Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Faith and Melody

Faith and Melody. That sounds like "two sisters I went to school with"!

But today I am reflecting on the question of a composer's personal faith as a requirement for using her/his tune to sing sacred text. That is, may we use the musical gifts of a non-regenerate person to set the words of scripture, prayer, and hymn, and then use the resultant song in gathered worship?

I am posing the question strictly, here, in terms of the melody. When the composer of a tune is known, and the nature of that composer's faith is known (or, cautiously, inferred from his/her life story), does it matter in any spiritual or moral sense? We are always pleased to claim J. S. Bach as the church musician par excellence, but we rarely sing his melodies. Arthur Sullivan may give us pause, but his tunes are still in wide use in Christian hymnals. Last week I mentioned Ralph Vaughan Williams's beloved tune SINE NOMINE - he who was a great friend of church music and hymn lovers, but no great friend of the gospel. Does it matter?

Sometimes people get bogged down in the attribution of a hymn tune. I was surprised to find in Hymns for the Living Church a tune by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Yes, that Jean Jacques Rousseau. When I first used it, someone graciously approached me and asked if that was really "OK" to use. Silly me for not anticipating the question. But it was not a silly question. It's just a question that I wonder, how far do we want to pursue that?

In fact, my objection to the use of that particular tune (identified as GREENVILLE in our hymnal) is not its composer, but the faint impression that it gives of "Go Tell Aunt Rhody."

Of course, many of our hymn tunes are anonymous and/or folk tunes; we don't know who "wrote" them. This gets us off the hook on this question. As for composer attribution and the presence or absence of faith, for me it tends to boil down to the quality/usefulness of the tune itself. In this I refer to Alice Parker (who would, I imagine, be baffled by the question) not because she has addressed this question but because of what she has to say wisely about the importance of melody.

To summarize, poorly, it comes down to this: a melody has a life of its own, and must be recognized, embraced, and sung on its own merit. It either fits the words set to it, or it does not. A good fit is worth singing, a poor fit should be re-considered. The source of a melody is in any real sense inconsequential. I'm no composer, but I believe many composers will say that a melody "came to them" (even if they labored over the details of getting it right). I feel some freedom to match excellent words with the best tune available, regardless of the source.

Now, pastorally? There can be another complication. If I am going to use tune (and give appropriate credit) written by someone whose faith and life are known to be antithetical to the Christian faith - especially if there is a strong likelihood that some will connect those dots ... As a matter of avoiding offense, I will decline to use the tune. I will probably be saddened by it, but I think I know my greater duty there.

And one more comment, on a humorous note: Recently I had to deal with another side of this guilt-by-association, ad hominem, hymn tune decision. We wanted to use a classic text in our evening service, but with a less formal tune. Due to the more folk nature of the service, I turned (as is my custom) to some early American tunes. Having found a pretty good match (if I may say so myself), we then faced the question: "Do we name the tune in print?" We chose not to. So we set the great hymn "O Word of God Incarnate" to the Southern Harmony (1835) tune ... ROMISH LADY!


Anonymous said...

Hi Chuck!

Fascinating post! I would (with fear and trembling) attempt a beginning of an answer to this concern with a principle and an example. The principle is "All truth is God's truth," and the example is that of the traditores in the early church.

I think the "All truth" principle applies here because as we bear the imago Dei, not the least among the godly traits that we bear is creativity. So I do believe that (to an extent) the composer's personal faith can be separated from whether their tunes are useful for worship services.

And if you recall the episode with the traditores in the early 300's, the fact that certain priests had renounced Xity was determined inconsequential to the validity of the sacraments they administered - the sacraments drew their power not from the priests, but from God. In the same way, I believe that the faith of a composer is (mostly) irrelevant to the use of his tunes in worship. I would (as you do) make an exception for composers that are hostile to Xity.

Bryan Park

Chuck King said...

Yes, you've put your finger on it, as is your wont. It still leaves the pastoral challenge - but perhaps even that is less challenging than I posit here.