We walked into an old convent in the town of Cholula, Mexico. A choir from the University of the Americas was rehearsing for an evening concert. The program included music composed by Mexican and Spanish artists from around the 16th century. The music fit the venue. If you closed your eyes, you could visualize a group of monks chanting their evening office.
We are in Mexico leading a group of 22 students from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., on their cross-cultural requirement. We were invited to the concert by a friend who had taught a class for a different EMU cross-cultural group over five years ago. We have remained in contact over the years, and along with attending the concert, we enjoyed catching up with each other.
The sounds of Tomás de Victoria were reverberating through the convent as we entered; four-part polyphonic a cappella music rendered in straight tones to keep a perfect blend while combating the tendency for the voices to splatter in the echo chambers of chapels. I was mesmerized. My eyes filled with tears as the veil between heaven and earth seemed to be especially thin.
Over the past month before bringing the group to Mexico, I have attended a number of spring concerts featuring various groups given by high school and college choirs. I have always been a choir groupie. Perhaps it stems from the fact that choir was the only activity in which I was allowed to participate in my public high school. I sang in choirs throughout high school and college and until recently have sung in an assortment of adult choir groups.
Over the years I have collected a wide assortment of choral music that spans the decades and genres. I am well-versed in choir repertoire. Unfortunately, as simple guitar-and-drum-accompanied choruses become more and more popular in church circles, I have often been afraid that my beloved choral music would die out. The verse “sing unto the Lord a new song,” which I deliberately misquoted in the title, is used as justification for their use.
I know this puts me on one side of the worship wars, which is not my intention. However, I think we are missing a lot when we totally eliminate the old songs. I remember trying to sing traditional Christmas carols or Easter hymns when most of the people present did not know them. Within our old songs resides the collective memory of our Christian tradition. Can we just throw it away?
So aside from how glorious the music sounded when I entered the convent the other night, another thing lightened my heart. Something that gives me hope that the choral tradition will not die out. Here were nearly 30 young folks in Mexico, not exactly known for a great choral tradition, singing in perfect unaccompanied four-part harmony to a packed audience. I could see from the looks on many of their faces that the music was as transcending for them as it was for me.
One could say the same for the dozens of youth who sing in choirs at the universities in my home town, Harrisonburg. You expect EMU to have good choirs since four-part singing has been part of its tradition from their beginning. But one can even be more impressed with the choirs that the public university across town produces (James Madison University). Their select choir, the Madison Singers, features some 40 voices and the University Chorale features some 80 voices. Their repertoire includes many “old” songs and choral works of the church, and one observes how many of the singers are moved deeply by the old music as well.
So, sing unto the Lord an old song. It doesn’t have to be four-part a cappella. It can be accompanied by a majestic organ, a small ensemble of instrumentalists, or a full orchestra. Just let the collective memory and accumulated wisdom from across the centuries wash over you and lift your soul.
Don Clymer is an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is also a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch where this originally appeared.