Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Judging a Bad Hymn

Until rather recently, Westerners believed that pure music is meaningful apart from extra-musical texts, narratives, or images.  The Greeks, namely Plato and Aristotle, had a lot to say about music's meaning and use in affecting society.  The early Church Fathers, taking up the baton, condemned pagan musical practice using logic they'd inherited from the philosophers combined with sound Biblical reasoning.  Throughout its history, the Church has maintained that music is meaningful and thus ought to be closely regulated.  It is only in the last couple of centuries that Western opinion has become skeptical of the idea of musical meaning.

In our present situation the Church is at best reluctant to make musical judgements.  At worst, the Church is unable to make such judgements at all.  One of the primary areas in which we've abdicated judging musical meaning is our acceptance to match texts and tunes inappropriately.

For example, the following text represents the direst spiritual situation any human could experience: 

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night,
Jesus, I come!
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee!
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
Out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee! 

This is a beloved hymn text and for good reason: it describes the sinner's lost condition apart from the Savior and does so with clear imagery.  Yet when it comes the music, the hymn fails.  This is because the tune has nothing to do with bondage, sorrow, night, sickness, want, or sin.  The tune is breezy, and carefree.  Combined with this text, the hymn is flippant and makes light of a grand and serious subject.  This is not to say that their isn't happiness in the text--the text IS happy, but there is a difference between flippant happiness and the happiness of relief from hardship.  The tune sounds like calliope music from a 19th century circus.  There's nothing wrong with music like that or feeling happy and nostalgic listening to it.  It simply fails to convey the text in an accurate and meaningful way and in that sense the hymn fails.  

God calls us to real abundant human life in Christ.  Our hymns--text and music together--ought to portray our life accurately and sincerely.

Puritans and Church Music

I have recently been reading Percy Scholes's Puritans and Music (OUP, 1934), a work that examine's the Puritan attitude toward music--an attitude that by no means condemned music in general, but rather served to elevate secular music as a noble pursuit.  Through a series of essay-like chapters, Scholes convincingly makes a case for a high view of music and the arts among the English Puritans.  Time and time again Scholes reiterates Puritan disapproval of instrumental and polyphonic music in church and in one chapter devoted entirely to the subject, he outlines various manifestations of this point of view in and outside of English Puritanism.  

Iconoclasm is useful in church history to purge abuses of the arts but I think it ought to be the exception and not the rule, namely because it can tend to misplace our priorities.  The worship of God is our highest calling as men and the character and setting of our worship reflects the greatness of God's glory.  If secular music is the "best" and most cultivated music, then church music essentially lies about the character of God.  Obviously there is a lot to be qualified in these statements, but simply put, plain worship poorly represents the great God it seeks to serve.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Funny quote--Haydn's The Seasons

From Jacobs's Choral Music, page 169: "The Seasons (1801), Haydn's last major work, does not stand up to complete performance, partly because the recitatives grow wearisome as one's indifference to the fate of Jane, Lucas, and Simon increases."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Problem with Contemporary Worship Music

While trying to be relevant and contemporary-sounding, praise music falls sadly behind the pack of cultural progress and becomes irrelevant.  New trends and fashions change continuously and are difficult to keep up with.  Some may claim they are not trying to be cutting edge but are rather trying to do music in a style that the culture understands.  But what does the culture understand and what sort of music has broad appeal that church people young , old, black, white, life-longers, new converts, and seekers can all appreciate?  I suggest that contemporary worship music can't do what its proponents say it can.

A problem that plagues all art is the reality of context; that a work of art is tied to a point in time, and has particular audience in mind.  The context of worship song is the worship service itself, while the context of contemporary praise music is popular music which is in constant change.  For all it's merits, this video to the writer sounds like post-grunge music that appealed to young white people back in the mid-1990s .  (I may be hearing a trace of The Wall Flowers?)  In such a case, how does invoking this music actually side track and distract from authentic worship?  I say we must consider our music choices carefully, keeping the special character of worship in view.  God does not share His glory with a competing god, and we must take care to make sure this doesn't happen when our music suggests something other than God's glory.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hymn: O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High

...have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge… Eph. 3:17-19

These verses form the basis of the first stanza of this hymn. The remaining stanzas describe the magnitude of Christ’s love in His life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and in sending of the Holy Spirit.  Although it is primarily about Christ, it acknowledges the full, Triune nature of God as it closes with a paraphrase of the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was…”).  The hymn text, in its original Latin, is often ascribed to Thomas à Kempis, author of the devotional book The Imitation of Christ.

