Music for church services

December 12, 2017, 5:54 AM · Local churches host many of the classical music activities in my area, and as such, musicians tend to be encouraged to repay the generosity by occasionally playing in church services, especially on special occasions (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc.).

This is a little bit different than the usual "play in church" things that adult amateurs often do, because I'm not a member of the congregation. And my presence playing is effectively as a representative of, say, my orchestra, and is therefore also a subtle advertisement for our concerts.

I'm looking for repertoire that is:

"Relatively easy" means that it can be either learned and readily maintained, or is effectively sight-readable -- i.e., can be prepared on a week's notice and casual practice. (Some of the suggestions on this thread are on point: LINK)

The right level is probably Thais, the Rachmaninoff Vocalise, etc. "Too hard" probably includes, say, the Wilhemj arrangement of Ave Maria (far too many double-stops).

Contemporary, lyrical praise music for violin would probably be fine, too. (I know nothing about the genre and can't give any examples.)

Any ideas?

Replies (30)

December 12, 2017, 9:21 AM · How about Ciacona in A-Major by J.H.Schmelzer?
It is very beautiful and not very difficult.
December 12, 2017, 9:26 AM · I subscribed to www.songselect.com

On the surface it seems like a lot of simple music mainly praise choruses and the like.There is more to it than what first appears. Dig a little deeper and you will find-

Both notation and chord charts in any key that can be printed out.
Current and traditional church music of all kinds
Brief audio examples of songs you might not be familiar with.

If you simply go to the site, it won't let you in. You'll need to know of someone who has an account with them.

FWIW if you can't locate anyone, I'll let you into my account to use temporarily. This isn't something I typically do, but I'll do it for you :) Just keep everything in confidence.

One of my emails is starise@comcast.net Send me an email. Tell me who you are and a place I can send it to if you're interested.


Edited: December 12, 2017, 11:53 AM · Depending on the church, one needs to be careful of any repertoire that has associated secular lyrics, even if one is not singing. Thais Meditation, for example, has lyrics that might be too racy for a conservative church.

If there is a pianist then any arrangement of a Chopin piece for violin and piano would be lovely. The Handel Sonatas are lovely with organ -- listen to Hiro Kurosaki's recording for examples. Any concerto 2nd movements. First movement of the Franck Sonata would make a nice offertory on a spring day.

Some of these may require pianistic skill, but since you live in in area where community orchestra violinists are auditioned with Don Juan, I'd expect the middling church pianist to have reasonable skill. My experience with church pianists is that generally the are quite skilled. The pianist from our local unitarian church recently accompanied a recital of Debussy and Faure sonatas, that's pretty scary stuff.

Edited: December 12, 2017, 1:57 PM · Paul, I go to a conservative church and I've thought about that, but honestly I don't think anyone there that would care about the lyrics knows the lyrics (I don't even know all the lyrics, as much of a philistine as that makes me). And we don't perform the lyrics, just the music. And, I'm conservative too myself, and I don't think it's a problem. Beautiful music is beautiful when just instruments, and is fine to play.

Regarding music, Lydia, why don't you play a little solo Bach too? Movements from the E Major are harder than you said, but they aren't that bad if you already know them of course (which I assume you do), and the Loure is very beautiful. The Preludio was perhaps written for just this purpose too.

I just played a few Christmas carols that I arranged slightly for solo violin (the slow ones played like a singer would shmaltz it up)--something like that might also be appropriate.

Are you playing with your own pianist or the church pianist? IE, can you have rehearsed in the past and thus don't need more rehearsal time, or does it need to be sight readable by the pianist? I'll assume it's your own pianist:

Slow movements from Handel or Corelli sonatas aren't difficult and can be beautiful--the slow movement from the D Major Handel is very nice if I remember correctly. Also, the slow movement from Bach A Minor is very nice.

Hmmm...honestly, I think you should do that now after further consideration--it's classical and beautiful. That and something romantic like Meditation or Vocalize would be a good set. Also, I think the piano part in the Galamian edition would sound good on an organ too.

However, this is stuff I know, and I'm always looking for new pieces, so I'm hoping there are some more uncommon suggestions that pop up too=)

UPDATE: I should have read more carefully, I see the accompaniment needs to be site-readable. That seems to really limit things quite a bit, I don't know if any of the suggestions so far are things I would want to play with a stranger with no rehearsal time at all. Missing an entrance or queue is bad no matter how easy the part is.

Edited: December 12, 2017, 11:57 AM · I don't think it needs to be totally sight-readable. Of course you'd give the pianist the score and it's reasonable they could look it over and at least listen to a recording to familiarize themselves with the entrances. If I were a church pianist I'd work pretty seriously on whatever a soloist gave me so that I could make a good showing for myself in addition to building useful repertoire. Then next time you can brush it up in a few minutes.
Edited: December 12, 2017, 12:12 PM · Baroque music often feels church-y to me (in a good way)--I don't have any particular standout suggestions.

