Thursday, May 20, 2010
A Different Approach to the Role of Music in the Service...
It is my experience that you do not have to be into contemporary Christian music to see music and its role(s) in this way. In fact, I know some organists and choir directors in liturgical churches who routinely speak of the role of music as expression of our feeling, who use music to set the tone for the service, and who plan music to achieve a certain outcome or goal on the part of the hearer and singer. Though we who believe in the liturgy often accuse those who practice CCM of this, it is more prevalent than we might think.
In contrast to this, when Lutherans speaks of music as being the handmaid or servant of the Word, we are speaking of the role of music in communicating that Word of God. Music is not merely some sounds around the text but, with the text, is woven in such way that text and tune become one fabric, one message. The primary purpose of music is to communicate THE message of Jesus Christ. If you page through Lutheran Service Book or Lutheran Worship or The Lutheran Hymnal, it is easy to see what I mean. There are hymns there that tell a story over many stanzas, both summarizing and saying in the actual words of Scripture the message of the Gospel (and not only Gospel but also Law). They are theological as well as doxological -- in fact we might say that in order to be doxological they must be theological, conveying and confessing the truth of God's own self-disclosure and revelation.
It is not that these hymns are devoid of our response to that Word, or empty of the praise and thanksgiving it engenders in us and from us, but that this is always secondary to their role as speakers of the Divine Word. It is not that there is no difference in mood or tone between a Good Friday hymn or an Easter hymn but that this mood or tone is reflective of what the hymn says and not a value separate from its role as servant of the Word. It is not that we do not "program" festive hymns for festive occasions but not as a manipulator of the mind and heart of people. Rather, the choice of hymns or songs flows from the occasion, from the lessons for that occasion, and from the place of this service within the Church Year or the sanctoral calendar. It is not that these hymns do not utilize repetitive elements (refrains, for example) but that this repetition flows from the form of the text and its message and not as a means to change or shape the mood of the singer or hearer by the use of a specific musical form or set of words. So, for example, the repeated "Alleluias" of a hymn such as "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing" flow from the message of Ascension and the response of the Church to Jesus' place of glory at the right hand of the Father, a place earned by His suffering and death, which He takes as a reflection of the completion of these mighty acts by which we have been saved. Different from that are the repeated "Alleluia" of the folk hymn by that name which has no other words than "Alleluia" and where the repetition of that one word becomes the medium, the message and a means of creating a specific mood in the assembly.
Luther's gift and, indeed, the gift of Lutheran hymnody, is its ability to bring together musical form and the message of the Word to faithfully mirror Scripture's own speaking in the voice of an assembly whose many voices are united not only in this speaking or singing but in the Word which they speak and sing.
George Weigel, noted Roman Catholic theological and social commentator, has noticed this as well. Read what he has written: I love hymns. I love singing them and I love listening to them. Hearing the robust Cardiff Festival Choir belt out the stirring hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams at what my wife regards as an intolerable volume is, for me, a terrific audio experience. It was only when I got to know certain Lutherans, though, that I began to think about hymns theologically.
For classic Lutheran theology, hymns are a theological "source:" not up there with Scripture, of course, but ranking not-so-far below Luther's "Small Catechism." Hymns, in this tradition, are not liturgical filler. Hymns are distinct forms of confessing the Church's faith. Old school Lutherans take their hymns very seriously.
Most Catholics don't. Instead, we settle for hymns musically indistinguishable from "Les Mis" and hymns of saccharine textual sentimentality. Moreover, some hymn texts in today's Catholic "worship resources" are, to put it bluntly, heretical. Yet Catholics once knew how to write great hymns; and there are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from Anglican, Lutheran, and other Christian sources. There being a finite amount of material that can fit into a hymnal, however, the first thing to do is clean the stables of today's hymnals.
Hymns are important. Catholics should start treating them seriously.
He gets what some Lutherans have forgotten or chosen to ignore. What we sing is either what we believe, teach and confess or it is simply what we think or feel. While there is nothing wrong with feelings and passion in worship, what we sing is not an aesthetic experience, not an artistic experience, not a musical experience, but the place where the Word speaks and music assists the speaking of that Word. We have all known hymns where the melody and the words become the inseparable and unified medium -- the melody is not simply some interchangeable set of notes but is so reflective of the message it becomes itself part of the message. Certainly this is the goal of the music of the liturgy, the hymns and songs of the Church, and the anthems and service music of the choir, organist, and other parish musicians.