Monday, December 16, 2013

Why must it be easy?

Why must a hymn be easy to sing?  Who decided that singing a hymn should not require some effort?  I learned these questions from the sainted Dr. Martin Franzmann whose magnificent poetry requires several readings to unpack the words and whose texts are attached to some of the more difficult melodies in our hymnal.  Which is why you may not even know who Dr. Franzmann was or recognize any of the great hymns of faith he has given to his church.

Why must hymns be easy in order for us to sing them?  Funny, though, we would not even think of attending the symphony if they played only easy music.  We would not pay any money for art the painter or sculptor had not labored to complete.  We would pay for somebody to fix our cars or diagnose our ills or fill our prescriptions if the tasks were easy.  Yet I believe most of us agree that the work of great composers is a noble gift to our culture and life, the work of great artists has enriched our lives beyond measure, and a good mechanic, physician, and medicine are worth the extra money we pay them.

Why does it glorify God more if the hymns are easy to sing?  Indeed, is there not something to be said for the effort of learning them and for the sacrifice made to sing difficult hymns?  But of course we do not want to do that very thing -- labor to learn them and sacrifice our own desire to sing them.  We do not only want easy worship to accompany an easy religion, we want an easy life that requires little of us for success and happiness.

In contrast to this, we see the labor of the Lord, the fruit of His sacrificial suffering and death, and the precious nature of this holy gift -- bestowed upon us freely but never cheap or easy.  As Luther reminds us in the explanation of the second article of the Creed, not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious body and blood...  What is freely given to us should never be thought of as free -- it is as costly as the humiliation of Christ's incarnation and life and as precious as the sacrifice of His life into our death.

The truth is we have gotten lazy.  We don't want to work at things and we don't want to do anything we don't feel like doing.  An acolyte was not singing one Sunday and so I quizzed the acolyte about it.  I didn't like the hymn was the response.  Strangely, we do not see the conflict between expecting God to bestow His best and our desire to give Him what comes cheap and easy to us.

I am counter-cultural. I think we ought to sweat it out a bit.  The work of the poet to create a hymn that faithfully sings the faith is no easy task.  The least we can do is work as hard as the composer and author to give voice to that hymn.  God deserves nothing less.  What does it say about us when we consider ourselves worth the extra effort and sacrifice but are unwilling to expend any effort to sing or sing well the noble song of the poet who puts to meter and rhyme the faith we believe, confess, and teach?


David Gray said...

If by "easy" you mean easy for the congregation to carry the tune, as opposed to easily understood, I think I would differ to a degree. You talk about symphonies only playing easy music. Symphonies are performers. A congregation is not a performer in that sense (not is it an audience as it is so often treated in evangelicaldom). Relative ease of tune helps ensure those with little musical training can participate in worship. It is the same reason that so many praise songs are hideous in worship, they are not designed for congregational singing (and they usually have other problems).

I don't generally have a problem as I was a music major for two years and can sight sing most of what is in the hymnal even if I've not sung it before. I had one pastor who would use a modest portion of our Wednesday night meetings to teach the congregation more complex hymns so they wouldn't be caught completely off guard during Sunday worship. That isn't a bad practice.

Pastor Peters said...

Things that are worthy do not always nor do they normally come easily but require learning, discipline, and practice. So it is with good music -- tune as well as text.

Janis Williams said...

So ironic. Today, we are willing to sweat, hurt, breathe hard, and spend hours a week keeping our physical bodies in shape. However, when it comes to exercising our brains, we'd rather sit on the mental couch.

Also ironic that we complain about the difficulty of hymn tunes, but most praise songs are really meant for solo or small group performance. They are therefore difficult to sing congregationally. Just listen to the cacophany in so many modern Evangelical congregations...

Another irony. Today's style of dress are repeating what I wore in the 70s. Young people today are perfectly willing to be "retro" in their dress, but sing a hymn from the 4th century? Use a tune from the 17th? Aack!

Similarly, we learn every new turn of phrase and colloquial expression. We try to make sure we know what HT, TTYL, ROFL etc. mean, but theology? Doctrine? Double Aack!

The theology of the Confessions and the hymns in LSB were all new to me (well, mostly). As a recovering Evangelical, I had to learn a lot, and will be for the rest of my life.

Baptists do have their difficult hymns. They do have hymns (a few) that teach good theology. They have tunes difficult to memorize. Four-part harmony (which doesn't come naturally for most) is common in their congregations - not so much in Lutheran in my experience.

The old Adam is a lazy soul who hates learning. Before the Fall, he worked the Garden from sheer joy of God's command. In the Curse, work became difficult; sweat inducing. Laziness is, I think, a response to the curse. If that is so, what does it say to our attitudes toward Word and Sacrament, and the music of the Church?

"Things that are worthy do not always nor to they normally come easily but require learning, discipline, and practice."

Unknown said...

Most people in this country, like David Gray, are totally musically illiterate and thus everything must be "dumbed down" for them so that they can still "participate." Of course, David Gray is also a Calvinist and his view of music is thus very low.

Even in in J.S. Bach's day, he still composed difficult music and lamented that he did not have the instrumental and choral forces necessary to adequately staff his works used at five different churches on Sundays in Leipzig.