For a more specifically sacred piece, my go-to volume is String Stylings by Cathy DeRousse. The arrangements are not hard but really lovely and violinistic, as opposed to many sacred/praise/worship publications that are purely functional or even transposed from a brass part (!!). It has arrangements of several classic, fairly well-known hymns. It's gotten a little pricey but was worth the purchase to me.

December 12, 2017, 1:10 PM · Salut d'Amour
Beethoven Romances (Op. 50 is prettier but also very long)
Edited: December 12, 2017, 1:51 PM · Nobody knows what Meditation from Thais is really about. Go ahead and play it if you like.

I find my Last Resort collections (20 Traditional Wedding Solos and 20 Sacred and Spiritual Solos) to be extremely useful. Nice arrangements of popular classical music, and the piano parts are readable or at least they seem so to me.

Edit: Sorry, Paul, the Beethoven Romances are much too long for church. You really do not want to exceed three minutes. Four and a half for a prelude is the absolute maximum.

December 12, 2017, 1:57 PM · Mary Ellen, thanks for the great suggestions. I've been casting about for some useful music like that, and those books fit the bill perfectly. Do you have any other similar suggestions?
Edited: December 12, 2017, 2:20 PM · The Faithful Violinist, vol. 1 (arr. Phillip Keveren) has some really lovely arrangements. Vol. 2 was done by a different arranger and I don't like as many of them, though there are a couple of nice ones.

Sacred Melodies for Violin Solo by Craig Duncan. Very nice arrangements. I particularly like his Panis Angelicus and Sheep May Safely Graze (technically not sacred but nobody knows that)

Most of the other books I've come across are cheesier than a fromagerie in Paris.

December 12, 2017, 2:44 PM · The Kreisler arrangement of the Gluck Melodie is pretty doable, and I don't think it's anything complicated for the pianist.
December 12, 2017, 3:33 PM · "Most of the other books I've come across are cheesier than a fromagerie in Paris."

I'm not ashamed to say I laughed at that=)

Edited: December 12, 2017, 8:36 PM · Mary Ellen yeah I had a hunch the Romances would be too long. I was actually a church pianist/organist my last two years in high school, for a smaller Lutheran church in my hometown, and one of my tricks was to cut pieces down. It can be done cleverly. Sure, a violinist or genuine music lover in the audience might ask, "Hey, did you cut that down?" but you can just give them a wink and they'll feel good because they knew.

Another suggestion is to get a book like "The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book" and just play the upper line on the violin. It's a trove of pieces that are rarely heard, and the pianist or organist can arrange or ornament quite a bit on the fly. The violinist can ornament an improvise too! That's what they would do at that time period. I used a lot of that material when I played church organ. It sounds SUPER churchy. The only thing is that it's not fancy, so if you're being paid as a violin soloist for a church service, you'd kind of be slumming to use such easy material. I already had decent improv skills as a high schooler so I was able to dress them up pretty well on the organ.

The last church service I did on the piano was a few years ago and, no kidding, I played a Scriabin Prelude. There was a pro violist in the audience who told me afterward that he really liked it. I was subbing for their regular pianist who is a total pro and I decided that "unusual" would cover for my inadequacies. I was right. But I also turned down their invitation to do their Christmas service. Out of my league, and "unusual" doesn't fly at Christmas.

December 13, 2017, 11:22 AM · Thanks for the suggestions so far, folks!

On "Thais": The Meditation isn't racy. In the opera, immediately before, Thais is being persuaded to leave her life of sin. The Meditation is her contemplation. At the end of it, she decides in favor of God. So it seems like it's perfectly church-appropriate.

December 13, 2017, 3:04 PM · I also think it's highly unlikely anyone would object to Meditation specifically. Just saying that when you play in very conservative churches, you should find out what their policies are. Something I've seen, for example, is a total prohibition on any secular music, which would probably affect weddings more than anything else.
December 13, 2017, 4:57 PM · Meditation is borderline too long, even though it's quite popular.

Shorter pieces (2-3 minutes) are ideal, especially if you're talking about offertory. Prelude and postlude (or communion anthems) give you a bit more bandwidth.

There's a pretty arrangement of Frank Bridge's "Cradle Song" on IMSLP.
Also nice: a violin arrangement of Debussy's "Beau Soir", slow, short solo Bach movements, e.g. the Loure from the 3rd Partita (I probably would be too nervous but you'd probably nail it).

There's a bunch of stuff on IMSLP if you dig around.

