Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.
An Interview with
Austin C. Lovelace
Austin C. Lovelace is well-known as a composer, organist, choir director, clinician, and workshop leader. This interview with Austin Lovelace was held on April 2, 1993.
What all have you done in church music? Give us a brief overview.
I started as the organist and choir director-at the age of fifteen-at a Baptist Church in Forest City, N.C., and my organ teacher moved away after I'd had about two months of lessons. (Laughs) That's a great start. During high school I used to be a paid singer, $2.00 a service or something like that, in one of the Methodist churches in High Point. I moved over to the Presbyterian church, singing with my organ teacher and my piano teacher and my theory teacher. All the music I had was in private lessons for organ, piano, and voice. When I went to college I was planning to become a Southern Baptist minister, so I took Greek and majored in English and History and really had no music courses. There I spent one year with the First Baptist Church in High Point as choir director, and then I moved over to the First Methodist Church for my last two years in college.
I auditioned at Juilliard, but Helen Dickinson saw me wandering through Union Seminary while I was waiting for the results, invited me in, and wanted to know who I was. "Have you thought about church music?" she asked. I told her I didn't know there was any such thing. In the mountains of North Carolina, where I grew up, nobody was in full-time music. So I played for Dr. Clarence Dickinson the two organ pieces I knew from memory. I had learned them for a contest, and that shocked him, but I'd had enough piano and I had done enough major works that I had the keyboard facility, and then he had me play a hymn, which I could do falling off a log. He asked me to transpose, and I asked "what key?" because I used to sit down and play hymns in all keys, just for the fun of it. He found out I was also a singer, and he said, "We can give you a scholarship." So, I went to Union, quite by a fluke.
During my Union days, my first job was in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Teaneck, and that's a long way from a Southern Baptist church. The next year's congregation was in Passaic, a very freewheeling church, so I was exposed to both ranges quite quickly. My first job out of school was in Lincoln, Nebraska, at Holy Trinity Episcopal, and I was there when Pearl Harbor came. We had an old two-manual Hook and Hastings on it's last legs. And I knew there was no way I could go for many years on that. I was offered a job teaching at Queen's College and Davidson College in North Carolina and also the assistant organist, choir director, tenor soloist, youth choir director-in other words, general flunky-for James Christian Pfohl at Myers Park Presbyterian Church. While I was there, Myers Park Baptist organized in 1943, that's fifty years ago. And I helped to organize the first choir. Recently I went back and wrote an anthem for the fiftieth and conducted it, and my nephew [Noel Lovelace] is there now.
From there I went to the Navy-I was finally drafted. All I did in the service was direct choirs and play the organ and just have a great time. That was a lovely vacation. After the war, I was invited to come to Greensboro to the First Presbyterian Church, and I was there for six years, although they gave me a leave of absence with pay, one year, so I could go back and work on my doctorate at Union, which I got in '50. In '52, I went to Evanston [Ill.] to work at First Methodist and to teach at Garrett Seminary. I was there for ten years, and those were perhaps the most exciting years of my life, because I had an incredibly fine choir. But then when Harold Bosley moved from there to New York City, to Christ Methodist, he asked if I would come with him, and I did. I was there two years. During that time I was working on the new Methodist Hymnal, and I finished that project.