I have the same issue within my Orthodox parish. I'm a chanter and we use the (neo)-Byzantine chants. Many of those are simply too difficult for people to execute especially since Byzantine musical theory is a very different musical language that will take even trained Western musicians years to appreciate, let alone execute with precision and accuracy. yet, we are told to "dumb things down" so people could participate. Participation, of course, is not strictly limited to singing. Participation is prayer and one can pray amusicially (I would insist that most people do that).

Why can't the Church have nice things? WHy must it always be simple to the point of being no different than a lame 3 minute top 40 reject?

David Gray said...

Why am I confident that "Unknown" is much braver on the internet than in person?

Nobody worth taking seriously thinks Calvinists have a low view of music. Roman Catholicism would be another matter unfortunately. I found very interesting the RC adaptation of Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" (which we sang in worship on Sunday)and which kept the tune and the title but substituted a text which talked about flowers blooming and bunnies, if memory serves. I'm not one for exclusive Psalmody but I do appreciate the ancient practice of singing the Psalms.

I love Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, but I don't want it in corporate worship, thanks all the same.

Your failure to appreciate worship and your hostility to lay participation in singing is a rejection of the Lutheran Reformation as much as that of Calvin. You probably resent the use of colloquial language as well. If only the Word was limited to Latin or Greek...

Unknown said...


You're damned right I reject the Lutheran reformation and I'm damned proud of it.

Worship is not something to be appreciated. It is something to be engaged in. That said, music that is uplifting for the soul and the senses should be the standard not the exception nor should anything be easy or simple for the sake of easiness and simplicity. That's essentially your argument and it's a foolish one.

Who said I wanted Bruckner's 7th (I much prefer his 8th, btw) to be used in worship? I most certainly do not. But I don't want happy clappy songs with the standard 1-IV-V-mVI chord sequence that has been done over and over again.

You don't know anything about me so spare me your observations. I don't know why my signature fails to appear, but if you wan to know who I am, my name is Chris. I am a Ph.D. so you can refer to me as Dr.

As far as language goes, I do prefer Greek for Byzantine chant because it works much better than English. I pray in Greek and it's a much better language to pray in than English.

So, if you want happy clappy pedestrian ho-hum music, fine by me. But worship should not be about pandering (which is what you're doing) and going for the lowest common denominator.

David Gray said...

Sorry, if you can't fix my cough I'm not going to call you doctor.

One would have to be either wickedly willful or remarkably stupid to read what I've written and see in it a call for happy clappy music or praise choruses (particularly given my overt criticism of same).

Worship should indeed be engaged in. That's why Christians should use the vernacular and not use performance oriented music for congregational singing, be it pop, praise band dreck or truly great music that is not appropriate for congregational singing.

Unless of course you mean worship should be engaged in by people who think they are special like yourself and not people who are genuinely special because they work two jobs to provide for several children and their wife which leaves an inadequate amount of time for learning Tavener. Yet they faithfully attend corporate worship, receive Word and sacrament and know that God's promises are more for the life to come than the present.

And if you think standard hymnody is devoid of musical creativity it simply illustrates not that you have high standards but that you are unfamiliar with a good hymnal.

And finally I do not some things about you. Your conduct informs us all.

David said...

Music for congregational singing should be less technically complex than concert music. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be interesting music.

John said...

Besides not being musically trained, I can barely carry a tune in a paper bag. I do, though enjoy having unfamiliar hymns introduced. Please, don't just insert a new, maybe musically challenging hymn into a service and expect raves from us pew sitters.

How long would a congregation keep its organist or choir if their music was handed to them just prior to the beginning of the service? You don't do that. You give them the opportunity to practice, in order to enhance the service.

Maybe introduce hymns by the choir or soloist singing the first verse, then with the congregation, then the congregation alone. Have the accompaniment be simple the first time. If a seasonal hymn, use the new hymn more than once during the season. Make it familiar.

Pastor Peters said...

Every hymn was once new and strange; if we rejected everything we found difficult, we would sing nothing at all. The point is not the difficulty -- which can be bridged with practice -- the point is do we settle for what is common, easy, and within reach of the least musically minded or do we choose on the basis of the text and tune -- what is good, worthy, beautiful, excellent? Few new hymns are appreciated upon the first or second run through. It takes many times of singing before we can appreciate them. BTW much of the contemporary songs are more difficult than hymns and have no musical line to follow when the words are put up on the screen. Many Gospel hymns so beloved by some are musically more difficult than the Lutheran chorales we love to complain about. The issue is whether or not we are willing to learn...

Janis Williams said...

@ Unknown: If you are attempting to convert we Reformation folk, you might want to make your comments a little less acerbic. If you're just damning us as heretics, then maybe you should pronounce your anathema, and move on - it might help your blood pressure?

Anonymous said...

When a "difficult hymn" is encountered by my parishioners, I encourage them to focus less on the music and more on the message, i.e., "If you can't sing it, simply read along." Is not the message why we sing hymns in the first place? I am not a fan of much of the contemporary music today because I find most of the messages contained therein little more than what one could get from a rerun of "Touched by an Angel." Singing "Glorify You" three hundred times does little if I am not reminded of the myriad of reasons to glorify God.

Unknown said...

@Janis, I don't want to convert anyone. If you're happy with where you are, fine. You're still wrong, but you're entitled to be wrong.

@Anonymous, that is exactly what I say. Concentrate on the message. Communal prayer doesn't have to be all sung together (especially by people who can't carry a tune; at least you're honest about it) for it to still be prayer.