Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Integral refrains

After last week's screed about refrains lacking integrity, I want to end this brief series by celebrating hymns with refrains that work. Note that this is not a celebration of old hymns. Just this past Sunday at College Church we ended the service with a very nicely crafted hymn, copyright 2008, Jordan Kauflin's "All I Have Is Christ." (This hymn warrants a post of its own, so I'll just leave it at this shout out, for now.) Three verses that hit consistently hit all the marks are followed by a brief contrasting chorus: "Hallelujah! all I have is Christ. Hallelujah! Jesus is my life." And many of the hymns written by Stuart Townend, and by the Gettys, also are in this very serviceable structure.

Back in the day, when I took my hymnology course as an undergraduate, official (officious?) teaching held that true hymns do not have refrains. If it looks like a hymn, but has a chorus (= refrain) then it was classified as a gospel hymn. (If it was all experience and no theology, it was called a gospel song. This was a put-down.) I think we are beyond those category limitations now when talking about hymns.

Just flipping casually through my reliable Hymns for the Living Church, I note the following "classic hymns" with refrains:
  • Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart
  • Great Is Thy Faithfulness (it's hard to consign this to the "gospel hymn" dustbin)
  • For the Beauty of the Earth (though integrated into the end of each stanza, it's hard not to think that "Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise" as anything but a refrain. It is the quintessential integral refrain. Ditto with All Creatures of our God and King.)
  • We can niggle over the DIADEM setting of All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
  • Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners
And I have only got to Hymn 100. Which is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel - with its ancient and beloved refrain, "Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!" And what of O Come All Ye Faithful. But maybe there we are shading the distinction between a Christmas hymn and a Christmas carol. In Adeste fidelis, it seems, we have a hymn in the form of a carol.

That brief list does not include what really are perhaps best identified as "gospel hymns." Much less "gospel songs."  In an earlier post I complained about hymns that were forced into that mold, which was no better treatment than the newer clothes some standard hymns are forced to wear. This is just a brief acknowledgement that the use of a refrain in the right setting, an integral refrain, is a time-honored structure for hymns, ancient and modern. And that aptness is best seen as a refrain continues - or punctuates - the sense of each verse, without diverting attention from the sense of each verse and the overall theme of the verses. (My classic bad example is the "At the cross" with the Watts hymn, Alas, and Did My Savior Die? Compare the previously noted "Rejoice, ye pure in heart.")

A hymn with the right refrain never sounds quite right without the refrain; it never seems too long with the refrain; it is only complete with the refrain. That's a lot of marks to hit, and maybe that's why so many of our abiding hymns were authored by women and men who . . . refrained from using one.