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Music programs key to congregational life

Growing diversity in music characterizes Unitarian Universalism today.
By Donald E. Skinner
Spring 2008 2.15.08

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Jazz pianist Darrell Grant performs at the 2007 UUA General Assembly (Nancy Pierce/UUA)

Jazz pianist Darrell Grant performs at the 2007 UUA General Assembly. (Nancy Pierce)

We love diversity. It’s there every Sunday in our worship services. Humanists, liberal Christians, Pagans, Wiccans, all walking different theological paths under the same roof. And thus it is with Unitarian Universalist music. On any given Sunday our music is as varied as we are. There are hymns by long-dead Europeans and by contemporary composers. There might be jazz or bluegrass or chanting. “There is a much greater variety of music being done now than we’ve ever had,” said Elizabeth Norton, music director at First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, and president of the UU Musicians Network, the professional organization for UU music leaders.

Jeannie Gagné’s church proves the point. Gagné is music director at the First Unitarian Universalist Soci­ety of Middle­boro, Mas­sachusetts, where music is an experience that everyone shares. On Sunday mornings Gagné is up in front directing the choir, while also leading the congregation in hymn singing.

Gagné is focused on creating quality music and involving as many members of the congregation as possible. “I want to get people out of simply reading the hymns and get them into moving,” she said, “letting go to spirit, clapping, drumming. Sometimes I riff on top of the hymns to encourage people to sing outside the lines, and I encourage our pianist to add her own interpretation of what’s on the page.”

How times have changed! In the early 1800s, Unitarian congregations had little in the way of music. If they sang at all they sang biblical psalms that had been put to music by their Puritan ancestors. On the other side of our heritage, the Universalists were more musical, said the Rev. David Johnson, who is writing a book on the history of Unitarian and Universalist hymnody. “The Universalists were very enthusiastic singers from the beginning,” said Johnson, former longtime minister at First Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts, and now interim minister at the UU Meeting House of Chatham, Massachusetts.

“The Universalists sang about God’s love for everyone, very pointed evangelical hymns. When the Unitarians began writing and singing hymns, theirs were more graciously theological, celebrating nature and the bond between God and humankind,” said Johnson. Neither faith had choirs in the beginning. “The Universalists all sang, and they didn’t see any need for a separate choir.”

By a certain point the Unitarians were trying desperately to sing well, he said. They had several periods of prolific hymn writing. The introduction to The Unitarian Faith in Unitarian Hymns, a collection of hymns published around 1915 by the American Unitarian Association, reflects one of these periods: “It is a significant fact that every period of spiritual awakening in the Christian church should have been marked by a fresh outburst of hymnody. . . . For the most part the older hymns no longer truly represent the mood of the new day, which must needs pour out its own heart in joy and praise, in aspiration and resolution.”

Today, UU congregations have many options when it comes to music. Just as we have multiple theological paths, ministries of music can be created anew each Sunday in a variety of styles and tempos.


Two new UU hymnbooks in the past fifteen years have helped open the door to musical variety. The first, Singing the Living Tradition, was published in 1993. Singing the Journey, a hymnbook supplement, came out in 2005. The former book was inspired by the need to remove sexist language from UU music and to reflect the UUA’s work in antiracism; multiculturalism; bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender issues; humanism; and a growing interest in spirituality.

Singing the Journey was designed to supplement Singing the Living Tradition with more contemporary music, including jazz, folk, pop, spirituals, gospel, praise songs, chants, rounds, and traditional hymns, reflecting the growing direction of music in UU congregations.

First Parish at Concord is representative of a large number of UU congregations that have broadened their music repertoires. It uses both Singing the Living Tradition and Singing the Journey, said Norton, who has been music director there for 14 years. “I came with the idea that we really could incorporate just about any kind of music if the worship theme called for it, whether it’s jazz or bluegrass or Hindu devotional songs. We’re using Singing the Journey to complement Singing the Living Tradition and to expand our musical repertoire.”


For all the congregations like Gagné’s that thrive on contemporary forms of music, there are others that are no less enthusiastic, but who prefer more traditional forms of music. “Classical music has deep roots here,” said music director Don Krehbiel at First Unitarian Church of Dallas. “My predecessor was here for 43 years and provided classical instrumental music both modern and ancient. When I was hired 18 years ago it was with the understanding that I would continue this tradition and expand upon it.”

The congregation has not purchased the new Singing the Journey and is not likely to use it much, he said. “Over the years we’ve attracted people who like our traditional worship.” He added that worship leaders do add new music occasionally for congregational singing when it is appropriate.

The Rev. Mark Belletini, minister at the First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, was chair of the commission that developed Singing the Living Tradition. “Historically UU congregations have tended to not be musically adventuresome,” he said. “Before doing Singing the Living Tradition we did a survey and found that of the hymns in the previous 1964 hymnal congregations were only singing ten to twelve regularly. Here at Columbus we’re close to 120 now.”

“Music has become so much more central in our tradition and so integral in our worship life,” he added. “I’ve seen people weeping because the third line in the fourth verse had an image that cradled them or evoked a beautiful memory. Music can bring a level of emotional resonance that no other form of worship can.”


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