Monday, October 24, 2011


It seems wrong, somehow, to end a long blog silence with a rant; even a mild rant. At least, I console myself, I am writing again . . .

My Karen and I got out again to City Church in San Francisco. Let it be established that our primary purpose for getting to SF is to see son Chris. Attending a service at City Church is just a delightful side benefit. We like the well ordered Reformed liturgy, the good clear preaching, the weekly communion. We like the songs the people sing, and enjoy the exceptional musicianship of the several-cuts-above-average "worship band." (It seems demeaning to call them the worship band, that's how good they are.)

I always come home with at least one new song from CCSF. This week was no exception. It was nearly a "2 new song" Sunday, except for the unfortunate, ubiquitous, iniquitous, misplaced use of syncopation in a song I'd never heard, and want desperately to have our people sing at College Church.

First, the good news. Matthew Smith's tune for an early 19th centruy hymn, "All Must Be Well" (Mary Bowley-Peters, 1813-1856). In this tune, there are two types of syncopation employed in the 6/8 meter. The first is a duple feel (2 strong pulses where you'd expect 3 flowing 8th notes). They are ideally placed on strong words: Savior, favor, healed us, shield us / Truibu-lation, sal-vation, con-fiding, guiding / to-morrow, sorrow, re-lying, dying. Not only apt for the natural emphasis on the words themselves, but aptly used for the sense of the lyric in each verse.

The second type of syncopation I will complain about shortly. But it worked here because (a) it is used sparingly, (b) it is used consistently, and (c) it actually reinforces the text: "all will be well / all is well / all must be well" in each stanza; with the words "be well" syncopated across the bar line so that the word "well" falls on the & of beat 1, rather than on the downbeat. (If you don't follow that, let me assure you that if you have sung any praise and worship music, you have sung this sycopation many times.)

Here is Matthew Smith singing "All Must Be Well" - I like it better as a congregational song, as led at CCSF.

So, if for no other reason, the foregoing is offered by way of demonstrating that I have absolutely nothing against syncopation per se (otherwise, whither music of any era?). But I do have serious disputes with the ubiquitous, iniquitous use of the praise and worship syncopation that so often [I had to go back and change the word "always" to "so often"] delays the strong syllable, and/or the important word in a lyric, placing it on a weak beat (the & of a pulse - as in 1 & 2 &, etc.]. The unfortunate victim in yesterday's otherwise excellent selection of songs is a Red Mountain Music setting (Bryan T. Murphy) of an 18th century hymn by Anne Steele (1716-1778), "Come All Ye Pining, Hungry, Poor."

Excursus - I applaud CCSF, and many other churches, for finding and using these old texts. This one is so powerful, and was completely unknown to me. I am thankful to have been introduced to it. I'll have to look for another tune (that won't be too difficult), and yet wish this one could work for me. This is so often true of the new guitar-driven hymn tunes. They could be better.

Just to give a quick picture of the issues here. (I'll claim these as my issues. But I'll argue the rhetorical issues with anyone interested in the argument.) Here are the opening 2 lines of verse 1:
Lord we adore thy boundless grace, the heights and depths unknown.
Here are the same 2 lines, with the strong syllables or important words underlined:
Lord, we a-dore thy bound-less grace, the heights and depths un-known.
And the same lines again, with the words or syllables underlined that are actually emphasized by the rhythms:
Lord we a-dore thy boundless grace, the heights and depths unknown.

Sorry, I am not making this up. Maybe I'm making too big a deal of it. To be fair, Bryan T. Murphy has written a really nice tune, that is easy and pleasant to sing. I suppose there is an affective quality to it that reinforces the "adore" posture of the hymn. I simply wonder - which came first? The text or the tune? How, in the refrain, are we left with the phrase (to use the accenting demonstration above) the Sav-ior's. Again, I want to be fair: the tune carries a feeling that I argue is completely apt for the text. And the musicians at CCSF made it work. I guess I'm just arguing that if - as is true in this case - there is all syncopation, so that no emphasis falls where it would naturally in speech, then none of the words stand out as innately more important.

Syncopation is (or ought to be) a device employed for effect. When it is used wholesale through a hymn text, in my view it undermines that text. Your results may vary. And now, here is the Red Mountain recording of Come All ye Pining, Hungry, Poor. If you listen, you will perhaps agree that given the style of Red Mountain, it is a really nice song. But me? I'd rather hear this than sing it. I'm glad to have been introduced to the song, and I shall now begin a search for a hymn tune that I feel a congregation can sing both with the mind and the spirit.

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