I then had the opportunity to come to Denver to Montview Presbyterian where they had a very fine large choir, around sixty-five or seventy, and very well-trained by Wes Selby. I had a large choir program, a boy's and girl's choir, separate junior-high choir, and a high school choir of about fifty. Incidentally, in Evanston, I had the same sort of program: I had fifty-five in my high school choir, and they sang two anthems every Sunday. All four parts: I never had fewer than five or six tenors. It was an incredible experience for high schoolers. And all of this was at a time when there wasn't much music for youth and children. That's where I started writing so many things. I was at Montview for seven years. and then a new minister came in. and one of us had to go. I went to Lover's Lane Methodist in Dallas, where I had a choir of 118. (This is a church of 7800 members.) It had all sorts of assistant directors and an incredible organist, a graduate of Mildred Andrews who could do anything! Clarece Candamio was her name. She was a real joy, and all I did really was conduct in those days. It was there that I got to do a lot of things with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. They always said that our choir was the only one in town that was really prepared, and they enjoyed coming. I was there for seven years, and then one of the ministers I had worked with at Montview had come to Wellshire Presbyterian and asked if I would come back to Denver. They were going to build a new sanctuary, and I would be responsible for the design of the new organ, for the choir space, for the acoustics, for everything. So I came back, and two years later we wound up with an ideal situation. I finished out my nine years, and retired in 1986, one year after I had my by-pass heart surgery.
And since the time you retired you haven't really slowed down at all, have you?
Last year, I sat down and went through and discovered that I had been to 135 major events since I'd retired.
A lot of those leading workshops?
Yes, workshops, organ recitals, hymn festivals: you name it, I've been doing it. Then, of course, I've been composing all the time. I would imagine I've probably written a hundred things since I've retired.
When you did begin composing?
I started writing things when I was small, and I wrote things in high school. When I was at Union my first composition teacher was T. Tertius Noble, and he made everything sound like T. Tertius Noble-he was not a good teacher of composition. However, I started writing in my very first job, in fact Carl Fischer just recently took out of print my first anthem, which was "Be known to us in breaking bread." It was written in November of 1941 as an illustration of how to write in fifth species counterpoint for a class that I taught at the University of Nebraska.
That had a long life then.
It sure did, and one I wrote in April , "Let this mind be in you," is still in print and still selling well. So I must have learned something from [T. Tertius Noble]. But the biggest jump in composing was when I got to Evanston and found the need for practical things for children and youth. And that's where in working on The Methodist Hymnal I discovered a lot of these early American folk tunes.
How did you get involved with The Methodist Hymnal?
Well, again, by a fluke. The Methodist church, in naming its committee for the revision of the hymnal in 1964, had one representative from each jurisdiction. And a man by the name of Kugel was supposed to be on it, but it turned out that something or other made him ineligible, and they called me on a Saturday night and said, "Will you serve as the representative of this area and the meeting is tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 o'clock in Chicago." (Laughs) So I went down and was named as the chairman of the tunes committee. I guess I spent six years on that project, including looking at every hymn and every tune and every hymnal published in England and America since 1900. That was an education in itself.
Since that time you've been involved with quite a few other hymnals, have you not?
Yes. In the early seventies I was on the editorial board of Ecumenical Praise, with Eric Routley, Alec Wyton, and Carlton Young. That was a very exciting time. And then I've had some input into the new Presbyterian hymnal, though I was not a member of the committee. I stayed off of it because I wasn't sure where they were going. With the new United Methodist Hymnal, I was responsible for the metrical index, which I did for them, and I also wrote material on sixty-one hymns for their pamphlet that came out with it. Recently I've been proof-reading all of the companion to it. I helped to write the companion for the earlier book, along with two others. Then at Wellshire Presbyterian we edited our own hymnal, and I've had input into a couple of Lutheran hymnals, many, many years ago.
You've had a hand in hymnals for many traditions, and you've worked for most all the major denominations in your career.
I once sat down and found out that I have been involved with twenty different denominations.
More than most of us, certainly.
It's very widening. (Laughs)
How did you go about motivating your choirs? You've had quite large choirs.
Well, I think mainly because I've gotten them to sound a lot better than they ever had. In other words, if singing isn't fun, and they don't hear results, they don't keep coming. Another thing is exciting repertoire. I've always managed to push them a little ahead of where they think they can go. But maybe the biggest thing is that I've been able to convince them that the purpose of the music is for worship and not for concert. I've always tried to relate everything to the scriptures. And I made sure that the choir understood why we were doing what we were doing.
What do you see happening in church music today?
