“Do not quench the Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19)
Like many church musicians, I can recall exactly where I was when I learned that the words and music for “Amazing Grace” and the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song are interchangeable.
This ability to swap out texts and tunes in hymns (as you can, for example, with “Joyful, Joyful” and “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus”) is a boon to musicians when they learn of it. In particular, it has opened up (and continues to open up) a great new swath of hymn texts for congregations to sing with melodies they already know.
However, a number of years ago a composer colleague of mine—a fine crafter of hymn tunes—said that he’d stopped writing new tunes because of the huge wave of new texts that authors were writing in commonly-known meters and rhyme schemes to fit existing tunes.
If I were giving a talk on this topic, right now is when I would tell you I had to stop a moment until the sound of my own shattering glass house stopped. That would take a while, since a fair amount of my work as a text author has been with existing hymn tunes. While I am usually among the first to jump heartily on the pragmatism bandwagon, I am also aware that bandwagons, when jumped on too often or by too many, will break down.
A cursory scan of indexes in hymnals from the past couple decades bears out the increase in this textual tendency. It is not unusual in current hymnals, especially Roman Catholic ones, to find anywhere from three to five texts set to the same tune. This is not true of hymnals from previous generations. Though the relationship between texts and tunes is certainly worthy of its own exploration, for this post I’ll just say that this is what I call the “pasta” approach to hymn tunes: that, by and large, the tunes don’t contribute all that much, since it is the text that provides the real flavor, the “sauce” of the hymn. At best, in this approach tunes may have an associative value (PASSION CHORALE with Holy Week/Good Friday), but even that gets watered down with overuse.
I think there are two major factors contributing to this phenomenon. 1) The Lectionary-driven approach (not a bad thing in and of itself) to hymn texts, in which the scriptures—especially Gospels—of a given Sunday/feast are expected to have resonance with (if not outright parroted by) hymn texts. I certainly would not expect a congregation to learn a brand-new tune each week, as the lections change. 2) The effect of the surrounding culture of convenience/instant gratification in which immediacy and ease are core values. This is not meant to demonize the surrounding culture, but to encourage an examination of how its values have an impact on our prayer.
In my book Words That Work for Worship, I refer to meter and rhyme as two ways in which we ritualize language. So I decided earlier this year that I would start to experiment intentionally with other “rituals” for the language of hymn texts, texts which would subsequently need their own new tunes. Early on, I worked in partnership with composer Tom Keesecker on a paraphrase of Psalm 100 in which each stanza of seven lines had an internal three-fold set of lines which were alliterative. As with many early/initial experiments in any field, the text was not completely successful, though the tune Tom crafted for it was excellent.
Later on, I received a commission for a new text to celebrate a parish anniversary, I asked—as I always do—if they wanted a text that could be sung to an existing tune. To my delight, I was told this was NOT wanted for the text. So I went back to my three-line internal ritualization, this time with the three lines beginning with words that had some type of sonic and/or grammatical resonance (in stanza one, this was Ready/Mercy/Glory). The only rhyme was the second lines of each stanza ending in “–ong.” Working in partnership with composer Nick Palmer (and both of us with the Holy Spirit), the hymn “The Light of Christ” came to be. Here’s the first stanza:
As a fringe benefit, Nick wrote a second tune that followed the same metrical structure, but which had a completely different character. I also loved the new tune, so I said that I’d go back to that metrical structure and seek a new topic/focus for the text. I struggled, and asked for the Spirit’s intercession. She came to my rescue in an excellent sermon one Sunday that featured the writings of Hildegard of Bingen on the Holy Spirit, including an arresting phrase by Hildegard referring to the Spirit as “glistening life.” Hildegard and Romans 8 combined for a new text in which the three-line internal ritual became litanic. Here’s the second stanza of “Holy Spirit, Fiery Love” (with gratitude to Hildegard and St. Paul):
Usually I find any creative artist speaking/writing about their “process” about as intriguing as watching pudding set. So I’ve shared this experience only to say that it has re-affirmed my belief that this new text/new tune approach allows the creative artists fuller engagement with the Spirit, and the end result—when offered to and then offered by the Body gathered as their sung prayer—opens up possibilities for the movement of the Spirit, as their new song to the Lord is learned, grows in familiarity, and joins the song of the whole communion of saints gathered to worship at the throne of grace.