Monday, February 2, 2009

Hymns: Texts and Tunes

One of my issues with the idea of setting old texts to new tunes is the suitability of the new melody with the lyrics. I've sung too many upbeat songs about the blood of Christ or repentance. Reverent theological issues should be sung reverently and appropriately. This does not mean in a stodgy or forced manner but with an appropriate weight and significance.

It is perhaps for this reason that many have trouble with rich theological texts sung to bebop style tunes that seem to undercut the permanence of the eternal truths expressed. Texts and tunes should appropriately reflect one another: joyful expressions of thanksgiving with joyous music; mournful repentance of sin with solemn and dark melodies; pardon received with thankful hopeful tunes; eternal truths with rooted and firm, timeless melodies.

Alice Parker addresses the suitability of this pairing in The Anatomy of Melody:

"Hymns suffer particularly from this failure to pair [text and tune] effectively. There seems to be a feeling that if the words are talking about something holy, that is enough. For the discriminating singer, that is certainly not true: a careless text can reduce even a wonderful melody to ruins. Choosing by syllable count (the meter of the hymns) is basic but much more important is the nature of the tune (its mood, function, voice, tone) and the comfort level of the combination…

"Hymnals are full of bad marriages, and our sensitivities get dulled by constant exposure to bad models…Try consulting the metrical index in the back of any hymnal and look up the text for the first example in any meter. Then try that text with each of the succeeding metrically matched melodies in turn. They should all fit, but you’ll find that few of them do…there’s a very real sense of belonging or not belonging. It’s amazing how few are really good combinations.

"When hymns are selected by text, the suitability of the tune is usually ignored…Both text and tune must have their own integrity and then graciously accommodate each other."


G Hart said...

I am amazed to find these remarks to be so arrogant and overblown in their characterization. We have to wonder if there has been someone selected to adjudicate the appropriateness of one tune over another or how a text is enjoined to a particular tune.

This argument represents an elitists prospective toward music and worship. It appears that one might discount those who have another view, or who might even enjoy worshipping to a lesser marriage of text and tunes, as being counterfeit worshipers. Surely they cannot be worshipping in spirit and truth. Their music and text are completely wrong.

Musicologists have for years attempted to erect a standard from say Bach’s Magnificat where they try and declare there must be something “inspirational” in his writing. Text and music move perfectly and there is such balance that this must be our model for music that is brought into the holy of holies. This simply is not true. It is merely a subjective opinion at best and an exclusionary one at worst.

Certainly Bach’s works, as well as many others, are beautiful and can be useful in worship. But we as ministers must avoid the temptation to say these methods and forms are the most appropriate for use in evaluating proper worship music.

After all Isaac Watts was tempted to leave the church, where his father was the pastor, because he said the music was to boring. To which his father replied, “Well go write something different then.” And write he did.

I could agree that not everything is useful in worship. But I could not agree that because we sing about the blood of Christ or repentance in a bold celebratory tune and form we are being irreverent. What is the “appropriate weight and significance” anyway? The blood of Christ and repentance can be something that we proclaim with great fervor and emotion while never abandoning a reverent posture.

Our cultural has a role to play as has every cultural before us. Every generation properly thinks theirs is the worst generation of all and has little to offer to a Holy God. And they might be right in much of their thinking. But every generation has always had something to offer when it comes to worshipping God through music. Because I don’t like a particular style that alone is not reason enough to discount it, after all the bible does not spell out what form, style and structure worship and worship music must take.

If we are not careful we will work so hard at making everything fit so perfectly that the people are left out. If what is put in front of the people is so foreign in style and in the manner of text used we will miss what we were hoping to do all along.

Let them sing. Let them shout. Let them cry out. Let them clap their hands and rejoice. Let them fall down and worship. That’s what He wants from His children.

We must guard against over analyzing to the point the we are the only one’s who get it.

Gregory Wilbur said...

Dear G Hart:

Thank you for your comments. However, this post never makes the assertion that old music or texts are best. In fact, the quote from Alice Parker talks about bad hymns.

Certainly we need to bring the Gospel to bear in the age in which God has placed us. However, we are also called to worship and offer God the sacrifices He requires.

That is the point: the appropriateness of this offering. We will never get it perfect, but we should at least be concerned about the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness of what we offer. For this, we do need to ponder, consider, study, learn, and grow in wisdom. These disciplines then free worship to be a glorious offering before God's throne.

Prof Emeritus said...

Amen, Brother Wilbur.

Bettyann said...

Be wary of those quick to pronounce arrogance.
Beauty, like Truth and Goodness, is defined - not by the beholder - but by the Creator. Man is blessed to discover Beauty, and develop it in the light of its inherent characteristics.

Michael Duchemin said...

Bettyann is right on the mark. The person whose argument is a relativistic "who is to say" when it comes to aesthetics is one generation from doing the same thing to truth and two generations from doing it to goodness.

I'm pretty sure G Hart has some sense of what music is appropriate for a text. Singing something with an emotional tone similar to "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted" or "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" to the tune of "Shine Jesus Shine" would strike even your typical modern American evangelical as odd. But the exact same relativistic "who is to say" argument (if it were compelling) could be used to justify that.