Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What a tune does to a text

I’ve been reading Gordon Giles, The Music of Praise: Meditations on Great Hymns of the Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004). Giles is an Anglican vicar who has served at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. He has compiled hymns for each Sunday of the church year—Advent 1 through Christ the King.

Each week’s reading begins with the words in poetic form. (A “hymn” is the words, meant to be sung but distinct from the “tune.”) A short reflection follows, including some history of the text and tune, observations about how text and tune work, the relevance of the hymn to the particular Sunday, and a prayer.

I’m learning some new hymns. And I’m learning some new tunes, as well. Even with familiar hymns, the English often (usually?) sing different tunes than we do in the States. The book comes with a CD including twenty-one of the hymns, with choir and organ.

I don’t go looking for this sort of thing whilst reading a book like this . . . But I have sat up and taken notice of several of Giles’ comments that speak to my “soap box” issue. Namely, that how we sing affects our understanding of what we sing. Here are just a few examples I have noted along the way:

·         “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” – The tune Rockingham, to which it is invariably sung in Britain and elsewhere [ed. note: though, not, alas, in most evangelical churches in the US] is an exquisitely lyrical, flowing tune, which illustrates that love and sorrow, flowing, mingled, down. Words and music mingle, and we are slowly but surely swept along on a gentle tide of contemplation and worship. The major key is used, perhaps surprisingly, but therefore with greater effect. There is no lugubriousness here, no wallowing in the minor key as we sing of what a shame it is that Christ died. This old and famous hymn tune does not want to say that, or to make us say it; it wants us to boast in the death of Christ . . . And yet it is not a proud tune either. The triumph of the cross is muted, and the direction of the hymn is not outward; we are [not] telling it abroad, but rather internalizing our meditation on the suffering and the glory of the cross. (106–107, emphasis added) I just want to highlight here the idea that the tune functions in our contemplation, worship, and understanding. We understand the words differently with different tunes. I do not say “wrongly,” but differently. The notes matter.

·         “My Song Is Love Unknown” – It is no surprise that a specially written tune by an eminent composer [ed. note: John Ireland wrote the tune LoveUnknown specifically for this text]  fits the words so well, or that it manages to combine those two elements of inward reflection and outward declamation. It is written in the key of E flat major, when we might expect a minor key, but it conveys a hint of melancholy in its distinctive use of downward suspended notes in the tenor part. [ed. note: music theory alert] Thus, in the first verse, at the end of the first line, the music appears to rest on the word ‘unknown’, and does so on what appears to be a major chord (A flat, the fourth of the scale), yet, as the tenor line moves from an A flat to a G, we realize that this is a C minor chord, and the colour has therefore changed, even on one word. The same kind of movement is found at various points in the tune, and is emphasized at the midpoint, at the end of every fourth line. Thus there is penitence built in to this tune, and the ambiguity and irony of Crossman’s poem is reflected subtly and effectively. (117, emphasis added) Yes, it is entirely possible to sing these words to other tunes; at least one other tune, the Welsh Rhosymedre is one. This tune, Giles says, embodies the spirit and letter of the poem.

Full disclosure: I actually prefer a newer tune, Gunnar, written by Edwin T. Childs (MorningStar Music, 1999). There are many who only know “My Song Is Love Unknown” to this tune and believe it to be the only perfect fit for the text. I cannot argue against that sentiment. I only wish I could post a recording sung by the congregation and choir of College Church in Wheaton, for whom it was written.

·         “All for Jesus” (tune All for Jesus) – This is the closing hymn in John Stainer’s Passion cantata, The Crucifixion: At the cross, then, this hymn speaks of a majestic triumph: it really is quite rousing, and is not the kind of hymn we might expect to sing when thinking of the crucifixion of Jesus. The tune is expansive rather than lyrical, and it is in the bright key of F sharp, which is beyond the height of many a voice. (For this reason it can be good to transpose it down to D major, but if it is taken to the halfway house of E flat major, the flatness of the key can make the tune more lugubrious than it is intended to be.) (122, emphasis added; and yes, the use of the word “lugubrious” again, duly noted) Here is a subtlety of key selection that we do not often enough consider. Yes, by all means change the key in which a song if needed, to accommodate the voice of the congregation. But consider what impact the alternate key will have on the words. Not all major keys are equal, and the choice of key will affect the character of what is sung. “All for Jesus” – lugubrious, or majestic? Take your pick; but know what you’re choosing and think about what you’ll get.

The point of this post is to argue (again!) that the musical choices we make in congregational song—note: the music we choose to sing the words we put in peoples’ hands—will shape how we understand those words. Let’s be thoughtful and careful (theological) with the notes as well as the words.