Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Concerning hymns"
by Jessie Brown Pounds

Dr. Robert E. Hooper, a historian of the Restoration Movement, once suggested to me that the Churches of Christ have never produced a full-fledged philosophy of church music--that our discussions of it have been entirely consumed with the single issue of instrumental music in worship, to the neglect of any other facet of the subject. Though I certainly don't claim to have encyclopedic knowledge of Restoration Movement literature, I could not counter his claim. I would like to introduce here the occasional review of authors and works in this vein when I find them.

Jessie Brown Hunter Pounds is best known as the lyricist of several well-known hymns, such as "Anywhere with Jesus" and "Beautiful isle of somewhere," but in addition was a significant author of regional fiction and editor of popular religious journals. She also wrote a group of essays on the subject of church music, found in the Memorial Selections published in 1921 (I have not been able to determine their date of composition). Though she was of a fairly liberal persuasion within the Christian Church and certainly had no problems with the use of instruments in worship, her point of view on other matters in church music is at least in the same ballpark as mine, and her perspective as a woman hymn-writer in the 19th and early 20th centuries is especially interesting. Her essay "Concerning hymns" (read the full text here) was written between 1913 and her death in 1920.

She writes:

The Christian world has suddenly become concerned because our hymnbook is not as good as it should be. ... The indication is a good one. ... Now they have begun to examine it with some intelligence, and to ask concerning it many pertinent and interesting questions.

One of these questions is, Why is our hymn-book the product, for the most part, of writers practically unknown in literature. In other words, Why have not the great English poets given us our English hymns? ...

This is hard to dispute. Very, very few of the writers of hymns will ever be found in a college anthology of English or American literature. Even those few hymns that we have from prominent authors, such as "Dear Lord and Father of mankind" by John Greenleaf Whittier, are typically excerpted and adapted to that end, rather than written for the purpose of singing in church.

There are several reasons why the poems of these masters are not sung. One of them is, no doubt, the limitation of form which the hymn imposes. A hymn must first of all be singable. ... If the thought of the poet obstructs the rhythm of the musician, the work is doomed. Emphasis, in the hymn, is in the music, and is gained by stress and recurrence rather than by cumulative thought. The form of verse must be simple, there must be but three or four stanzas, and the thought must lend itself to the repetition of the strain in each successive stanza.

Here is a strong argument, and it is no insult to hymns to say what is obviously true. If a congregation--a group of untrained singers--is going to sing a hymn together, there are only two practical options. Either they will sing a relatively short text to a relatively short melody, or they will sing a longer text broken up into stanzas, each stanza sung to the same relatively short melody. The option of a lengthy through-composed work (in which the music does not repeat), such as the great choral works of the classical tradition, is just not likely ever to succeed in this context.

A short text that can be sung whole, without breaking up into stanzas, can be as irregular as you wish. The excellent little Scripture hymn, "The steadfast love of the Lord," is a good example. Since the music will not be repeated to another stanza, it can follow the irregularities of the text in an interesting diversity of rhythms, and one does not even notice that the poetry is unrhymed and unmeasured. But with a text that will be sung in stanzas, repeating the same melody, there is an inherent limitation for both the poet and the composer--the melody has to fit the words in every stanza, and the words have to be written in exactly the same rhythm in each stanza (or very nearly so).

On the musical side, there is a level of complexity that a hymn tune cannot exceed and still be successful in congregational singing. Folk tunes are called so for a reason--they are the tunes that "folks" naturally acquire and sing, not just trained musicians. Folk tunes tend to have a balance, repetition, and form that give them a natural cohesion. Consider the immortal childhood anthem, "Found a peanut." Its questionable theological assumptions aside, this song is a classic of folksong form, with balanced phrases, repetition yet variation of melodic ideas, and an arch-form structure of departure and return.

Hymn tunes do not have to be as simple as this, but they need to be easily taught and easily remembered, especially since we will likely never see the day when musical literacy is anywhere close to common. Also, the simplicity and ease of a good hymn tune doesn't get in the way of the words, but instead helps us to commit them to memory. (Imagine trying to remember multiple stanzas of a hymn set to the tune of "The steadfast love of the Lord!") And if this approach sounds condescending to the congregation's ability, it should be noted that folk song has frequently infused the best compositions of the classical genres--in fact the Classic Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was built to a great extent on the simple, natural phrasing of folk song.

But though I agree with Pounds overall, there are assumptions here that I don't accept. On a purely technical point, I do not see why a hymn must have a refrain repeated after every stanza. If the text does not "lend itself to the repetition," then leave off the refrain! On a more substantive issue, I disagree that "emphasis ... is in the music, and is gained by stress and recurrence rather than by cumulative thought." The music of some hymns may be more impressive than the words, and many a song survives on this basis, but that does not mean we should embrace that fact!

