Preludes and Postludes: Why do They Matter?

December 10, 2015
Part of my job as Music Director at St. Paul is to provide a prelude and a postlude each week for Sunday worship. The music I choose for the prelude is generally of a prayerful or contemplative nature and the postlude, while it tends to be more festive, certainly varies depending on the season or the particular Sunday in the church year. I’ve had the privilege over the past couple of years to discuss the role of the prelude and postlude in our worship with our wonderful staff, several colleagues, and many parishioners. For the most part it seems that none of us ever wish to go without the prelude or postlude, but ideas about the role of these musical moments in our worship vary distinctly.

Every set of church staff is different with respect to its beliefs around the purpose of the prelude and postlude, just as each congregation differs with respect to the way that it treats preludes and postludes. Some of my music director friends have been instructed by their supervising pastors to begin the prelude no less than 15 minutes prior to a service while others have been instructed to play no prelude whatsoever. Several churches ask that there be no postlude during Advent or Lent because of the penitential nature of those particular seasons while some enjoy complex and boisterous postludes year-round (and sit attentively through the entirety of each, no matter the length.) I have attended several churches where it is customary to enter the worship space in silence, allowing the prelude to be the only sound that occupies the space, then sit quietly following the service until the completion of the postlude.

Our custom at St. Paul is truly a mixed bag: many of us enter worship in a rather last-minute fashion, greeting our friends and family whole-heartedly with spirit-filled voices while others sit quietly in the pews for several minutes with downcast eyes or hearts lifted in prayer. I would argue that these are both ways to prepare ourselves for worship; they’re just vastly different ways to prepare. Where does the prelude enter each of these scenarios? For some it seems the prelude is background music that fills the space between greetings or provides a backdrop for an extended conversation. For others it fills space in the soul or the mind, maybe quieting the residue from a busy week and making room for the words and music of worship. In many cases, perhaps the prelude is worship. 

The postlude, from my perspective, is really an exciting opportunity to lift up a musical offering to God but also an important moment to comment on a theme from the last hour’s worship service or send the congregation out into the world with a message for the coming week. I tend to think carefully about this music and spend quite a lot of time preparing it. It’s always a nice benefit for members of the congregation to share this moment with me!

What is the prelude to you? What about the postlude? How do you make use of these musical moments during worship? During this season of Advent, we are hoping to access some contemplative time in the sanctuary before worship each Sunday. Before the prelude begins, the singing bowl will be rung several times, calling us to reflection and preparation. We hope this is a meaningful change to our routine and perhaps causes us to think more carefully about the time before and after worship each week.

Bach, Luther, and YOU.

Stop whatever you’re doing and listen to J.S. Bach’s B-minor Mass (BWV 232). All of it. Right now. You’ll need a couple of hours and you might need to take a break, so grab your favorite recording, send the kids to your neighbor’s house, and get going! Perhaps you can start with the nine movements that set the text of the Nicene Creed (Symbolum Nicenum.) These nine miraculous movements exist in a symmetrical structure with the crucifixion at the center. How’s that for a theological statement? The creed has always been central to Lutheran worship. In fact, Singing the creed as a congregation used to be common practice.

Bert Drop will be providing special music for us during worship this coming Sunday. Along with his desire to contribute some beautiful interpretations of music by J.S. Bach, Bert expressed some interest in having the congregation sing LBW 374, We All Believe In One True God, instead of speaking the creed together this coming Sunday. To say this practice is deeply rooted in our Lutheran heritage is an understatement - it’s one of the foundational liturgical practices established by Martin Luther through his Deutsche Messe. The structure of Luther’s Deutsche Messe (German Mass) is similar to that of the Roman Mass, but rather than listening to a choir or religious leaders “perform” the parts of the mass, the congregation sings each part of the mass together. Luther believed it was also important to sing the lessons and the gospel, so even though we now hear readings of the lessons and gospel each Sunday, they were commonly chanted by the congregation. Through the practice of singing, we become active participants in worship rather than mere spectators; a belief that motivated Luther to construct the Deutsche Messe in the first place. You may not know it, but you are already familiar with the Mass ordinary, or the Ordinarium parts of the mass. The latin names for the Mass ordinary are listed below on the left, with the text you sing or say each Sunday on the right.

Kyrie               Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy

Gloria             Glory to God

Credo             I believe/we believe

Sanctus          Holy, holy, holy

Agnus Dei      Lamb of God

This Sunday, we will sing Wir glauben all an einen Gott (We All Believe In One True God) from the “old green book” and hear music of J.S. Bach during the prelude and postlude. Bach, Luther, and you are wonderfully interconnected. Consider the implications of singing the Nicene Creed together as our Lutheran brothers and sisters did for the first time in the early 1500’s. I encourage you to introduce yourself to Bert after worship on Sunday; stay and listen to the postlude, then thank him for this reminder of our heritage and connection to the great J.S. Bach!

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