December 13, 2017, 5:59 PM · Kirckkhof sonatas, Mozart, Schubert Ave Maria, or Bach-Gounod.... Many organists have collections of things arranged for treble instrument & organ. One place I play where I'm often a last-minute replacement, has things easy enough to sight read, but that are lush--and elegant, not kitschy. OGA members subscribe for such things.
Like you, I 'borrow' churches for events in exchange for services, and often let the local expert guide the selection.
Edited: December 16, 2017, 3:10 AM · I think the last movement of Schumann's Märchenbilder is quite suitable (provided you don't get TOO passionate in the passionate embrace following the prince's awakening kiss in the middle - Yes, I know they're written for viola, and that's what I performed them on, but my copy was sold me with a violin version as well).
The slow movement of Schubert's 2nd Sonatina would, I think, also be suitable, but you'd probably need to make cuts.
Excerpt from the slow movement of the Brahms 1st Sonata.
"If with all your hearts ye seek Him" from Mendelssohn's "Elijah".
There are several slow pieces by Bach out there as well, e.g., Arioso, Come Sweet Death, Bist Du Bei Mir (this last apparently not really by Bach).
December 16, 2017, 6:15 AM · And if you think solo Bach would be appropriate, but you don't feel like playing a lot of exposed double stops, the cello suites transposed for violin are terrific -- and much easier.
December 17, 2017, 11:41 PM · Good idea, Paul. Laurie recommended an edition a while back. Do you have one in mind?
December 18, 2017, 10:04 AM · For Christmastime, Fantasia on Greensleeves by Vaughan Williams works well for an offertory.

I also have played selectively from Jenny Oaks Baker's "Christmas Collection." Those aren't all sight-readable (at least by me), but they are divided into sections that can be cut and rearranged. For example, I played the arrangement of Coventry Carol but cut out some of the hard parts. Jenny Oaks Baker has some other collections that are quite nice as well, such as Shaker Hymn Fantasy, which again can be strategically cut for reasons of time and/or difficulty.

Vivaldi always sounds great in church and there are some nice arrangements on IMSLP. Largo from Winter is a perennial favorite and more sight-readable than the other seasons.

I have been fortunate to work with some great church pianists. I haven't personally been able to throw anything at them that they couldn't take in stride!

December 18, 2017, 3:28 PM · As one who occasionally "plays in church" but is not a professional, I've had a lot of success playing the descant line that is part of many hymns in a lot of church hymnals. Why do these work? The church keyboard player already knows them, the congregation knows them but rarely hear the descants sung (or sung in tune). Throw in a bit of Bach. Unless the congregation is very sophisticated musically, impressing them with violin fireworks will fall flat.
December 18, 2017, 5:42 PM · Violin fireworks are out of place in a church service anyway, in my opinion. Music in a worship service is intended to enhance worship, not impress the congregation with the violinist's technical skills.

The Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Greensleeves is a bit long for inclusion in a service-- I'd check with whoever is planning the service first before programming that. It is gorgeous though.

December 19, 2017, 12:36 AM · Yes, Fantasia on Greensleeves is a bit long. I just played it as an offertory, and we cut out a repeat of the melody in the last section in order to make it fit in the allotted time. In my experience, offertories and sometimes meditations can be a little longer, even up to 4+ minutes. But usually you have to keep your music to 3 minutes or less.
December 19, 2017, 1:16 AM · Unless it’s a good sized Lutheran or Catholic congregation-distribution of the elements during communion provides more time. We have between 5-10 minutes depending on whether it’s football season or not;)
December 22, 2017, 11:41 AM ·

Telemann Fantasias - unaccompanied, so no worries about the skill level of the pianist/organist! They vary in difficulty and there are short and long movements so you could pick something appropriate for the allotted time.

Telemann Six Sonatinas are not very hard for either violin or keyboard. Probably not especially impressive to the listener but if you are short on practice time they are OK.

For Christmas - Eighteen Traditional Christmas Solos or 20 Intermediate Christmas Solos, both from Last Resort Music (also available from other sheet music sources). These are nice arrangements of Christmas music, both secular and sacred. My church organist likes them.

December 22, 2017, 1:45 PM · I've done Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel" a couple of times and it's gone down well. If it's too long, it's easy to trim it down to size.
December 22, 2017, 4:26 PM · One of Bach's easy works, it would fit perfectly with the Christmas season.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EO1Bhd2gGP0
And I know you can't play it without the rehearsal and a cello, but it's one of the most beautiful pieces I've heard recently.

December 22, 2017, 9:45 PM · I agree, the Last Resort Christmas arrangements are very nice. I have both of the books mentioned (Eighteen Traditional Solos and Twenty Intermediate Solos).
December 25, 2017, 2:01 PM · Marjory Lange gives excellent advice: play the treble instrument parts from the organist's hymn book. And George Wells gives similarly excellent advice to play the descant line found in many church hymnals. In most cases, playing in church it is best to stick to liturgical music. As Mary Ellen Goree says, church music is for the purpose of enhancing worship, it is NOT a concert.

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