18 Aug 2009

Worship music

I am cross-posting this with my other blog, Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist.

It is not difficult to find Christian theologians and liturgical scholars commenting on what makes for a good hymn text. For example, I recently read J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, in the course of which he discusses the merits of three familiar hymns, Nearer, My God, to Thee, In the Cross of Christ I Glory and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, the last of which he judges superior to the other two, due to its obvious grasp of the place of the cross in the economy of salvation. Similarly, following the church fathers, the reformers and many others, I myself am persuaded that the psalms must have a pre-eminent place in the church's liturgy. So much for texts.

But what of the church's music? Is there better or worse music by which to worship the Triune God? Are some genres better suited than others to the liturgical assembly? Does it really matter whether we use organs, unaccompanied voices or electric guitars? Isn't it all finally a mere matter of personal taste? That's what many would argue. I strongly disagree. Although one could write an entire treatise on the subject, I will limit myself to putting forth a few principles for consideration.

1. The tune must fit the text. Even if their metres are identical, not every text necessarily goes with every tune. A particularly egregious violation of this principle is found in the 1957 edition of the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal. Number 158 is a metrical versification of Psalm 83 set to FOREST GREEN. The text is one of the imprecatory psalms, calling down God's wrath on his enemies, which would seem to require something less obviously cheerful than FOREST GREEN. (Happily, this unfortunate pairing of text and tune did not make it into the 1987 edition.)

2. Avoid pairing texts with a tune too obviously associated in the popular mind with another text or occasion. The Scottish Psalter's The Lord's My Shepherd, I'll Not Want could conceivably be sung to Lowell Mason's ANTIOCH, but given that the latter is a familiar Christmas tune, it is probably not wise to do so. It may also be illegal in some cases. About three decades ago, some churches were singing a liturgical benediction to Richard Rodger's tune for Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music. Rodgers himself and, later, the executors of his estate were definitely not amused.

3. The music should not overwhelm the text but ought to be ancillary to it. There is something to be said for unaccompanied unison singing, as found in, e.g., the Orthodox Churches and 16th-century Geneva. Reformed Presbyterians allow for part-singing but without musical instruments. While most Christians do not see fit to embrace such seemingly austere practices (and for good biblical reasons; see Psalm 150), it is nevertheless true that excessively flashy organ-playing or loud guitars and drums come dangerously close to violating this principle. Instruments should precisely accompany singing, not dominate it.

4. Music for the congregation must be fairly simple in structure, both rhythmically and musically. It certainly should not distract from the text being sung. Here a distinction must be made between those tunes meant for congregational singing, on the one hand, and solo and choral singing, on the other. I leave aside the latter for now, except to note that choirs and soloists generally take on more challenging music than the typical congregation can be expected to.

Several years ago I wrote a metrical version of the Apostles' Creed, which I titled, Credo in Septuple Metre. The tune I came up with, LUSIGNAN, is actually a fairly simple one, but the time signature, 7/8, may make it unsingable by an ordinary congregation, except perhaps by one belonging to the Greek Evangelical Church, where such rhythms would be familiar. It would thus probably make a better solo piece. On the other hand, the moving hymn, Gift of Finest Wheat, is included in many hymnals and is beautifully sung by congregations, despite its alternating 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. This demonstrates that the musical ability of many congregations should not necessarily be underestimated.

5. While the melody should be simple, it must also be memorable, which is to say, distinctive enough to stick with people. This implies a certain degree of movement in the tune. For example, Lowell Mason's HAMBURG is well-known and easily sung, though in my view it is not an especially strong melody, consisting entirely of a series of ascending and descending partial scales. Ascents and descents invariably move one step at a time, and the entire tune spans only five notes. This gives it the undoubted virtue of not unduly taxing the singer, but leaves it with the corresponding defect of not being very interesting.

By contrast, Edward Miller's ROCKINGHAM, which has the same metrical structure, is a much stronger melody, spanning a whole octave, with the movement reaching two obvious climaxes in lines 2 and 3. The motion of the tune sometimes moves by thirds and fourths, and even drops by a sixth after the second high note. ROCKINGHAM is simply a more dramatic tune and better communicates the story of redemption.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, I wrote a versification of Psalm 137 and came up with this tune. When I showed it to a professional musician who was a member of my church congregation, he told me there wasn't enough movement in the melody. I took his critique to heart, scrapped that tune and came up with this one instead: HICKORY ROAD, which many would likely judge superior to my initial effort.

There is more to be said on this topic, so I shall return to it later and explore specific genres of liturgical music in light of the above, including traditional chant and contemporary christian music.

