Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ethnocentric Church Music

For all that evangelicals say condemning racism, it remains present in contemporary church music.  Grasping at idol of relevance inevitably leads to marginalizing slices of the populace.  Certainly we ignore the covenantal (i.e. multi-generational) aspect of worship when we turn to pop music as a model for worship song.  But perhaps more subtly, a lot of contemporary church music I know tends to appeal to white people, finding it's inspiration often in rock or celtic styles.  Church music can and should have it's own local flavor, but for the sake of unity, church music should also have broad appeal: "there is one Church, one Lord, one Baptism..."

Old hymns (texts and tunes together), particularly from the 16th century until the Second Great Awakening, remain the best congregational music the church has created.  These hymns teach Biblical truth in a way that is rather easy to sing and sing together as a body of believers; they move the affections while avoiding unhelpful sentimentality.  This style ought to form the model of new worship song.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Congregational Hymn: Sing and the Mystery Declare (Pange lingua)

I arranged this hymn for a congregation looking for something to sing during the Lord's Supper. The Pange lingua chant is an ancient hymn of the church and quite un-Protestant in its original poetry.  This newer version of the text is more useful.  Enjoy!



Hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy

 The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne…(Revelation 4:8-10 ESV)  

The poet of the text, Reginald Heber, was an Anglican Minister who was appointed Bishop of Calcutta just a few years before an untimely death at the age of 43.  His hymn texts were composed early in his career while yet a parish priest in the west of England.  Among them are the Christmas text “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning” and the striking and martial “The Son of God Goes Forth to War.”  Paraphrasing portions of Revelation 4, the text for “Holy, Holy, Holy” thoughtfully builds upon God’s triune nature by regularly joining together sets of three complimentary ideas.  These highlight God’s personal attributes (holy, merciful, mighty; power, love, purity), His eternal nature (wert, art, evermore), created beings that praise Him (saints, cherubim, seraphim), and the places wherein God is praised (earth, sky, sea).  

The tune NICAEA, was composed specifically for this text and is aptly named after the Council of Nicea (325 AD), a church council that defended the doctrine of the Trinity.  The Nicene Creed, the most widely utilized confession of the Church, originated with this council.  The tune’s composer, John Dykes, built the melody upon an ascending melodic triad, a three-note chord that musically symbolizes the triune Godhead.  The hymn has become classic due in part to the majestic quality that the tune lends to the text.  Dykes, also an English clergyman, composed texts and music for numerous hymns.  His best-known tunes are found in the hymns “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.”

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.