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Until the late 1800’s, the organ was the church’s primary instrument and the piano was considered a secular instrument unfit for church. That all began to change primarily as revivalists of the time, including R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, and Charles Alexander began to see the value of the piano in their services.
As the piano became popular, prominent pianists began to start formulating the style of playing that would work in church situations. Probably the first such pianist was Robert Harkness, pianist for R. A. Torrey. Influential during most of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Harkness published a set of lessons that detailed his style. These lessons was eventually compiled into a book and published in 1941.
I have a copy of this book, and it clearly shows that Harkness was instrumental in developing the style of congregational accompaniment that is still widely used today. The style is a variation of stride with big chords in the right hand and jumps between octaves and chords in the left hand. It is fascinating to me that Harkness taught pianists to play stride in exactly the same way I was taught in hymnplaying classes in college almost 80 years later.
So where did this style originate? Harkness was obviously influenced by two periods of American music–ragtime and the early years of jazz. The style of stride typically used to this day by hymn players is sort of a “sanctified” offshoot of these two styles. It lacks some of the rhythmic elements and is much less technical than either ragtime or early jazz, but the basic elements are identical.
With that in mind, I want to take this post to give you a bit of musical history about the period that Harkness wrote in and was partially shaped by.
The arrival of jazz was the result of a philosophical shift in America toward individualism. No longer were musicians interested in being bound by restrictive rules of composers. Jazz is about improvisation, meaning that the musician has the freedom to change virtually anything in a song. In other words, the power shifted from the composer to the musician. Or to put it another way, jazz is democratic.
To say that jazz musicians were talented would be an understatement. By the 1930’s, stride piano was quite the spectator sport. Virtuosos improvised extremely complex arrangements like magic. Perhaps the best known stride pianist was Art Tatum, whom Rachmaninoff said “has better technique than any living pianist and may be the greatest ever.”
For your enjoyment, here is a clip of Tatum. In this example, he is not playing stride, but it is still a good example of his technique. It is the only video I know of on the internet of Tatum though you can listen to many of his songs on Youtube.
Here is a clip of traditional stride from that era. Note the similarities and differences between this and traditional church hymnplaying.
Getting back to Harkness for a second, it seems clear that he had a love/hate relationship with popular (jazz) music. On one hand, he incorporated it into church piano music but at the same time, wrote a very harsh (though entertaining!) chapter in his book called “The Perils of Jazz”.
Harkness also lamented that most church pianists could play classical music well but could not improvise (a common problem to this day). In that respect, jazz and church piano music are similar, because both required improvisation. And it is clear that Harkness took advantage of that fact as he developed his style.
By the end of the 1930’s, stride was waning as a style in favor of more modern styles. But the church has continued its “sanctified” style of stride to this day. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is open for debate. I see pros and cons.
On the pro side, stride accomplishes what Harkness desired, which is to support congregational singing. It is also easy to teach and easy to learn.
On the other hand, stride just sounds a bit dated. And it is hard to play tenderly. We have all heard church pianists bang their way through “Just as I Am” in the traditional stride form. For reflective songs especially, stride needs to give way to something better.
I will talk more about Harkness in my next post on this subject. You will enjoy it…