(Laughs) A lot of bad stuff. There are very troubling signs. I think too many churches are treating music as entertainment, where music is designed to make everybody feel good. In fact, the church are designed that way: they have a living room you sit in and padded pews, and people come to see a good show. They want the choir to do something they can understand immediately, which is not true of most great music. I'm concerned about the use of the new electronic wizardry-with MIDI and all of the possible sounds you can get through the keyboards, the synthesizers-and particularly the pre-recorded accompaniments that sound just like what you hear on the TV and the radio and all the pop music. It is a pop culture in church, and that is frightening. Another thing that bothers me: outside of the Choristers Guild (which I think is doing a good job with children's choirs), we are losing the youth. It's very rare that you find a big youth choir anymore. That means that down the road there is going to be a gap. Unless you have kept those boys singing through high school, you're going to be in trouble later on.
There are certainly churches that are continuing to have good music. Wellshire still has almost a hundred in the choir, which is what I had when I retired. If you're doing a good job and challenging people, I think the church can still make it. But there are two other things that trouble me, and one of them is the tendency for music schools to try and turn out people who want to be star organ recitalists. They want the nice tracker that can play Muffat perfectly in his middle period. Now you get to the point where your congregation doesn't give a hoot about that, and a lot of the graduates coming out of school don't really care about the church; they just want to do concerts, and that's it. But another problem is that there are too many ministers with absolutely no understanding about music. They get no hymnology courses in seminary. I am firmly convinced unless we focus on hymnology and get the congregation on board and then move on from there, we will really have some problems ahead.
What would you like to see happening?
I would like to see the seminaries doing what Princeton Seminary is doing. They have a full-time church musician, and he has a volunteer choir of sixty-five seminarians that sing every week for chapel. They're being exposed to good music, and so are the other students. He also teaches a course in hymnology. Every seminary ought to be emphasizing the role of music in worship, and it ought to be a required course. I would like to see seminaries having a school of sacred music like Union did, and have the interplay between the musicians and the ministers so they're all learning together.
I'm glad to see organizations like P.A.M. and the Methodist Fellowship and the Lutheran group and the Catholics trying their best with their church music associations. But we've got to get the preachers on board. There's where the problem is, and I don't know how you can change it. Wish I knew.
What advice do you give those attending your workshops?
If it's a hymnology class, I'm going to be talking about why you choose hymns, how you choose them, how you use them, and the fact they must not be chosen and gone through as a seventh-inning stretch with sound effects. The hymn must belong in that worship service, and they must be able to define why it is being used.
For choral music, I try to spend my time presenting the best instead of arguing about the bad. I say "I chose this music because the setting of the music enhances the text and the text is worthy of music in worship." And if it's an organ workshop, then I try to point out that the organist's job is to make the people want to sing. You're not just playing notes. You must play the text, and you must also make that music singable. A lot of organists just play the notes, and that is not the way to do a hymn.
You're planning to continue doing your workshops and lectures?
Well, I just got back from Princeton where I did a hymn festival of contemporary hymns, had a session with their alumni-a lecture on the future of church music-and met with two classes at Westminster Choir College. I'm doing a hymn festival the first of May for a centennial down in Ponca City, Oklahoma. In June, I'm going out to Fairfield, California, to dedicate a new organ. In July I'm to be the choral clinician at the P.A.M. Conference in San Anselmo, at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. And then in August we're flying to Helsinki for an international hymnological group, IAH, where I'm to give a lecture on what happened to popular music in America in the nineteenth century, how it affected the hymnody. October, I'm supposed to meet here in Denver with a national group of Presbyterians. They're talking about the new book of worship that is coming ou,t and I'm to try and relate how music is to be geared into that. Then next February, I'm supposed to play a recital in the Anglican Cathedral at Christchurch, New Zealand. So I'm still busy.
That's great's to hear. I hope many more people have the chance to work with you and hear what you have to say.