Have you ever wondered what meaningful function, if any, the prelude and postlude have in a worship service? Having played fifty-plus years of preludes to the accompaniment of pre-service chatter, and frequently finishing my postludes to an empty sanctuary, the question has arisen in my mind as well! Why am I doing this? Does anyone care? If I were to slip a little “Stairway to Heaven” into the prelude, or a bit of “Star Wars” in to the postlude, would anyone notice? Or is that the only way they would notice?
How did the tradition of preludes and postludes begin? To find the answer, we go to the Netherlands of the 17th century. In the Dutch Reformed church, music of any kind in the worship service was forbidden. There were organs in the churches, a remnant of Catholicism. The Dutch enjoyed organ music, so as a compromise, the city councils, who owned the organs, hired organists to play concerts to entertain the people before and after worship. As music became integrated into reformed worship, the tradition of music before and after the service continued, but with a very different purpose.
In my view, “pre-lude” and ‘’post-lude”, though traditionally accepted and widely used, are unfortunate terms to describe these musical moments in worship. These words imply that this music takes place before and after the “main event”, that event being worship. In reality, these are integral parts of worship, as much as those that they precede and follow. They are the first and last acts of worship.
The prelude, the first act of worship, sets the tone for what is to follow, inviting worshipers to gather, to transition from their busy lives into a sacred place of communion with God and with each other. Some use this time of preparation to greet and re-connect with other worshipers, while others prefer to prepare in quiet introspection. Regardless of how one uses this time, it should be understood that the prelude is not just pretty (or loud!) background music, but music that is selected with the specific intent of inviting people into worship. I do my best to select music that will match or compliment scriptural and sermonic themes or the other music in the service. At the same time, I attempt to provide a variety of styles and moods, from introspective to exuberant, from classical to as contemporary as an organ can get!
A former pastor of the other congregation I serve, when it was suggested that the congregation remain seated for the postlude, objected, “Why? It’s just marching music!” A picture comes to mind of theatre goers leaving a performance of “The Music Man” to the strains of “Seventy-Six Trombones”. Unfortunately, that is how many view the postlude. At FPCH, I appreciate the tradition, begun by interim pastor, Gary Stratman, of being seated during the postlude. This is NOT for the purpose of marveling at the organist’s skills, though, admittedly, the postlude is usually loud, often fast, and sometimes flashy. It IS for the reason that worship has not yet finished. The postlude is the loud and enthusiastic “Amen” to worship! Worship ends at the last note of the postlude, just as it begins at the first note of the prelude. The postlude provides the transition from sacred worship back into our varied lives and activities, equipped with renewed courage, energy, and a commitment to serve God and others, until we are able to meet again, as a community, in worship.
Just some thoughts from the guy up there in the loft. We come from different worship traditions, and it’s important that we remain mindful and respectful of that. If this hoary tradition of the prelude and postlude is something foreign to you, give it a chance for a few Sundays. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll find something one Sunday that resonates within you. If that happens, I will have accomplished my goal!