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Music for God like chocolate for ears

It’s Easter this weekend. It’s official: This year is disappearing. I hope the holiday involves some relaxation – and chocolate. We deserve it.

My Easter routine usually involves sleeping in, Creme Eggs, and making playlists of all the classic Christian hymns. Usually to listen to while cooking.

I mean, of course, the traditional ones – sung by all-male choirs in draughty English cathedrals, with stanzas plucked from the King James Bible and ear-splitting organ interludes. If I close my eyes, I can smell the incense and taste the [terrible] communion wine. We Anglicans were hardcore – no grape juice for us.

I’m hardly religious these days. But there is something about Christian music. The impossibly high notes, the poetry, the big final choruses with the meticulous harmonies, the old church acoustics… the gravitas [and nostalgia] is real.

As a child, I was raised in the High Anglican tradition: Similar to Catholicism in pageantry and ritual, with fewer statues. My father was a bell ringer at St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington – so church was a semi-regular part of our social calendar. Most evenings, Dad would blast out his favourite recordings from the King’s College Cambridge choir; the more organ solos, the better. Dad himself was an accomplished organist in his youth and can still crank out an epic rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.

I went to an Anglican school — where hymns and upbeat “praise songs” were part of the furniture. One of the staples was the relentlessly peppy and saccharine “Shine, Jesus, Shine” – which, to quote Spinoff editor and fellow religious school alum Madeleine Chapman, had “all the vibes of the Full House theme”. Us kids Broadway’d the heck out of that thing — butchered high notes and all.

In high school, despite being far too cool for singing, we had a particular fondness for our “school Psalm” — Psalm 46, composed into a chant by Martin Luther. The first words of every line are sung all on one note; the final words sung down the octave. Relieved to take a breath, it was tradition to practically yell the lower phrasings — particularly emphasising the stanza ending “burneth the chariots in the fire”.

The only reason I’d ever go back for a reunion: To see if that tradition is still intact.

Some of the best tunes I picked up from watching Praise Be with my late paternal grandmother. Nearer My God To Thee was one of Nana’s favourites — also agreed by maritime history buffs to be the final song played by the Titanic’s band as the ship went down. Debate persists as to which version. As the band was British, it was most likely the [rather dirge-like] tune “Horbury” — whereas James Cameron’s movie used “Bethany”, more common in the US. The American version is arguably the bigger tear-jerker.

If I had to pick a favourite from my nostalgic songbook, it’d be “Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace”. There’s something beautifully universal about its message: Bringing comfort, grace and goodwill to others’ lives is something we can all get behind, regardless of how we spend our Sunday mornings.

On a lighter note: check out “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”, by Steve Martin and his acapella band, on Youtube. It’s unfair, they warble, that Christians get all the pretty music – but “no-one ever wrote a song about godless existentialism”. However, says Martin, atheists can agree on one thing: in their favourite songs, the “he is always lowercase”.

Whatever your Easter involves, I hope it’s a good one. I won’t be going to church this Sunday, I’m afraid. If you are a church go-er, I hope the communion wine has improved since my childhood. Sing along to all the golden oldies for me.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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