Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Singing and Making Music: Hymn tunes

Paul Jones has the following to say about hymn tunes, respect for the old and development of the new:


"While not judged on the basis of doctrinal content as texts are, the music of hymnody and psalmody must be judged on the basis of musical merit (melody, harmony, rhythm, form) on aesthetic grounds, and on its capacity to match and deliver the meaning of the texts it accompanies. The legacy of long-lasting hymn and psalm tunes is another link to our living spiritual history. This music part of our collective Christian repertory, irrespective of one's familiarity with them or regard for them. There is no need to reinvent such enduring mediums of our song. To do so is to diminish their strength. New tunes should be written, but excellent tunes of previous eras do not require the musical clothing of postmodernity. Each age makes its contribution to the ongoins, growing hymns repertoire, as it rightly and necessarily should. Style and sound may change somewhat, but solidity, quality, beauty, and universality are among the characteristics of any substantial music that will endure. These characteristics transcend time and speak authentically to any age." (Emphasis mine)

Particularly interesting to me is the statement that "Excellent tunes of previous eras do not require the musical clothing of postmodernity", an idea that has been thrown off by many if not most modern Christian song-writers. The group Indelible Grace comes to mind. By clothing old, well-known hymns in new tunes that are more accessible to post-modernized college students, these well-meaning musicians take the opposite approach to what Paul Jones is suggesting. Although I am not staunchly opposed to all writing of new tunes to old verses (many excellent old verses need equally excellent tunes), I believe there is a problem in our thinking when our focus is to make timeless praise to God more accessible to our "fish-that-don't-know-we're-wet" post-modernized sensibilities instead of striving to condition our minds to be able to understand and appreciate the music of our spiritual forefathers, then carry that forward with new life into the future.

We sell ourselves short if we are willing to settle for the musical sensibilities post-modernism has to offer when we write new tunes or texts of praise to our Lord. As Jones points out, we are also selling ourselves short when we are content to rest on the foundation of the music that has been written hundreds of years before us instead of embracing our responsibility of "singing a new song" in this generation, continuing to lay down solid bricks on the solid foundation we've been blessed with.

6 comments:

Zack and Jess said...

Particularly interesting to me is the statement that "Excellent tunes of previous eras do not require the musical clothing of postmodernity", an idea that has been thrown off by many if not most modern Christian song-writers. The group Indelible Grace comes to mind. By clothing old, well-known hymns in new tunes that are more accessible to post-modernized college students, these well-meaning musicians take the opposite approach to what Paul Jones is suggesting.
I think I understand the point you're trying to make, but I'm not sure I'd want to classify the Indelible Grace project as postmodern (and all of the bogey-man connotations it entails). Without commenting on their use in worship, the Indelible Grace tunes have at least helped to reintroduce solid hymns to a younger generation.
We sell ourselves short if we are willing to settle for the musical sensibilities post-modernism has to offer when we write new tunes or texts of praise to our Lord.
Then we've already sold ourselves short by settling for tunes full of the musical sensibilities of the pre-modern era, the modern era, the Enlightenment, modernism, etc. No tune or tune writing takes place in a vacuum. As I see it, tunes themselves do not, as Jones suggests, "transcend time and speak authentically to any age."
Traditionalists ("that’s the way we’ve always done it") need to move beyond the assumption that "reverent" means "classical, European" and contemporary ("Shine, Jesus Shine") folk need to realize that there is more to worship tunes than the same schmaltzy do-wop line over and over (does anyone realize how much CCM is just do-wop music?) We need Irish/celtic tunes, we need African tunes, we need Latin tunes, we need ancient tunes. We need a collection of tunes that aren’t written ONLY for little old ladies (here I’m thinking of the blue Trinity Hymnal in which every tune seems to be set so high that only ladies of a certain age can sing them).
Some contemporary forms are not appropriate because they are not intended to be sung by congregations. E.g. rap music arose as a way of highlighting an individual performer. Rock music is not intended, ordinarily, to be sung by large groups. At least do-wop music can be sung a cappella by large groups but it lacks the necessary reverence to be used in public worship and rock music that is slowed down becomes schmaltzy and goofy and thereby disqualified. Elevator music is not appropriate for public worship. Andy Williams and Elvis tunes are not appropriate for public worship — I don’t sing "How Great Thou Art" for the same reasons I don’t sing "In the Garden:" 1) it’s non-canonical; 2) It’s schmaltzy and sentimental and inappropriate to public worship. Tunes that are intended to manipulate the emotions are inappropriate. Any tune that is played over the speakers at Wal-Mart is ipso facto out.
One of the great things about worshiping with the Psalter is that God's Word truly does transcend time and place. Tunes, however, are always going to be saddled in some way with the baggage of their culture. On that, I heartily agree. It's also helpful to be reminded that they are circumstances of our worship and not elements. But re-working old tunes is hardly capitulating to everyone's favorite umbrella evil, postmodernism.

Jonathan and Chelsea Berkompas said...

I suppose I should have expounded some of my statements a bit more to make my intended meaning clearer.

I didn't intend to imply that I am severely or wholly critical of the work Indelible Grace is doing to "reintroduce solid hymns to a new generation." My point was more that we are treading a dangerous path when we shun the old paths for the new paths because the old paths are "outdated", "antiquated", "inacessible", "irrelevant" etc. - the attitude of many Christians towards traditional hymnody and psalmody. In fact I know a guy who doesn't consider worship music worthy of singing in formal or informal worship if it doesn't have a discernible "beat".

The danger, once again, is when we eschew everything old for everything new. An equal danger is to eschew everything new for everything old.

