Tuesday, September 09, 2008

This ain't a Chicken or Egg debate:
Texts supercede Tunes when cooking hymns!

(Reprinted from a combox post of mine at
the CMAA forum.)

This is an enormous topic as I see it. Without diverting to a discussion whether the Church's song should or will ever revert to primarily the psalms, the reality is that we will continue to employ hymn texts at worship for the forseeable future. And that reality should inform ourselves as well as our "superiors" that we DMs cannot just be arbiters of musical taste and viability. I agree with David's sentiment and zeal (tho' a bit melodramatic, which I love); if I'm entrusted with that responsibility originally by a pastor-it should then be common knowledge that no one supercedes that authority except the pastor. And should a pastor have repeated and fundamental problems with a DM in these concerns, the DM has a real problem that didn't surface during the hiring interview.
I'd like to offer a couple of examples of how text supercedes music:
1. As in many hymntunes, FINLANDIA was appropriated from "theater" or art music. I love everything about this melody and its harmonic foundation. Most of us, at first blush, would likely associate it with the hymn "Be still, my soul." But there are at least a handful of other texts within my office reach that someone has couched in FINLANDIA. The most recent is a strophic treatment of the Magnificat by Californian Janet Sullivan-Whitaker. (Quite a unique treatment with a very not-Kings College descant that works for my money.) There are many others that, were they in OCP, I'd program because of their text's worthiness to the tune. However, another text, "Gather and Remember" was, IMO, misappropriated by the otherwise level-headed Owen Alstott to FINLANDIA to commemorate the elevation of John 23 to Blessed. It's text is fraught with problematic, revisionist portrayals of the Church's worship through the centuries in order to praise the "spirit of Vatican II." This sort of didactic propaganda hasn't any place in an actual liturgy, no matter what tune is attached to it. (Need we mention the infamous text with NETTLETON? These two are buddies with OCP and with "Are are welcome" the 3 Musketeers of NEWCHURCH thinkspeech.) But I cannot, in good conscience, program this hymn for Sunday Mass despite the fact that I personally love FINLANDIA as MJB loves Edelweiss. I believe a studied and intuitive DM can make these assessments quite easily. I remember instantly knowing that M.D. Ridge's "Three Days" was clearly worthy of her using THAXTED the first time I sang its text in my head. Understandably, not everyone regards FINLANDIA itself as appropriate music for worship, and I'm okay with that. YMMV.
2. Strangely, one hymn tune and text that, by virtue of its title, text and meaning would seem perfectly matched, actually drives me nuts: "When in our music God is glorified..." set to ENGELBERG seems to me so pompously hokey I've never been able to justify programming it for Sundays. The tune, so very English like JERUSALEM in its leaps and bounds, is quite well matched to the grand idea of its text. So what's my problem? I suppose it's its ostentatiousness. In its own way it seems just as self-congratulatory as some of the texts mentioned above. I can't find reason or resonance with using it at my parish, even tho' we have all the requisite externals (environment, choral/organ forces, singing congregations, etc.) I think there's certain biases we all bring to our deliberations about this stuff. And not all of those involve ONLY the text to music axiom. There are other associative factors; anyone else have a bit of trouble singing EIN FESTE BERG simply because of its origins? ST. ANNE? NEW BRITAIN? HANSONS PLACE? HOW GREAT THOU ART?
I think you get the point.
Whether or not the people "like" the tune is a secondary symptom indicating a hymn's nutritional health. If you, the DM, get the whole package of a hymn to tune marriage, then your job duty is to get the people to "get" and therefore "like" the hymn as well. I know that's easier said than done, but that how I see our priorities.

1 comment:

Lyn F. said...

It's very interesting - these are questions I'm exploring right now with a Theology of Hymns mini-course I'm doing. We looked at "The English Hymnal", which has only the texts, no tune associated. In some cases, the tune came along after the text. One other thing I wasn't aware of - apparently "Hymn" refers to the text only. Many times you can fit a text to different tunes, as you are well aware ... one example that comes to mind is "Lord, you give the great commission", which can be sung to Abbot's Leigh or Austria, or any other tune that carries an 87.87.D metre.

It's an interesting course thus far ... perhaps I'll comment again once the course is completed.