6 Aug 2009

Worship wars

Chuck Colson's latest Breakpoint commentary raises an issue of concern to many Christians, at least in North America, where we have the luxury of time and energy to dispute such things: Worship Wars. Although his piece is subtitled "How Do We Determine Musical Excellence," he addresses the subject of music only in passing, mostly focussing on hymn texts. Citing one Donald Williams, he offers these criteria for evaluating worship songs: (1) biblical truth, (2) theological profundity and (3) poetic richness. I can agree with all of these, which derive from the following observation:

Much of today’s music is of poor quality, [Williams] writes. But so was some music written centuries ago. The difference is the old hymns have endured a centuries-long weeding-out process. If we hope to identify the best new music, Williams writes, we must know “those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.”

To be sure, poor-quality hymns have been written for centuries, and these are the ones that generally do not survive the passing of their own generation.

However, conspicuous by its absence in Colson's commentary is any reference to psalm-singing, which was standard throughout virtually all protestant churches until the 18th century and, in some cases, much later. If Williams is right about this "centuries-long weeding-out process," what accounts for the loss of metrical psalmody in so many communions? Surely the biblical Psalms were sturdy enough to survive this darwinian struggle?

I think three factors can be cited here. First, the influence of confessional liberalism during and after the 18th century made the Psalms seem primitive and unenlightened. With many professed Christians revising Jesus' status to that of a mere teacher of morality, there seemed little point in continuing to sing the psalms in church, as they seemed to do little in support of this new "enlightened" religion.

Second, at the Reformation there arose a kind of liturgical constructivism that made the church's liturgy seem endlessly revisable. The Reformed were more radical in this than the more liturgically conservative Lutherans and Anglicans. Although the nonlutheran Reformers sought to reform the liturgy according to their understanding of the teachings of scripture, their heirs often sought revisions either for the sake of mere novelty or to conform the liturgy to new ways of thinking.

In the 17th century Anglo-Celtic Presbyterians ill-advisedly moved away from set liturgies, allowing the minister or presiding worship leader to make up their own prayers as they saw fit. This was the point of the Westminster Directory of Public Worship, which had a subsequent influence in the later development of liturgical life in the free churches. Of course, this approach depends very much on the skill and confessional integrity of individual ministers. When these begin to waver, they take the church with them.

The Psalms of David imitated in the language of the New Testament and apply'd to the Christian state and worship, by I. Watts
Third, because the Psalms were sung to verse, their quality was dependent on the skill of the versifiers. If the latter emphasized literal accuracy at the expense of comprehen-sibility and literary grace (e.g., the Scottish Psalter), congregations would likely weary of trying to sing them at some point. By contrast, if the versifier emphasized literary quality at the expense of accuracy (e.g., Isaac Watts), there was always the danger of imposing one's own understanding and interpretations on the metrical versions. At that point the boundary between versifier and hymn-writer became fuzzy indeed, and the psalms were eventually abandoned for the more popular hymns of Watts, Wesley and many others.

But what of the role of music? Here's Colson again:

A fourth mark is musical beauty. In great music, “there are certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody.” And the right harmony “can make that melody more memorable . . .,” [Williams] writes. For instance, “Be Thou My Vision” “rises and falls like an ocean wave or a sine curve.” Tragically, Williams notes, “more recent praise choruses seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.”

It is not a simple matter to articulate the norms that make for great music, although I think it would be the height of folly to suggest from this that norms do not exist. I'll come back to this at some point, because the issue deserves separate treatment.

4 Aug 2009

Singing the Psalms: Presbyterian Church in Canada

During a recent holiday to Grand Bend, Ontario, our family visited the marvellous Lambton Heritage Museum, which proved to be much more interesting than we had expected and is definitely worth seeing if you get out that way. In addition to the indoor museum, boasting quilts, old furniture and other regional artefacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the large grounds host a reconstructed rural village, complete with, among other things, a blacksmith shop, a slaughterhouse, an old schoolhouse and a church. The church building once housed the former Cameron Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1867, the year of Confederation, and lasted until the very end of the last century, when it closed due to an ageing and attenuated membership.

One item caught my eye on the pulpit: an ancient copy of an early edition of the Presbyterian Church's Book of Praise, a small volume containing only the texts of the psalms and hymns therein. (The opening pages with the publication date are missing.) On the cover is the Burning Bush, the nearly half-millennium old symbol of the Reformed Churches.

Book of Praise
As I opened it, I was delighted to see the familiar opening words of Psalm 1 from the Scottish Psalter:

That man hath perfect blessedness,
who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
nor stands in sinners’ way,
Nor sitteth in the scorner’s chair:
But placeth his delight
Upon God’s law, and meditates
on his law day and night.

Book of Praise
Although the metrical psalter does not include every psalm (e.g., it skips over Psalms 135, 137 and — incredibly — 138), it contains more than subsequent editions of the Book of Praise. The 1897 and 1902 editions each carry 122 versifications of psalms or parts of psalms, while the 1972 edition has only 68 such versifications, doubling some psalms and leaving out many more. However, lest one conclude that psalm-singing is on the way out in the PCC, the 1997 edition contains 108 psalms and psalm selections, a definite improvement over its predecessor. May psalm-singing once again flourish in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.