The exuberant tune, DEO GRACIAS, was composed shortly around 1415 when the English defeated the French at Agincourt in Normandy.  The music was originally set to another text thanking God for England’s victory.  The film score to Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V, which retells the famous battle, quotes this tune to stunning effect.

As you sing this rousing hymn, enjoy the jaunty, dance-like rhythms of the music.  The music is a fitting match for the lofty, celebratory, Christ-centered text.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Psalm 119:103-4

Here's another setting I recently completed of a couple verses from Psalm 119.  Enjoy!

Setting of the Magnificat

Here's a new Magnificat setting I composed last summer.  We've used it at our church with some success.  Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Genevan Psalm 124

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 124:8, ESV)

One of the great benefits of the Reformation of the sixteenth century was the recovery of congregational singing.  Luther, Reformer both of church doctrine and worship practice, believed the pursuit of music was secondary only to the study of theology.  Thus music flourished in Lutheran circles and set a faithful precedent for other protestant churches.  Calvinistic congregations took to singing metrical psalms: psalms poetically paraphrased into the native tongue of the local church.  In the centuries following the Reformation, Reformed churches sang only psalms, without harmony or accompaniment.  Yet, the simple and unadorned music that originated in Calvin’s church in Geneva saw widespread popularity throughout Europe.  (Elizabeth I of England supposedly nicknamed the jaunty tunes “Geneva Jigs.”)

The music of the Genevan Psalter was composed and edited largely by Loys (Louis) Bourgeois, composer of the tune ‘Old Hundredth’ (TH 1), commonly sung to the Doxology text “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  Within a few years, the Genevan Psalter was the official hymnal of the Genevan church and was so highly regarded that the Bourgeois himself was later arrested for altering the tunes.  Unfortunately, this event forced him to turn his back on the Genevan church and leave the city.

‘Old 124th’, another of Bourgeois’s tunes, was composed early in the development of the Genevan Psalter and was carried to England and Scotland by the returning exiles that had earlier fled the persecutions of Mary Tudor.  Scottish Presbyterians in particular seem to have latched on to this stirring psalm setting.

"Come Ye Thankful People, Come"

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Ps. 126:6 ESV)

The phrase “Harvest Home” describes the act of gathering grain from the fields into the village for storage and refers a time of celebration and thanksgiving.  Scripture often connects harvest with rejoicing.  In Ps. 126, for example, sowing seed is a mournful deed in comparison to the peals of joy that accompany the reaping of grain.  Men rejoice at harvest, relieved from the summer’s heat, the weeds and pests, and from anxiously praying for rain.

Recalling the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Mt. 13, the hymn writer uses the grain harvest as a metaphor for the harvest of the redeemed that shall yet occur in history.  The wholesome wheat and troublesome tares grow up together in the same field, but at the harvest God separates the plants for storage or destruction.  Harvest is a day of rejoicing because the grain is gathered into storage and the weeds have been eradicated for all time.

The hymn’s tune, ST. GEORGE’S, WINDSOR, is a majestic, almost regal melody.  The tune appropriately matches this text of Christian experience: it is at once joyous, thankful, and respectful of hardship that has been long endured.  The name of the tune derives from the London church where George Elvey was employed as organist.  The tune is easy to sing and remember because of recurring rhythmic and melodic elements.  Whereas it would be easy for these motives to become tediously repetitive, Elvey has incorporated enough variation to make the tune at once both memorable and interesting.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The High Call to Worship

I lament an obvious lack of experience in music and singing in our culture. Nowhere is this lack more troubling than in our institutions of higher ed. It is shocking and appalling that college students in very good music programs read music so poorly. I sing in a college choral ensemble and our director recently commented to me on how poorly some of the students read notes.

The problem is not necessarily the fault of the singers themselves. They just simply haven't been taught to read notes. Again, the problem here is cultural. Our culture's pragmatism and desire for instant gratification have allowed the next generation of pro musicians and teachers to go without basic musicianship training. As mentioned before, part of this problem simply stems from worship. In worship we make a joyful noise unto God through song and this is something we do regularly and with purpose. Pragmatism has spoiled communal music-making in the schools, turning an exercise that in itself is worthwhile into concert preparation: "kids, we've got to learn these 8 songs for our holiday concert in December. Ready,...altos..." The kids learn their notes by rote and learn very little about personal responsibility and skill. On the other had, weekly worship is a performance before the Almighty, not a rehearsal, and the purpose and object of worship is worthy and true. So the church's music making is better than the world's, because 1. we have more "concerts" and, 2. our goal is divine.

But do we in the church think of worship as a performance, and what are we doing to prepare ourselves and our kids for hearty praise each Sunday? If nothing, we are no better than the heathen who do what they have to do prepare for the concert.