I remember a little over ten years ago. Our parish was beginning to get serious about building a new church. Architects drew. Committees met. Dollars were counted. Musicians dreamed. Hundreds of people were involved. Thousands of comments and critiques were offered. The most popular comment was this: “Just be sure that we build something that looks like a church!”
Of course we were going to build something that looked like a church! We weren’t building a strip mall or a McDonald’s. I listened to this comment, but didn’t find it particularly helpful at first. After all, what does a church look like? Like Luther’s church in Wittenberg? Like the pope’s church in Rome? Like the big neo-gothic churches of the WELS heartland? Like the steel-construction mission church my brother-in-law served south of Atlanta, Georgia? What does a church look like?
Eventually, the point became clear. A church that “looks like a church” is a church that a person thinks looks churchly. As it turns out, both beauty and ecclesiastical architecture are in the eye of the beholder.
And music is in the ear of the hearer.
I often hear comments like these directed at the Hymnody Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project:
Just be sure that we can sing in four parts.
Just be sure that it’s easier to play.
Just be sure that you don’t have so many hymns that are hard to sing.
“I really like singing in four parts…”
“I love the Lord and his people, but I really hate the organ pedals…”
“I can’t read notes…”
The opposite is also true. As much as some people love singing in parts, not everyone can. For everyone who can’t play the pedals with plenty of sharps or flats, there are other musicians who relish the challenge. For everyone who can’t read notes, there are others who read music like a book. The personal needs and opinions on the hymnal are about as varied as the 400,000 people that sit in our pews!
So what are we going to do with these opinions? The Hymnody Committee is doing its best to be pastoral in approach, musical in craft, and comprehensive in scope.
When we speak of a pastoral approach, we don’t want the new hymnal to be a monument to WELS musicians. Instead, we are working toward a book that will have much for many. Everyone on the Hymnody Committee is a parish musician; some at small churches outside of the heartland. The theological center of the book is Christ and him crucified. The musical center of the book will be accessibility. Music must be a servant of the texts. The music will not be a side-show that competes with texts. A pastoral approach hopes to provide a book with both feet in the Lutheran parish!
As for musical craft, we are doing our best to take a “case by case” approach. WELS singers will be pleased to know that many hymns will be set in a way that supports four-part singing. WELS singers will also be interested to know that we will deliberately avoid four-part singing when the hymn itself doesn’t dictate that practice. “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” for instance, is a chant. Four-part singing only muddies the waters of this haunting melody. We are proposing a rather sparse accompaniment that enables the chant to sing. Musical craft means that music is about more than what I think it should be. Music is also an objective, audio form of art.
Musical craft, by the way, doesn’t mean “for musical purists only.” We are well aware of the modal harmonies that dominate the hymns of Martin Luther. We are also aware that these modal harmonies have not been in the average listener’s ear since the middle 1700s. We are willing to provide some harmonic updates to early Reformation hymns to make them more accessible to American ears. Why? Musical purity is for musicologists. Musical accessibility is for WELS worshipers.
Finally, we come to comprehensive in scope. This means that the hymn book is envisioned as the “baseline” of the resources provided. The book will be supported with layers of supporting material available digitally. We hope that the average WELS keyboardist will be able to play the materials in the book with moderate effort. We also hope to provide enough resources to whet the appetite for a richer presentation of the hymn. Need a descant? A choral stanza? An alternate accompaniment? A transposition to an easier key? How about an instrumental edition? All this is possible. We’re working on it.
In short, we’re producing a hymnal. It will be a hymnal that sounds like a hymnal. Best of all, it will be a hymnal that sings of him!