The music of worship

The Sharon Temple’s barrel organ was built around 1830 by Richard Coates (Photo: Katherine Belrose)

Photo: The Sharon Temple’s barrel organ was built around 1830 by Richard Coates (Photo: Katherine Belrose)


Nicholas Holman

Buildings and architecture, Arts and creativity

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Goethe said that “architecture is frozen music,” but why did he say this? Was it because Christian church interiors, with their columns and arches, seem to move as one walks down the nave, or because windows and walls seem to slide about and transepts to appear, then disappear, as one moves from west to east in a Latin-cross plan? But the structure itself does not move – aside from the inevitable decay that affects all buildings.

Music, in contrast, is fleeting, intangible, lifted from the silent page into four dimensions only when performed. Sounds emanating from choir, organ and other instruments resonate throughout the church, seeming to move and surround the listener, but the melodies linger only briefly once the music stops.

The role of music in Christianity has varied hugely over the centuries, from its origins in simple chants to the complexities of 16th-century composer Giovanni Gabrieli’s two-choir compositions written for Saint Mark’s in Venice, from a Mozart mass with orchestra to Anglican chant and the compelling hymns of reformist churches.

While vibrant hymns engage congregations in ways unthinkable in earlier centuries, as they inspire the faithful to raise the proverbial church roof, other places of worship are being adapted for concerts and performances of dance and theatre. The Sharon Temple, north of Toronto, is an example of a religious building that is musically active in new ways.

The Sharon Temple, with its striking architectural symmetry and important musical history, provides a good example of a “living” heritage building, although one no longer used as originally intended. Known for its fine acoustics, this unique central-plan, timber-frame and clapboard temple was built in 1825-31 for a small religious sect called the Children of Peace, founded by David Willson.

The Children of Peace have long since disappeared, but in 1966 the Waterloo Lutheran University Choir commissioned John Beckwith, former Dean of Music at the University of Toronto, to compose a work centred on this sect. Beckwith’s libretto, Sharon Fragments, incorporates Willson’s descriptions of his visions, the principles of the sect and three hymn texts by Willson, as well as two of the 20 tunes played by the Sharon Temple’s organ. This beautiful, multi-layered 20th-century work, both sacred and secular, is now intimately associated with the extraordinary Sharon Temple.

While Gabrieli might not approve of Beckwith’s combination of the traditional and the contemporary, and of religious writing and music, the result, when performed, as it often is, in the Sharon Temple, renders this exceptional building’s architecture more alive than frozen – a result that might delight Goethe, as it does many people today