Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hymns Get Ridiculously Complicated – 16th-18th Century

When we hear the word “hymns,” we usually think of the music of these centuries plus the 19th, which I will discuss next. Whether we love them or find them deadly, this is what we expect when we enter a church of a mainstream denomination on a Sunday. These hymns have numbers. The composer and lyricist are listed by name, along with their years of life. They have two staffs of music, one below the words and one above, and a very odd method of stacking verses that fit these in our minds hand-in-glove.

They are much more complicated than what came before. When musical notation became common and English literacy became widespread, writers of hymns suddenly favored ornate poetry, complex harmony, and loud organs. This complexity is only possible once you can write things down. After many repetitions a congregant or a musician might memorise a complicated piece, but generally, people need to have the words and music in front of them. Once this crutch of written notation was allowed them, writers of hymns went out of control. Only a culture in which most are literate, and many can read music, can sustain this level of complexity.

Look at these. These are lyricists getting completely out of hand.

Awake My Soul and with the sun (v.1)
Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise,
To pay thy morning sacrifice.

All Hail the Power (v. 2)
Let highborn seraphs tune the lyre, and as they tune it, fall
Before His face Who tunes their choir, and crown Him Lord of all.

Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah (v. 2)
Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through

I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath (v.2)
Why should I make a man my trust?
Princes must die and turn to dust;
Vain is the help of flesh and blood:
Their breath departs, their pomp, and power,
And thoughts, all vanish in an hour,
Nor can they make their promise good.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (v.5)
Praise to the Lord, Who, when tempests their warfare are waging,
Who, when the elements madly around thee are raging,
Biddeth them cease, turneth their fury to peace,
Whirlwinds and waters assuaging.

Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty (v.4)
Thou my faith increase and quicken,
Let me keep Thy gift divine,
Howsoe’er temptations thicken;
May Thy Word still o’er me shine
As my guiding star through life,
As my comfort in my strife.

Notice also that the words me, my, I are creeping in more frequently. Most hymns are still either declarative and/or communal, but the importance of the individual is growing. The use of thee, thy, thou is archaic and distancing now, suggesting a god far away and difficult to approach. In their own time these words had the opposite meaning. You was formal discourse for strangers; Thou was the intimate language of the family. Sweethearts would say I love thee; to say I love you would have been a mixed message. That feature of intimacy is entirely lost now, unless one has a familiarity with the same feature in foreign languages.

These works are now boring to children, daunting to newcomers, and often obscure in meaning. I love these hymns. I have had a wonderful time building this post and entering in to the strong, intense strains. A child brought up in the church from early years might absorb them over time. But for general consumption – no more.

Kids and newcomers hate them for their archaic language. These treasures of the church have become weighted necklaces of gold about our necks. It kills me to write that.

Others in group: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Come Thou Almighty King
O God Our Help In Ages Past
Ye Servants of God
O For a Thousand Tongues


Woody said...

Those ae good links and good comments about the hymms. I grew up in a church in which the music and choir was appreciated by many across the nation. In church, most of our hymms that we sang were written before the year 1800. Now, my kids like a church with music that's a little to loud and too modern for my taste, but they enjoy the music. I just would rather sing a hymm by Martin Luther than Bon Jovi. Here's one of my old favorites:

dicentra63 said...

Come, Thou font of every blessing,
Tune my soul to sing thy grace
Strains of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above,
Praise the mount, I'm fixed upon it,
Mount of thy redeeming love.

Here I raise my Ebeneezer,
Hither by thy help I've come,
And I hope by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

O, to grace, how great a debtor,
Lately I'm constrained to be,
May Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love,
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

They just don't write them like that anymore...