Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sacred music rescue squads

The most recent issue of Touchstone includes an article celebrating the revival of the hymn in worship: "Hymns Resurrected" by Meredith Henne [not available online - subscribe!]. A few excerpts:
.... Churches that have for years relied on modern choruses are taking another look at hymns, and their musicians are returning to the content and style of time-honored religious anthems for inspiration. Over the past ten years, groups of young musicians disenchanted with shallow praise songs have increasingly formed themselves into sacred music rescue squads, dusting off poetry and tunes long forgotten in their local congregations. These musicians tend to be Evangelicals with liturgical or traditional leanings.

The hymns they have introduced (or re-introduced) come in three varieties: (1) old hymns retaining their traditional melodies and wording; (2) old hymn lyrics with rewritten tunes, some with a very contemporary feel; and (3) completely original songs that make an honest attempt at timeless musical settings and theologically informed lyrics. ....

The impetus to revisit these classic songs frequently comes from churches and para-church groups with high percentages of the under-30 set. ....

The archaic language is not chasing youth away, either. In a Christian culture on a mad scramble for "relevancy," it is an amazing thing to hear a church full of twenty-somethings enthusiastically singing phrases straight out of the American Colonial era: "Spread for thee the festal board/ See with richest dainties stored/ To thy Father's bosom pressed/ Yet again a child confessed." ....
Unfortunately the return of hymn doesn't seem to be accompanied by a return of musical literacy - training in music has largely been abandoned by the church just as it has by public education.
It is fascinating that the return to hymns has not necessarily meant a return to hymnals, that is, a return to the use of musical notation. The thing that would make these new hymns easier to learn—couching the new music in the old written "notes on a staff' format—is the very thing that most churches do not do. An enormous number of American worship services exclusively use an overhead projector during singing, and projected slides rarely indicate anything besides words and the copyright licensing number. As a result, the overhead-dependent church has become largely musically illiterate.

Even church musicians, many of them talented amateurs, are themselves often unfamiliar with notation. Perhaps musical illiteracy has been the church's historical norm for generations, but given our modern advantages, it is regrettable that many parishioners have never actually seen musical notation in their sanctuaries, just disembodied words on an overhead screen.

It would be worthwhile to obtain copies of songs that include musical notation—staffs, clefs, and notes—and project them on the screen so our congregations, particularly the children, could become familiar with this language and develop a curiosity about it rather than a fear. ....

The growing hymn revival and the return to more traditional lyrical and musical expressions have serious didactic potential. Not only can the new take on hymns aid in teaching theological truths more rigorously and with a richer theological vocabulary, but it also has the potential to resuscitate a finer sense of musicianship and broader musical education among Christians.

Several years ago I was present at a worship service led by college students. It included hymns. When I congratulated them, they responded that the hymns actually contained doctrine!

As Ben argued below:
...Music should satisfy both our aesthetic and intellectual faculties. What makes the classic hymns so great and enduring? They combine both uplifting music and edifying prose. Songs that are well written, musically and lyrically, are a delight that goes deeper than mere feeling. It is the knowledge that what you are enjoying is fundamentally good. ....
Touchstone Archives: January/February, 2009

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