Monday, June 13, 2011

Are Hymns Over?

Here at the Egg, our Dept. of Historical Hymnology has been working overtime lately. Perhaps you've noticed. (One commenter, apparently not interested in the reforms of Urban VIII, took time to write the word "boring" twice, the second time in capitals. We're guessing he's more about the sex and the politics, a frankly understandable preference). It will all be over soon, when that @#$%& breviary project wraps up.

But we're beginning to wonder whether it's already all over -- and by "it," we mean all of hymnody. Or at least hymnody as we know it.

A while back, we were talking to a Charismatic minister, who didn't really understand our worship style -- and no wonder, given the great gulf fixed between our churches. We were talking about vestments and Eucharistic prayers, all of which got a blank look from him; and after a while he said, "So you're old-fashioned. That means, what, you still use hymns?"

Still, mind you. That's the key word.

Today, we were talking to a far more worldly fellow, who has a working knowledge of the worship styles most commonly encountered in both Europe and the Americas. We weren't talking about worship at all, until, illustrating some other point entirely, he said, "Your church has something for everybody. You know, a band for the young people, hymns for the old people."

Or maybe he didn't mention the band; we don't even remember anymore. All we remember is this: Hymns for the old people.

Like many readers, Father A. was raised with hymns. Being neither a musical child nor a notably devout one, he spent fairly little of his childhood church time singing or praying; but he spent a great deal of it flipping through the Service Book and Hymnal to see what was inside. At about the age of eight, he concluded that anything worth singing had the name of either John Mason Neale or Catherine Winkworth attached to it. Even today, he'll stand by that judgment with only the slightest qualification. This locates your humble correspondent quite easily within a certain liturgical period: the Romantic Revival of the mid-19th century. And indeed, his preferences and convictions in many matters, from hymnody to dogmatics, are those of just that period: Historical and confessional, both with a touch of the antiquarian. Not coincidentally, therefore, many of his favorite hymns are written in Long Meter -- the iambic tetrameter which represents in English the meter of the Ambrosian office hymns.

We don't know all that much about hymns or music, but we do know two important things:

First, that over the past half-century, many churches have abandoned the conventional stanzaic (or strophic) hymn in favor of other musical forms. Praise choruses and Taize songs, with their simple melodies and repetitious texts, can be learned in moments by many congregations. This makes them extremely appealing, and sometimes for good reasons. Songs that are more complicated, either musically or verbally, may be better relegated to the choir.

And second, that stanzaic hymnody is something of an aberration to begin with. It formed no part of the earliest Christian worship, and developed only from the fourth century. Even then, it was long excluded from the Eucharistic service. For that matter, most singing of any kind was done by the schola cantorum; until the Reformation, most people were neither required nor desired to sing even the liturgical responses. Even today, there is a certain sort of Roman Catholic who turns up his nose at the undignified use of such "Protestant" devices as congregational singing of hymns or much else in the Mass.

Hymns have certainly changed over the centuries. The 25-stanza processional hymns of Prudentius (or of the German Reformation) have little practical use today. Modern hymn-writers rarely attempt to draw together as many disparate Biblical and theological images as their predecessors did; they tend to focus upon a single idea, and ring changes upon it for three or for stanzas. But we are not talking about changes in the style of hymns, so much as about whether they are used at all.

If our friends are right -- if hymns are an old-fashioned form, now smelling of Polident and Ben-Gay -- then maybe the past five centuries have been a phase, which is now coming to its natural conclusion. And maybe that's not so bad.

Mind you, people will not suddenly forget Vexilla Regis Prodeunt or How Great Thou Art. There will always be a place for the very greatest hymns. But that place may be gradually restricted, and the second and third tiers (from, say, "Stand Up for Jesus" to "You Satisfy the Hungry Heart") will disappear from all but the library books.

This isn't an entirely bad thing. We will be delivered at last from "loud boiling test tubes" and the works of Marty Haugen. But it isn't an entirely good thing, either. Thousands of pages of thoughtful religious poetry, set to tunes that can be sung and therefore memorized without much trouble, will be lost. And that will be sad.

Maybe none of this will happen. It is certainly hard for a Lutheran to imagine life without hymns. Here in Romania, the hymn-boards of the German and Hungarian churches typically list six or eight hymns to be sung in a Sunday service. But then, with their black robes and extremely limited lay participation, they are willfully preserving a liturgical style which seems dated and even inadequate to those of us conditioned by the 20th century's so-called Liturgical Movement.

Our own services, lately, have been adjusted for a culture in which English is a foreign language, and lean heavily on canticles which do not change from week to week. Where the local Lutherans sing six their variable hymns, we sing two -- and over the summer, it will be reduced to one. So perhaps, for the first time in our lives, we are somehow on the liturgical cutting edge.

10 comments:

Mark C. Christianson said...

So what is wrong with "loud boiling test tubes"? Seriously, so many people seem to pick on that particular phrase, and I've never understood why. Is it that people have a hard time thinking of something in a chemistry or physics laboratory sinking praises to God? Is it that people are incredulous that the boiling liquid in a test tube could possibly be loud? Or is it a symptom of our notion that religion, and Christianity in particular, is serious, so something that might have a lighter or comic air seems at least problematic if not sacrilegious? (Here, note that people often seem to have a difficult time thinking of biblical texts as possibly comic, hyperbolic, or ironic.)

More seriously, your thoughts on the fate of the hymn are worth pondering. I would like to think that reports of the demise of the hymn are greatly exaggerated, even if some traditions (say that of the Charismatic minister of which you spoke) have little or no use for them.

Father Anonymous said...

