postlude,” Rev. Frank Hughes Jr. describes the prelude and postlude this way: “Like musical bookends, they bracket everything that happens in between and are theologically related to the central meaning of worship. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the prelude and postlude are worth a library.”[1]

In an article for Ministry published in 1939 but still relevant today, Stanley Ledington speaks of the prelude as “the beginning of the service, not something used to quiet a noisy congregation.…The prelude is not for entertainment or for the purpose of displaying technique, but to prepare for the consideration of sacred things.”[2] In “What We Do and Why We Do It,” Norman Bendroth discusses the other bookend, the postlude. “The postlude captures the grandeur of God’s majesty and of the day’s worship. Increasingly, many congregations remain seated during the postlude as a fitting time of reflection at the conclusion of worship and out of courtesy to the organist or musicians.[3] Rev. Frank Hughes Jr. states that “the music at the end of the service pulls together feelings and attitudes already expressed in word and song.”  In A Sunday Guide to Worship, the authors suggest that while the postlude is not a formal part of the service, “The congregation could be encouraged in the bulletin or by the choir to remain seated to listen.”[4]

When selecting instrumental music that will satisfy its purpose, I start with these questions, first posed by Stanley Ledington. “Is it good music? Is it suitable for the use to which it is to be put? Will it draw attention to me, or will it tend to induce the proper worshipful, reverent mood?”


Tammy-Jo Mortensen,
Music Director

[1] Frank Hughes, “Prelude, Offertory, Postlude.” Accessed May 27, 2018.
[2] Stanley Ledington, “The Music of the Church Service.” Ministry: International Journal for Pastors. Accessed May 29, 2018.
[3] Norman Bendroth, “What We Do and Why We Do It.” Accessed May 28, 2018.
[4] Alan Barthel, David R. Newman, Paul Scott Wilson, A Guide to Sunday Worship, The United Church Publishing House, 1988, 104.

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