March 5, 2019

When We Talk About Music, 1969-2019

Music—religious and otherwise—is part of our shared experience.

Nevilla E. Ottley

Which would you say is better: Adventist music in 1969, or Adventist music in 2019? Following is a reminder of what and how things used to be, and have been more recently.

Remembering Church Music

I remember music that I appreciated as a graduate student in a Seventh-day Adventist university. It was the classical European masters—Handel, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Gounod, Brahms, Faure,Mendelssohn, and Samuel Barber. It was choral anthems and oratorios sung at church. It was the King’s Heralds quartet and great organ and piano works. Congregational singing was from the 1941 Church Hymnal. Special music featured various instruments. And songs like “It Only Takes a Spark” became popular.

Some Adventists also liked the country singing of Jim Reeves and Roy Drusky, an Adventist who performed regularly in the Grand Ole Opry.

As time progressed Adventist music production changed and expanded beyond Voice of Prophecy’s King’s Heralds male quartet and Del Delker to soloist Sunny Liu, the Wedgwood Trio with guitars, and Black gospel music from such as the Blendwright sisters and the Soul Seekers.

Beyond Adventist walls Sandi Patty and Larnelle Harris thrilled with grand orchestral accompaniment. In Black churches Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” was accepted in 1969, and Andrae Crouch was already there with his group The Disciples, augmenting the Black gospel traditions in our churches. In 1970 Adventist bass/baritone Wintley Phipps, Trinidad-born, stepped onto a world stage that he still commands in 2019.

Remembering Seventies music Outside and In

The 1970s had their wealth of popular music: one-man shows such as James Brown and Marvin Gaye; one-woman celebrities such as Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson; and groups—the Ohio Players, the Jackson 5.

Heaven’s angels are thrilled about worship.

Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse organized the New England Youth Ensemble in 1973, a youth orchestra that has come to be celebrated for its class all over the world. Rittenhouse later moved the organization from Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts to the then Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University. The group has traveled widely. So has the Metropolitan Symphony Steel Orchestra of Metro Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, one of Adventism’s more daring musical innovations from that period: an orchestra composed of steel drums. Metro church was also the base for Myron S. Ottley’s MetroSingers through the dozen years of their existence (1999-2011).

Other favorites in Adventist music include the Breath of Life Quartet, which lasted for more than 30 years in service to the telecast of the same name.

Among the most celebrated Adventist choral groups today is the Aeolians of Oakwood University, organized in 1946 by the late Eva B. Dykes. Its remembered conductors include John Dennison and Alma Blackmon. Today, under current director Jason Ferdinand, the Aeolians enjoy unparalleled international prominence, respect, and admiration. In 2017 they won the World Choir championship in Wales, and in 2018 the championship of the 2018 World Choir Games in South Africa. Their repertoire embraces genres from the baroque era to the twenty-first century, and the choir is considered an authoritative exponent of Negro spirituals and work songs.

Remembering Meaning

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, one of America’s best-known church choirs today, was born in the 1970s and turned out their first recording in the 1980s. This was also the decade in which an Adventist Church committee chaired by baritone Charles L. Brooks, with Wayne Hooper of the King’s Heralds as executive secretary, updated the Church Hymnal.

Hooper’s awareness of the vocal range demanded in the older hymnal is remembered through his remark about the hymn “Let Him In,” which begins, “There’s a Stranger at the door.” Hooper said, “When most of us attempt to screech out the three high F’s in this hymn, I’m sure the ‘Stranger’ would be frightened away!” Apart from high F’s, Hooper was aware that the 1941 hymnal was behind the times, did not reflect current musical culture, and lacked music of African Americans. Interestingly, some say that the 1985 update he helped to guide is no longer relevant to today.

His quip demonstrates that much more than genre and theology are involved in determining what is appropriate. The claim by some that the 1985 update may now be out of date shows that even the most enlightened improvements can have limited application.

On the other hand, it took courage, even daring, to organize a steel drum orchestra in an Adventist church when the phenomenon’s clearest identification is with extravagant and earthy carnival celebrations, first in Trinidad and Tobago, and by now all over the world.

During the past two decades there has been much ado in churches worldwide about praise teams and church bands that feature electronic keyboards, Hammond organs, guitars, and drum sets. These worship accoutrements are present worldwide. I remember when that music first began in the church I attend: I entered church one Sabbath morning and mistook the song for a secular pop song performed on the rhythm and blues radio program Quiet Storm. Controversy over church music is not new. And the lessons available for learning can be stunning to those willing to learn.

Rittenhouse described on WGTS-FM radio, and later in conversations with me, her experience as a child in the 1930s when she was part of a small group visiting a remote village in central Africa. She recalls how taking out her violin seemed to bring the village alive and facilitate communication with her visiting group. When the villagers sang for the visitors, she said, “Their music was not unlike that of the great European cathedrals of the Renaissance.”

We may also be affected in other ways. Ellen White describes one: the pain of untrained shrieking voices. She writes, “I long to stop my ears, or flee from the place, and I rejoice when the painful exercise is ended.”*

Concluding—for Now

This review has not answered all the questions on similarity and difference, appropriateness or otherwise, of music in Adventism through the past 50 years. Nor was it intended to.

If I had room I’d tell of Adrian T. Westney, Jr., Take 6, Herbert Blomstedt, Shirley Verrett, Thomas Hampson, and more; or even the Ottley Music School founded in Maryland in 1973 and still going strong. Mostly I have written what I’ve seen and recall, without exhaustion of names or much elaboration of principles.

I know, though, that today with television, YouTube, FaceBook, iTunes, and all the various media, the enemy of meaning and durable values is as ready as ever to distract us from the true meaning of worship, and deprive us of a vital aspect of the experience of salvation from self and communion with God. Mindfulness is what we must not lose, mindfulness of what and how we best worship God with our music. Heaven’s angels are thrilled about worship. They would love to be part of ours and have us part of theirs.

Are we up to it?

* Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 508.

Nevilla E. Ottley directs the Ottley Music School she founded in 1973 in Hyattsville, Maryland.