Sometimes It’s Just One Note
In the early days of this hymnal project website, it was noted that one of the leading purposes of writing blog articles is to “take people along for the ride,” to share with readers a healthy cross-section of all the different aspects of our work. We also knew that one of our early work items would be reviewing all the existing materials in our hymnal and its supplement. By early 2015 we will have reviewed all of the lectionary selections, psalms, hymns, and rites across all of the published Christian Worship editions, including Christian Worship: Occasional Services. The first group to dive into this review has been the executive committee, since the other subcommittees will be bringing to the executive committee batches of recommendations and resolutions regarding all of the review items, complete with detailed notes, transcribed committee discussions, and rationale statements for all their recommendations.
Reviewing hymns has been slow going for me. It’s not uncommon for me to spend more than an hour reviewing a single hymn, sometimes much more than that. I have about a hundred done, and I plan to go back through them all once more (especially the earliest reviews), now that I have landed on a review process which seems to work. Front and center is an open copy of Christian Worship. When it’s time to start reviewing the next hymn, I’ll typically open two new review items in the online database where all our reviews reside — one review for the text and another for the music. The other open volume which I consult for every hymn is Dr. C.T. Aufdemberge’s Christian Worship: Handbook. And then the chase is on.
Regarding the text, the non-exhaustive list of questions includes:
- How many original stanzas were there and in what language were they?
- Are there any original dropped stanzas we should think about bringing back in?
- Are there any currently included stanzas we should think about dropping?
- Are there enough unused original stanzas that we might consider carving out two separate hymns from the complete number of stanzas?
- If the hymn is a translation into English, who translated it and when?
- How many translations are there?
- Would we want to think about retranslating a text?
- Should we definitely not retranslate a text because of its long-standing use or because of how many may have already memorized it as it is?
- If the text is public domain, how has it been altered?
- Are there phrases, rhymes, or terms that really need to be fixed?
- Was it wise to go from “thee” to “you” or should we return to “thee” with a particular text (case by case basis)?
- What are the differences (down to the shortest single words or even punctuation) in how the text appears in the many different hymnals in which it has been published?
- Is the language intelligible?
- Is the poetry rich or weak?
- Does the text contribute something significant to the body of hymns we have, or do the same themes already appear in five similar hymns?
There is an almost inexhaustible array of hard copy and online resources in which can be explored these sample questions and many more. And the questions above are really only the mechanical questions. I haven’t even delved into the more important matters of the message of the text, its law/gospel clarity, its gospel content, its doctrinal integrity - all of which are up for review.
Then there’s the music.
- Are the key signature and range too high or too low?
- If it was new to our church body in Christian Worship, has the tune caught on or do people still struggle with it?
- Is it time to let this tune go or are there good arguments for keeping it?
- Is the musical setting (the harmony parts) too challenging?
- Which of a number of different settings is the best one for this hymn?
- Are there descants or instrumental parts for the hymn or would we need to or should we think about producing them?
- Do the words/syllables of the text match up well with the beat or pulse (or syncopation or rhythm) of the music?
- How and by whom has this tune been used in the history of the church?
- Do we have the best tune with this text?
- In the hymnals of other Lutheran and Christian church bodies, which tunes and settings appear with this text?
- Do the melody line and rhythm which we have in our hymnal line up with how the melody line and rhythm appear in a broad cross section of the larger church throughout the world?
- Which musical genres are under-represented or over-represented in our current hymnody, and where does this tune fit into that question?
And then we would have to say “ditto” as far as the comment made above regarding texts — online resources covering only the existing music of our hymns are practically endless, to say nothing of the hundreds of hymns we’ll be reviewing which would be either new since our last major publication or new to us as a church body. And these musical questions are again mostly only the mechanical ones. Not treated in the sampling of questions above are the more important matters, such as: Does the tune highlight and emphasize the text it is carrying or is the music itself the focus or actually a distraction to the text? Whatever its style or genre, does the tune have the dignity and decorum we would want it to have, realizing that it will be utilized in God’s house? How well has the tune worn or will it wear with continued and repeated use in our worship services?
Considering these questions and many more, along with the research which such considerations trigger, has made my own review of hymns slow going. I thought I might possibly gain some ground when I came to the musical review of CW 92, “Brightest and Best.” In the handful of hard copy hymnals I checked, the key signature was regularly G major, and there wasn’t much if any variation to the harmony parts. Then I glanced down to my left, toward the open copy of the LC-MS’s Lutheran Service Book, and thought to myself, “What’s that?” The melody line in the second last measure sure looked strange - its first three notes going straight up the scale from D to E to F. All my forty-plus years of singing that hymn in TLH and CW, I have sung that phrase D to G to F. So much for a quick musical review of CW 92. I quickly found out that both the current and previous Lutheran hymnals of the Missouri Synod and the ELCA have that phrase going straight up the scale from D to E to F. The website hymnary.org revealed that right around 20 hymnals have it that way, too — hymnals dating back to 1899 (not to mention a host of 19th century hymnals which have this text set to six other tunes, composed or arranged by the likes of Samuel Wesley, John B. Dykes, J. S. Bach and Johann C. W. A. Mozart). Without having burned too many research hours, it appears that The Lutheran Hymnal, Christian Worship, and Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS) are possibly the only hymnals that have that last line the way I have always sung it.
When it comes to things that call for one’s attention in a hymn review, sometimes it’s just one note. Will we make that tiny melodic change in “Brightest and Best” and align the next printing of that hymn with what is common in the vast majority of hymnals that have published it? I honestly don’t know (yet). If we were to do so, I imagine I might sing it incorrectly the first few times, as I probably did when a similar three note change (2X) was made in the case of CW 234, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” to align the melody of that hymn with its much more common and broader use in Christian churches and hymnals. All I can say at this point is that, along with everything else, it will be up for review.
And I can assure you that our thinking with every conceivable question concerning the review of hymns has one underlying principle which is guiding not only our review of hymns but all that we are doing across all our committees: How will every one of our decisions serve for the glory of God and the edification of all those who will, God-willing, make use of the next WELS hymnal? Brothers and sisters, we benefit from your prayers and your involvement as we seek to serve both you and our Savior. Thank you for your interest and your prayers.