Unnecessary Impoverishments Part 4: Quenching the Tuneful Spirit (or…a Tale of Two Texts)

“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.

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11 comments

  1. Patterns of church attendance have changed. In previous generations an “active” Catholic family might attend Mass in their home parish 50 if not even 52 weeks of the year. Today, an “active” Catholic family might attend Mass two or three times per month, plus rotate between two or three parishes to fit their busy schedule. Going to the mall on Saturday afternoon? Just swing by the 5:00 Mass across the street and then go out for dinner. Have a Sunday morning soccer match? Catch the last-chance Mass across town at 6:00pm. On any given weekend, many of our parishioners are in another church’s pews and many of the people in our pews are visiting from another church.

    This is an important consideration when managing a church’s repertoire of hymns. If we want our diverse assemblies to participate, we may need to narrow our repertoire to more common tunes. Even if you manage to teach today’s congregation a new tune, next week you may have a different batch of people, and another the week after that. Teaching new music in this situation takes a lot more time, patience, and repetition repetition repetition repetition than in previous times.

    1. I agree with Scott, but I also know parishes that have a different tradition. They are often newly formed, are forward-looking, and even take pride in being able to tackle anything the director of music throws at them! Some people are clearly more ready to have a go than others. That makes me wonder whether we are talking about the mindset of parishes that in general don’t like change, growth, development, etc, but prefer to stick to well-worn paths. The problem with nothing but repetition is that you can without realising it get into a rut. And ruts, as someone once said, are open-ended coffins….

      1. Paul–I am in agreement but I wouldn’t 100% say that just because a music director uses music over and over that a parish is allergic to change or complacent. I find a certain drudgery by singing one tune multiple times to one or more texts. It cuts the effectiveness of good, solid tunes. It becomes a chore to sing then, and not a joy or a help to the congregation “finding their voice.” Finally, I bring up the wedding of some texts to a particle tune. Removing a well matched text and tune by singing that tune with other texts is off-putting, to me at least. Give the people some credit and use different hymns/tunes. Mass is not elementary school choir where music is drilled into the congregation as so many children by repetition just so that they will sing out. Full throated singing by the congregation of every piece of music at every Mass is not and probably will never be an attainable goal, even at the most musical of parishes.

    2. I’m fond of saying you can’t spell “ritual” without “rut” – it’s another art to find the balance between healthy and overused repetition.

      Fully aware of the pastoral situation Scott describes & knowing the anniversary text would be unfamiliar both textually and musically, its opening and closing pairs of lines are very nearly identical from stanza to stanza, to give the text a sense of true familiarity already by the second time through. I kept this same feature for the Holy Spirit text, sort of making it a hymn that rehearses itself.

    3. Scott, I agree.

      I would add that, beyond parish masses, there are a number of liturgies (baptisms, weddings, funerals) that tend to draw people together who typically don’t worship together and may include a large proportion of people who don’t go to church much at all. Familiar tunes really help in those situations.

      For baptisms, I always use a text called “Baptized in Water” that is set to BUNESSAN, i.e. “Morning Has Broken”. It’s in the Gather hymnals so the words are right there in the pews already, everyone, the churched and not-churched, knows the tune, and it doesn’t require an accompaniment to drive it forward, which is good because we have none to offer at our baptisms :-). I’ve been doing baptisms long enough now that singing it yet again does sort of feel like a rut to me, but it seems pretty fresh for everyone else on a given Sunday afternoon.

  2. In response to your composer colleague, I would ask if every possible tune in 87 87 D or SM or 14 14 478 has already been written. Just because a new text can work with HYFRYDOL doesn’t mean it must be sung to that tune. I too bemoan the too-frequent repetition of tunes, but in my particular case I have to take into consideration “what the customer wants” rather more than “what is the best musical expression of this poem.”

    One problem is that while tunes like KINGSFOLD, O WALY WALY, HYMN TO JOY, and BEACH SPRING are easy, not-too-happy, not-too-sad, and already known–making them useful for texts about joy or pain and everything in between–they have little character of their own. I’m not putting down these tunes, just pointing out why they have become (IMO) overused.

    I hope that composers will be inspired to write in these “old” meters as well as every knew one poets dream up. (I seem to recall someone writing a hymn in the form of haiku once . . . )

    1. You recall correctly – a morning hymnku:

      dawning God, delight
      re-envisage earth, sea, sky
      sun, holy emblem

      risen, rousing Christ
      victor fresh, forge visions pure
      light draws us nearer

      Spirit, swiftly stir
      all creation rapture chants
      life, waking, hearkens

      panoply here praise
      fanfare: justice! flourish: truth!
      new daybreaks wait now

  3. Can I ask why a hymn to be sung would be written not in full or at least gramatically correct sentences or phrases? Complaints about the current translation of prayers in the Roman Missal bemoan the same thing, yet it seems ok to sing in equally awkward language?
    No offense intended to anyone who has written hymns in this manner–which seems to force what they’re trying to say into a particular meter. But I question why.

    1. John – hymn texts are also poetry – so, in the case of the morning hymnku above, it was intentionally written to an established poetic form – 575 – just as a standard hymn text is written to an established meter/rhyme scheme. Its language also has other “rituals” – the Trinitarian content, and alliteration, for example.

      Composing hymn-poems in this fashion also allows composers of music to stretch their wings and imaginations a bit. When my hymnary “Song of the Spirit” was being put together, some of the most lovely and evocative music was written for this text.

      If an ungrammatical sentence appears in the midst of a hymn-poem that is otherwise grammatical, it would jump out due to its being a poetic anomaly. In the vocabulary of late-20th century hymn poetry, some ungrammatical or less-than-grammatical linguistic gestures have arisen. The omission of definite articles became more commonplace, for example. In earlier hymn-poems things like word inversion for the sake of rhyme were an example, though the resulting sentences would have seemed to be in error if they’d been placed in the middle of a prose paragraph.

      The biggest difference between something like the hymnku text and the prayers of the Missal is that if you don’t like this particular way to welcome the morning, you don’t have to do it, and can choose one in a regular meter with a couplet rhyme scheme. The Missal prayers don’t have such an option, and moreover are meant to be proclaimed by a single person and grasped by an assembly. (I know that some of the Ordinary texts also suffer from flawed language.)

      Veni, Creator Spiritus!

      1. Stephen Sondheim’s thoughts about the differences between poetry properly speaking and lyrics merit consideration. To distill a very long and considered argument crassly, one important distinction is that lyrics invite and to some extent need music, while poetry is inherently musical and to that extent can be in tension with added music.

  4. Ira Gershwin made a similar observation in his autobiography about his life as a lyricist (who worked with a number of different composers). Also, in his view, lyrics have a much more difficult time standing on their own apart from music, whereas poems that have been set to music, of course, do not.

    The texts we sing in church are lyrics, are prayer, are theology, are poetry, are literature – and they also are not all those same things.

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