Sunday, March 22, 2020

Curious. . .

I was reading an article on what makes for a good hymn.  It was written by a Roman Catholic referring to another Roman Catholic author from a much earlier time.  Okay.  But in making a point about a great hymn tune, Von Himmel Hoch, the writer refused to acknowledge the composer, Martin Luther, nor to give any reference which might suggest that this tune was written by a non-Roman Catholic.  Furthermore, the author suggested that it once had a connection to Christmas which has been lost over time.  Really.  I did not know that.  I wondered if my information was wrong and could find no one ascribing the tune to anyone but Luther and published first in the hymnal Geist­liche Lied­er, by Val­en­tin Schu­mann (Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny: 1539).  So the first curiosity of the day is that a Roman Catholic musician deciding what constitutes a good hymn ignores the guy who did more to restore hymnody to Christianity than most, perhaps than anyone else.

Ultimately these studies are about the musicality of the hymn-tune more than the overall success of the hymn itself.  Great composers are known less for their hymn tunes than for their harmonizations of tunes written by others.  Bach is a prime example but include with him are Handel, Hayden, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven -- none of whom are remembered for hymn composition.  Undoubtedly, lesser talents have produced the majority of great hymn tunes.  Imagine that the next time you open a hymnal to sing a hymn.

Finally, although the musicality of the tune is important.  It is not the only thing that is important.  In fact, it is not the primary thing.  What the hymn says is of primary importance since the function of the hymn is to sing the faith.  What it sings is not a small matter at all.  Though many would disagree with me, neither sentiment nor your ability to dance to its rhythm contribute anything to the success of a hymn but plenty to its failure.  It is content, content, content.

Even the best content, however, does not work when it must compete with the melody.  The most successful hymns are those where the words and the tune are working in parallel.  The best is where they actually merge so that the text and tune sing as one together.  If you think about it, there are plenty of examples of such wonderful marriages of text and tune where in the individual parts become more when married together.  The tune is not just the vehicle for the words but the fitting counterpart of the text in musical setting.

Hymns are things whose value is not automatically apparent and whose success is not immediately known.  Over time we learn from what has been sung, what to sing.  So before we can learn to write or sing hymns in our own time, we had better learn the great and sturdy hymns of old and then, just maybe, we will learn enough to put together the magic of a profound text to a tune that unpacks the text and enlarges it.  And that, my friends, is a thing of sheer beauty!

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