Friday, November 16, 2007

Cantate Dominum: Novum et Antiquum? Both new and old?

Of the five questions that “wh”ispher to us constantly, “Who?…what?….why?….when?….where?….,” we often fixate on “why?” as we ponder a course of action or reflect upon a decision made. As I’ve aged (as opposed to “matured,” my wife would say) it seems to me that the other four words actually have more weight and importance as I consider which (oops, missed one!) hymns, songs, mass settings, acclamations, litanies will serve our liturgies at my parish. As mentioned in the last column, often a decision to use certain musical selections over others could boil down to “why not?” or just “Why? Because we all know that tune!”

However, I propose that each of us who chooses to enjoin in public worship, which includes the codified canonical exhortation to participate in a manner that is “full, conscious and active,” should possess a minimal if not refined understanding of the anatomy of our songs and sacred/ritual musics. The “who, what, when and where” constitutes the parts of this “one body” of which we sing daily and weekly, not palely and meekly. So there is an order to this knowledge we musicians must understand and share:

I The text to be sung.
II The melody (of which “rhythm” is the “muscle” that transports that text from our intellect
to our heart.
III The form of the song, so that we can recognize and remember it as distinct and unique, and
IV The harmonic structure which supports all of the above.

I would like to illustrate this order by using the example of the hymn (text) “I Heard the Voice of Jesus.” Even though I remember first hearing these lyrics couched within an early 70’s pop-tune style reminiscent of the Carpenters, I now totally associate this text with the collected “folk” melody (called Kingsfold) as set by the English composer Vaughn-Williams. Ironically, this very “Celtic” melody was not originally assigned to this tender and compelling text by Scots preacher Horatius Bonar. Bonar’s words were originally assigned a “hymntune” by the great John Dykes, composer of Holy, Holy, Holy among many other great hymns.
The Reverend Bonar’s text was inspired by Mt.11:28, John 4:14 and John 8:12, wherein three promises are made by our Lord and to which Bonar gave us voice to reply. What many don’t know is that most of Bonar’s hymns were written for children’s Sunday School and often were disdained by his own adult congregations. But look deeper into the response we sing in verse one: “I came to Jesus as I was: weary, worn and sad. I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.” This evidences more than a child-like innocence and intent: Bonar and his wife suffered the loss of four of five children in quick succession. This text was a reflection of Jesus’ promises through the real lens of Bonar’s personal sufferings and trials. Worthy is the song to be sung. The text matters first and foremost.

The melody…. ah, we sigh, the melody. Can we “wh”istle it like a Gershwin tune after its “performance?” Well, yes and no. The Dykes tune is suitable. It has a rising melancholic arch for the first two phrases in a minor key, and then Dykes employs a device called a “parallel major mode” to “answer” that melancholy. But KINGSFOLD, though also set in a minor scale mode, isn’t a melodic manipulation manufactured as a mere vehicle for the words, but has its own flowing contours that almost seem self-propelled. Bonar’s text is the oxygen in the lifeblood of the song being transported throughout the body. And the tune of KINGSFOLD is given an easily recognizable face (form) that musicians would simply call AABA (and that’s not a Swedish quartet!) And finally, the marriage of “I heard the voice of Jesus” and KINGSFOLD has been adopted, adapted, arranged and likely never to be annulled because of the authenticity apparent in both the first two elements of the order. Whether sung in unison, a capella traditional harmony, accompanied by the majestic organ, an innovative pianist, a symphony orchestra or to the strums and arpeggiated finger-picking of a well-played guitar, or (Saints: preserve us!) to the lilt of a pub band replete with tin-whistle, fiddle, accordian, harp, bagpipes, bodhrain (hand drum) and bouzouki, this hymn and tune will always meet the criteria and have the integrity to be worthy of regular use at worship.

Earlier in this column I used the term “refined understanding.” We liturgical musicians ought never to regard ourselves or the people we serve as refined, or finished. The fire kindled by the Holy Spirit in our hearts is the refiner’s fire of Christ, ever allowing us to become purer, take new form and to become stronger…for the sake of not only ourselves, but also our children to follow.