If we are guided by God's will, we must look to what Scripture has said about our singing in worship; and what Scripture says to the New Testament Christian deals almost exclusively with our interaction with the words. We are to sing with "the spirit" and "the understanding,"(1 Cor. 14:15) and "speaking to one another," "making melody in your hearts," "giving thanks,"(Eph. 5:19-20) and "teaching and admonishing one another," "singing with grace in your hearts."(Col. 3:16) These verses tell us that our singing involves both the heart and the head, and poetry does just that--but music (I dread stepping into this subject!) communicates primarily, with most people, on an emotional level. (There are people, and I am one, who admire certain music primarily for its structure and form, as if it were architecture; the counterpoint of Bach is a good example.)

At the very least, melody alone can hardly "teach or admonish;" and I would venture to say that whatever music communicates on its own is received so subjectively that it could not be certain what had been said. A simple example might suffice: the august melody of "O sacred head now wounded" was originally written for the lyric, "Mein Gemüth ist mir verwirret, das macht ein Jungfrau zart" ("My mind is all confused, because of a sweet young lady"). In our own time, Paul Simon recast the same music as "American tune," a folk ballad about 1970s cultural malaise. Which meaning does the melody communicate? I love music for its own sake more than most, but from a Scriptural standpoint I think it is clear that in church music, God means for the emphasis to be on the words.

Finally, I don't agree with the idea that the necessary simplicity of the music demands an equivalent simplicity of the text. "Stress and recurrence" are good rhetorical devices, but do not preclude the development of "cumulative thought." It almost seems that Pounds was locked into a mode of thought that took the revival gospel song as the inevitable standard. The fine old Watts hymn, "When I survey the wondrous cross," is an excellent example of "cumulative thought," so much so that it would make a sermon outline. Even in the gospel-song-with-refrain form, Eugene Bartlett's "Victory in Jesus" is a fine example of a progression of thoughts through the stanzas, and gives a good thumbnail sketch of the plan of salvation, to boot!

Beyond the limitation of form, however, is the much more confining limitation of thought. The great poet speaks for himself and for a small circle of cultured minds. He does not expect the multitude to go with him. He is therefore free to express the high poetic mood, to speak that which comparatively few can understand. Not so the hymn-writer. He speaks for the great body of Christian worshippers. He must seek to lift them up to their highest spiritual possibilities, while never for a moment forgetting the intellectual limitations of the least among them all. 

Here Pounds shows an elitism not uncommon to the educated classes in 19th-century America; there was a firm belief in rules of taste and style, and American elites were particularly self-conscious of the failings of their fellow citizens in this sphere, at least when compared to Europe. (This thinking is so far out of favor today that one can scarcely carry on a conversation about "good" and "bad" in the arts without offending democratic sensibilities--a situation not a great deal better.) Particularly concerning to me, however, is Pounds's belief that  the "great" poetry is for "a small circle of cultured minds," not for the "multitude." There is a threshold of understanding to be reached in any art form--but is Shakespeare inherently unintelligible? Didn't he have just as much a following among the groundlings as among those in the box seats?

The hymn belongs to the whole congregation and ... no set of persons have a right to monopolize it. For this reason, not only must the language be intelligible to the great body of worshippers, but the language must express emotions and convictions common or at least possible to all. ...

Here is a fine point, surprisingly egalitarian after the preceding statements, but then it is built upon a more certain foundation than just human opinion. The Scripture passages quoted above clearly address a congregation and its communal service of worship, praising God and edifying one another. It is a thing done by the people as a community, not by a select few on their behalf, and those who select the hymns do well to remember that. A "good" worship service is one that does what God meant it to do, and "good" hymns are those that enable a congregation to worship God as He has asked.

As a young man, when once I began to probe the frontiers of hymns outside the usual repertoire of my upbringing, I was forever finding a new hymn that I was certain was the best ever written. I just knew that if I led it often enough and enthusiastically enough, everyone else would love it too. I am still finding them, but I am less certain that I can convince a congregation to love them. Sometimes they catch on and sometimes they don't. And frankly, if I programmed only the songs I want to sing in worship, we would move into the "high-church" territory of the Lutheran chorales and the medieval gems of the Oxford Movement, and stay there a while. But I don't have the right, as the person choosing hymns for my Sundays, to impose my personal tastes on the worship of the congregation. I admit that there are times when I throw in the "new" classical hymn just because I think it has merit and would be worth getting to know; but this is by far the exception. My first responsibility, in my role as service planner and song leader, is to facilitate the congregation's worshipping of God in a way that is pleasing to Him and beneficial to them.

