Note: In early February, a comprehensive report on the work of the WELS Hymnal project was posted to our website and distributed through several synod-wide communication channels. We are also featuring each section of the report here on our website's blog. As each section is featured we invite your feedback using the contact form on the bottom of the page.
Pastor Aaron Christie, Chairman
The Hymnody Committee (HC) is responsible for what one would expect: the roughly 650 hymns found between the covers of the new hymnal. Our work, supervised by the Executive Committee, includes both the texts and music of the hymns. We are working hard to provide a body of hymnody for our synod that is centered in Christ, rooted in the means of grace, decidedly Lutheran in tradition, yet providing ample room for the best that the Church at-large has to offer.
One would expect the HC to work on the hymns of the so-called “pew edition” hymnal. However, the scope of the HC’s task is wider than that. The HC also has its sights set on providing a vast array of musical resources for each hymn, available apart from the pew edition. The HC will play a major role in producing resources that could include alternate accompaniments, settings in lower keys, descants, and other instrumental parts not included in the pew edition. In short, the HC is responsible for all things textual and musical in relation to hymns in our next hymnal. We are working hard to make the Church’s hymnic treasures as usable as possible by as many of our parishes and schools as possible.
Where We Are Headed
Some Old, Some New
We envision a book of approximately 650 hymns. Our new book will follow CW’s lead in bringing forward about two-thirds of the hymns from CW and CWS into the new book. This leaves about one-third of the book for new hymns. Some of these “new” hymns will be from centuries or decades past. Others of these hymns will be brand new - gleaned from materials which authors and composers have more recently released. When it comes to what’s new in this hymnal, our concern is not chronology, but quality.
How does a hymn earn a place in the new hymnal? What criteria is the HC using to determine if a hymn is worthy of inclusion? One of the first documents the HC produced was a list of hymn criteria. That document states:
Hymns considered for inclusion should…
be in harmony with the scriptural faith as confessed in the Lutheran Book of Concord.
be rooted in the Church year with its emphases on the life of Christ and the Christian’s life in Christ.
be drawn from classic Lutheran sources and deliberately inclusive of the Church’s broader song (including so-called International or Global music).
be superlative examples of their genre in regards to both textual content and musical craft.
be accessible and meaningful for God’s people at worship in both public and private settings.
be useful for those who preach and teach the faith.
be parts of a corpus that will find wide acceptance by the vast majority of our fellowship.
These principles are easy enough to articulate. Using them to evaluate each hymn is a little more difficult. What if, for example, a hymn is deep theologically and excellent musically (criterion #5), but is genuinely difficult to sing (criterion #6)? The HC is dedicated to taking each hymn on a case by case basis. The HC is also dedicated to making sure that the hymnal as a whole meets these criteria even if every hymn does not meet all of them equally.
Reviewing and Revising
In addition to searching for the best of what isn’t currently in CW and CWS, the HC is also responsible for reviewing the hymns currently in those volumes that will carry over to the next hymnal. The HC has some developed some philosophical guidelines pertaining to that part of its work.
We are generally content to keep the number of stanzas found in Christian Worship. However, when excellent content leads us to consider including additional stanzas, we will be open to doing so.
One frequent request has been that hymn keys be further lowered to aid singing. The HC is willing to consider lowering keys on occasion, especially if the upper range of the melody is deemed consistently too high.
That being said, we are cautious about lowering keys too frequently. A hymn’s key is part of what creates its overall “feel.” Think of a home builder. When putting in molding, he knows that oak and maple are two very different materials. When putting in flooring, he knows that laminate tile is very different from ceramic. We want to make sure that a hymn’s trim and flooring fit well with what the hymn is trying to communicate. For example, some have commented that CW uses the key of F-major rather frequently, resulting in a less-than-desirable “sameness” throughout the hymnal. We want to be sensitive to such issues when working with the key of each hymn.
Where the range of certain hymns is a bit of a challenge to some, we hope singers will be willing to continue to challenge their vocal range (a healthy exercise), and that congregations and schools will continue to be committed to supplying the instruction, instruments, and acoustics that help them do so.
One area where the HC is a little more minded to make some changes is in simplifying the harmonic language of the new hymnal. Some have stated it this way: “The pew edition should be a singer’s book more than a keyboardist’s book.” We envision the pew edition containing harmonies that are more rudimentary. We plan on supplying alternate, richer harmonies apart from the pew edition.
Other revisions will make this new hymnal more of a singer’s book. Instead of many alto and tenor notes being held while the melody and bass parts move, alto and tenor notes will generally be repeated. This should support four-part singing where it makes musical sense. We are also doing our best to align melody shapes and rhythms with usage in the wider Church so that alternate musical resources become more readily available and better match what our people have before them.