You're correct that "no tune writing takes place in a vacuum". This wasn't, however, the point I was trying to make. By "post-modern musical sensibilities" I refer to particular styles of music such as rap, heavy metal, rock, pop etc. that embody various aspects of the post-modern worldview. I believe there is a problem when the great hymns of the past have to be set to drums, electric guitars and poppy vocals to become accessible to our Christian youth. At this point in my thinking, I wouldn't state that such music has no place in the life of the Christian - but that isn't really the issue we're talking about.

Paul Jones, for example, in writing his hymn tunes takes an approach that on the one hand respects tradition but on the other infuses modern harmonic influences to create music that sounds like it was written in the 21st century, yet strongly influenced by the music of the past. I don't point this out to suggest that we all have to be shooting for results just like Paul Jones, but that we need to walk the line between the old and new with great respect and caution.

By the way, I'm not comfortable with the suggestion that some contemporary forms of music are unsuitable for worship only because "they aren't intended to be sung by congregations". I think that's a pretty shaky standard - but that is another discussion for another post!

Finally, I heartily agree on the "tunes intended ONLY for little old ladies." The new "Rock of Ages" tune comes to mind!

Zack and Jess said...

I just came across a similar post by D.G. Hart from a back issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal - especially the last two paragraphs. I think, at root, you have some of the same things in mind.
You say: I refer to particular styles of music such as rap, heavy metal, rock, pop etc. that embody various aspects of the post-modern worldview. But many of our present tunes embody various aspects of romanticism and its worldview. Is pomo more objectionable to you than romanticism? Every era ultimately finds its place under the Apostle Paul's rubric of "this present evil age." They're all passing away.
You're going to get into the realm of subjective tastes pretty quickly. On what principle do you rule out, say, drums and electric guitars if they are used in a temperate and serious manner? Because in our context the cultural connections are too strong for us to use these instruments beneficially? Maybe, but the same argument applies to acoustic guitars, violins, flutes, pianos and organs (not that I named these instruments for a reason...).
That's why I'm comfortable saying some forms of music are unsuitable for worship because "they aren't intended to be sung by congregations." In many ways, you know them when you know them. (Supreme court justices haven't had an issue with using this line of reasoning.) If that's not good enough, I'd love to see a standard that doesn't fall prey to personal preference on some level or another.

Jeremy said...

Hey Jon,

I have several very specific comments on your post.

1. Indelible Grace's music awoke me to the deep meanings of many of the hymns. The simplicity of the music pointed out the complexity of the lyrics. It is one way to solve the problem you stated in your following post.

2. It is my belief that the new Rock of Ages tune was written for the ears of old ladies, but not for their voices. If you went back to 1980, you would probably find a quite mature tenor performing this song in front of a congregation of slightly younger ladies. But I have no proof of my suspicion.

3. This is a question, and it is the real reason for this comment. When would you say that a hymn tune has reached the status that is being discussed? We know that many of our hymns are not sung to their original tunes. So how do we know when to stop tinkering with a good thing?

Jonathan and Chelsea Berkompas said...

Jeremy,

Thanks for your comments. I have some additional thoughts to add to the discussion.

1. Please try not to misunderstand what I'm saying here. I am not of the opinion that re-introducing hymns to a new generation is a bad goal to pursue. My concern is with how we do that. Indelible Grace is not the root problem in my view. However, it is a symptom of a problem. Modern Christianity prefers the new to the old, sometimes exclusively. I believe we should be especially cautious when anyone claims to have a new perspective on the established traditions of our faith, or to reinvent the wheel. If the youth of our culture need the great hymns of tradition to be set to electric guitars, drums, and simplistic poppy vocals, what does this tell us? How do we interpret the state of our culture if this is the case? Do we draw the conclusion that the problem is with the tradition? Or do we draw the conclusion that there is a problem with our youth culture if the old traditions are not understood, respected, or meaningful? Do you see what I'm getting at?

My point, once again, is that if one cannot grasp the meaning and appreciate the beauty of the text and music "And Can It Be" the problem is not with the music. If one cannot appreciate the beauty and complexity of Bach, the problem is not with Bach. If one cannot appreciate the erudite theological writing of John Calvin, the problem is not with Calvin. When we view the problem with tradition as tradition itself, we go in all sorts of unhelpful and misguided directions. I'm not sure how much clearer I can try to be on this point. A common theme of the Old Testament is that we should "seek the old paths" that our fathers once walked, and "not move the ancient boundary stone".

2. I have to admit that I'm not sure what your point is here so forgive me I miss it entirely. My criticism of the newer tune for Rock of Ages is based on the fact that it is not written in a way that allows men and women to give praise in a range that enables them to sing confidently and excellently. I would have the same issue with any tune that is either written for unison that the majority of men cannot sing comfortable. (I also don't happen to agree with your assessment of the vocal makeup of the church in the 1980s)

3. Once again, I think you're missing the forest for the trees. Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 10-15 that the work we build upon the solid foundation he laid through Christ in the church will stand the test of fire. I think the same principal applies to music. Is there a reason why the music of Bach has endured the test of time? How about solid hymns? Will Indelible Grace's rewrite of "And Can It Be" stand the test of time, i.e. hundreds of years? Will we still be singing the great psalm and hymn tunes of our traditions in hundreds of years? Lord willing, provided His church does not continue to abandon the old paths and move the ancient boundary stones of tradition. If we have a need to completely rework our musical tradition to communicate with our culture, why not our theology? Many evangelical Christians [i]are[/i] doing this, and the results aren't pretty. Take biblical feminism, federal vision, or the emerging church for a few examples.

Once again, the point is that we should be very cautious how we build upon the foundation laid for us lest our work be "burned up" in the end.

Jonathan and Chelsea Berkompas said...

The scripture reference should be 1 Cor. 3:10-15.