An argument that is often introduced here is, "Shouldn't we offer God our best?" Of course we should, but this statement needs to be examined carefully in light of what God has said about singing in New Testament worship. I don't see any way to avoid qualifying the phrase, "our best," as "the best that we can offer." We cannot offer God in song, for example, a hymn with music that is too difficult for us to sing. We certainly cannot offer God a hymn that we do not understand. Shouldn't we try to increase in our understanding, and in our ability? Of course this is a healthy practice, in hymns as in any other sphere; but we must worship in the mean time as well.

Also, I have to ask, "our best what?" Our best literature? Our best musical compositions? Or our best worship in spirit and truth on a given Sunday? Yes, I would like to have all three agree, but I know which is most important, and I will aim for that one first and do what I can for the other two. Creating cultural and generational conflict and even resentment is not conducive to that aim. Finally, I would note that when we speak of "our best," we have to remember that it is "our best" in the plural, not in the separate singular. We have to come together where we can, and worship God. If we can expand that meeting place through inclusive use of a variety of hymns, and learn to give and take between our different tastes, so much the better, but our unity in worship is non-negotiable.

The birthplace of a great hymn is the soul rather than the mind. The hymn is the child of spiritual experience, rather than of the creative imagination. Perhaps this is the chief reason why the great hymns of the church have been written by humble men and women otherwise unknown to fame.

In both Ephesians 5 and its parallel in Colossians 3, the passages on singing in worship are preceded by a significant idea that is easily overlooked: "be filled with the Spirit," and "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." Anyone desiring to write good hymns, to worship God in hymns, or to lead others in worship of God in hymns, is well advised to begin right here! Scripture is clear on this from Genesis to Revelation--though God expects His external forms of worship to be honored, the first step in obedient worship is a sincere heart, exhibited in a godly life. This being the case, a person of modest literary talents but a deep knowledge of God and His word may produce a hymn that resonates with true worshipers of God just as greatly as the product of any poet laureate.

Another question frequently asked is, Why are the best hymns the old, old hymns? Whay are none of the very best being written now? Well, possibly the best of the old hymns were not recognized as super-excellent when they appeared. ... Possibly among the hymns of modern evangelism may be found some that will live, and outlive the criticism of its own age. ... We must not forget, however, that while the great hymns of the past have lived and have become more precious to each generation than they were to the one before, that the poor hymns of the past have been forgotten as the poor hymns of our own day will be. ... A hundred years from now no one will sing the cheap and trivial songs which appear in our own time. But those who come after us will sing, "My Jesus, I Love Thee," and "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go," and "Safe in the Arms of Jesus." Each generation gathers from the mass of productions the few destined for immortality, and passes them on to the age that comes after. The years are faithful, and can be trusted to do their work. ...

I don't have Pounds's unqualified trust in the editorial process of the passage of time; I have seen too many fine hymns that simply fell out of favor, or didn't make the jump from one generation or location to another. Some of these are arguably better, in spiritual, literary, and musical terms, than some of those still in use. (It is ironic to see Pounds's own examples of songs that would stand the test of time!) But in general this principle is true: the older songs we sing are more likely the best of their era, because much of the chaff has been winnowed out, but the great new songs of today are still jumbled up with the mediocre and the awful. I hesitate to speculate what will stand the test of time, because a century from now I will probably be just as off the mark as was Pounds; but certainly there are some newer "praise songs" that are of more lasting value than some older songs in more traditional styles.

There is another side to this point, however: if the process of time has preserved a body of hymns that multiple generations have found to be useful vehicles for their worship, certainly it is a tragedy to jettison this heritage, as some are doing, in favor of a steady stream of contemporary songs that contains a great deal of "chaff." It seems risky to so limit the spiritual diet of the congregation, when there is a treasury of songs that have proven ability to speak to people in many different times, places, and cultures. It is naivety at the least, self-centered arrogance at the worst, to suppose that our time and place is so fundamentally new and different that generations past have nothing relevant to tell us.

Even more tragic is the spectacle of division over the passing fancies of musical styles. I wonder how the Greeks, Romans, and Jews of 1st-century congregations dealt with their musical differences? We know that the synagogue tradition of psalm-singing played a major part, but the Oxyrhynchos hymn from the 2nd century shows that the Greek tradition of hymn-singing to their gods was soon turned to the service of praising Christ. Did they have separate services? Did congregations split over the issue? The early church music traditions of the Orthodox and Catholic churches suggest that there was instead a synergy between these different styles.

The hymns of the church are a priceless treasure. In them are preserved for us the victories of the kingdom and the vital experiences of its heroes. He who would add to or take from this treasure must reckon with the laws of time and truth, as well as with the kindlier influences of memory and affection.

Pounds closes with a profound thought, well worth our remembering and putting into practice. In my occasional role as worship planner, I am unashamedly greedy--I want it all. I refuse to choose between one musical tradition and another. There are excellent classical hymns, excellent gospel songs, and excellent contemporary praise songs, and they are all our heritage; I will "bring out of my treasure things new and old."(Matthew 15:32)

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