Church piano music history: The background

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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…

10 thoughts on “Church piano music history: The background

  1. Lenny says:

    Greg, I really enjoy your writing but this article in particular is fascinating. I have never really thought about these things.

  2. Christy Livingston says:

    I agree with Lenny. I never knew any of this stuff. And those Youtube clips are fascinating. Art Tatum makes playing the piano look a little too easy.

  3. Jim Moore says:

    Let me make sure I understand what you are saying Greg. Are you saying that jazz actually helped the piano’s acceptance in church?

    Without improvisation, the piano is actually not really effective for congregational singing because pianists would just be playing 4-part harmony (sounding weak).

    I have never thought of it like that before but it makes sense. So Harkness borrowed from jazz improvisation what he was comfortable with to create a style of improvisation that would work for church pianists. That is what you call stride (first time I have heard that) but is often called “hymnplaying” in Christian colleges such as the one I went to.

  4. Lea Ann says:

    Great introduction to stride and jazz and their influence on hymnplaying.

    Are you going to mention the blues influence, as well?

    And, what about those taught hymnplaying in a more strict 6-part style? Would you assert that, too, descends from stride, or could it be argued that perhaps some form of this cleaner interpretation could be a marriage of improvisation and organ technique?

  5. Piano Tutorial says:

    Have not been practicing the piano but your lessons are always impressive and so inspirational.. You make it all sound so easy and fun. Helps to marry the sheets to the piano playing too..giving the theory a new live approach.

  6. Piano Tutorial says:

    Have not been practicing the piano but your lessons are always impressive and so inspirational.. You make it all sound so easy and fun. Helps to marry the sheets to the piano playing too..giving the theory a new live approach.

  7. maryjane says:

    I’ve read an article, which also included a picture of a piano that was destroyed with an axe. Seems the community churches disagreed on whether a piano should be used. One chopped the others piano up and when replaced ….it was chopped up also. Do you have any knowledge of this and can you provide me with the information.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      I have not seen an article about that but have seen enough to make me certain that such a story would not be far-fetched.

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