Sigh. I knew when I mentioned it that somebody would write in defense those test-tubes. And deservedly so; the hymn isn't nearly as bas as people make it sound. And yet ...

I can't even explain why I don't care for it; the images have, at any rate, the merit of not being repeated over and over, from one hymn to the next. And yet, for whatever reason, it has always struck me as ... annoying.

The whole song is like the student who tries too hard, and makes a nuisance of himself. He's a good student, and probably not a bad guy -- heck I often was that very student. But he's still annoying, and you wish he would just relax a little.

Still, I notice you didn't pipe up in defense of Marty Haugen.

Pastor Joelle said...

Another vote for "loud boiling test tubes"

But I wonder if the whole practice of everyone singing period isn't going out. It was already ten years ago I stopped invited Lutheran Youth ALive teams (I think they even had stopped calling themselves Lutheran by then) because they were not doing the sing alongs anymore, but more like concerts. Well that and the testimonies that were very long and detailed on the lurid past and short on the gospel ending....

But most contemporary worship isn't even singing clappy songs (which I kind of like) but listening to others sing.

And that's my problem with Marty Haugen - his songs are just not that easy for everyone to sing.

PrSBlake1 said...

Well, for what it is worth (and probably not much) I kind of like Marty Haugen. I think he has a wonderful gift for melody. I especially like his liturgical settings - "Now the Feast and Celebration" and "Unfailing Light." And I also like his Evening Prayer Setting also. I agree with Joelle that sometimes he tries to jam too much text into his sweet melodies and it backs it all a little unwieldy - but at his best I think Haugen has written some beautiful settings.

Father Anonymous said...

Double-sigh. I know he has, honestly. It's just that his failures make him an easy target. Anybody who writes a lot has this problem -- look at Wordsworth -- and Haugen seems disturbingly prolific.

But the thing about Marty Haugen that draws my special animus, and I suspect that of his other detractors, is this: even when his music is okay, its name-brand popularity is such that it (sometimes) drives out better music.

And here's a f'rinstance. I personally think that Holden Evening Prayer is almost -- almost -- as good as the LBW version. But not quite. The result is that each time I am visiting a church or other worshiping community and they whip out the Holden EP booklets (often with a slightly smug "look at us, we're not using the LBW" smirk), I groan. Not because we're about to sing something bad, but because we could have sung something better.

Incidentally, I feel the same way about Taize music. We've been using a lot of it lately, for the reasons I mention above. But that doesn't mean I think the Taize Gloria is actually as good as almost any "real" Gloria.

Father Anonymous said...

Double-sigh. I know he has, honestly. It's just that his failures make him an easy target. Anybody who writes a lot has this problem -- look at Wordsworth -- and Haugen seems disturbingly prolific.

But the thing about Marty Haugen that draws my special animus, and I suspect that of his other detractors, is this: even when his music is okay, its name-brand popularity is such that it (sometimes) drives out better music.

And here's a f'rinstance. I personally think that Holden Evening Prayer is almost -- almost -- as good as the LBW version. But not quite. The result is that each time I am visiting a church or other worshiping community and they whip out the Holden EP booklets (often with a slightly smug "look at us, we're not using the LBW" smirk), I groan. Not because we're about to sing something bad, but because we could have sung something better.

Incidentally, I feel the same way about Taize music. We've been using a lot of it lately, for the reasons I mention above. But that doesn't mean I think the Taize Gloria is actually as good as almost any "real" Gloria.

PrSBlake1 said...

I agree... But since you mentioned the LBW Evening Prayer you have touched on a nerve of mine. The ELW setting of Evening Prayer is such a disappointment after such a beautiful setting was in LBW. Why of why did they gut the LBW evening prayer service? ELW doesn't come close. I taught at Lutheran Summer Music for 15 years and for 12 of those we sang the LBW evening prayer service every single night (there is nothing like Evening Prayer at music camp where everyone sings and improvises harmony). And then out comes the ELW and it grieved my heart so much I started skipping evening prayer as much as possible because the ELW musical setting is miserable - compared to LBW. Give me Holden any day over ELW - but LBW is without compare. Sorry - like I said you touched a nerve and whenever I share this opinion my other colleagues they roll their eyes and ignore me. Oh well.

Pastor Joelle said...

Yes agree with you about Holden Evening. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the LBW Compline and was so looking forward to doing it this Lent but they are in love with Holden Prayer. It's pretty but Compline is sublime.

Mark C. Christianson said...

Oh, Father A., I could defend Haugen, too. But I much more easily understand differences of opinion on his work. There are many things by him I do like (Holden Evening Prayer chief amongst them), but if it was all Haugen, all the time, it would quickly get monotonous. He's good to have "in the mix," if you will. And I'd rather sing Haugen often then, say, John Ylvisaker, much less "praise songs."

One more thought on Earth and All Stars. I wonder if the test tubes, and maybe some of the other things in the hymn, just seems too random for some people, when they don't know the hymns origins. But link it to a certain church college campus known for singing, and, well, it might start to make much more sense. (To which I'll add: Um, ya, ya!)

PrSBlake1 said...

Do bear in mind that alot of John Ylviasker's music is folk music to which he has set text. For my part I do not agree with Marks statement, but this may be colored by my long time friendship with John. I think some of the problem with John now that he is mainstream is in performance. I still have a copy of "Drawn to the Light" in John's handwriting and we performed this with a folk band (me on oboe, John on guitar and another friend on piano). Now that the song has made it into the hymnal I hear it played on the organ, or stiffly on piano and it just doesn't work. Haugen and Schutte suffer from the same problem - "Here I Am Lord" played on the organ really doesn't work.