I try to stay connected to several online worship leader forums. On one of them, under a discussion of “Contemporized Hymns,” I found this insightful comment left by Robert Cottrill: H-m-m… It seems to me the wording speaks volumes–“this church throws one hymn into the mix every Sunday.” Sounds rather like a bone tossed to a barking dog to keep him quiet! This approach is all too familiar. A church committed to contemporary music, that tries to keep the old … Read More
A few weeks ago, I developed a new friendship with someone I highly respect and admire. Austin Lovelace has influenced thousands of church musicians to the glory of God and the strengthening of Christ’s church cross-denominationally. When Dr. Lovelace and I spent that afternoon together over coffee, I had no idea how short the time would be. He was, of course, very old, but he was full of energy. Dr. Lovelace is certainly a traditionalist when it comes to worship. … Read More
In yesteryear, it was common for aspiring church musicians to pursue degrees in church music. Those paths of study included music history…and for good reason. Traditional church music is a descendant of western classical music. For those of us who have studied classical music, we all can attest that we are better at our craft of making and performing music because we have studied the ebbs and flows of music history. Through the lens of a singer: one does not … Read More
This Sunday is Reformation Sunday—a time when Protestants thank God for how He refined and revived the Church in the sixteenth century. Being Presbyterian, we’re wedding the celebration of the Reformation with the 500th anniversary year of the birthday of John Calvin. Our unique slant on acknowledging Calvin is by stepping back several centuries and worshiping with a liturgy straight out of Calvin’s Geneva. We’re going instrument-less and hymn-less. We’re singing a capella psalms. We’re comparing the Genevan liturgy to … Read More
If you’ve been checking me out, you know me by now. You know that I’m an odd lover of traditional hymns and modern worship. So I usually pick up anything that says “hymns” on it and looks remotely modern, to see what kind of work is going on in that field. I therefore picked up “iworship hymns” from Integrity music. They’ve been putting out this iworship series for a while now, and they’re latest issue is an album dedicated to hymns. It is a compilation of previously-recorded, previously-released tracks from great Integrity artists like Paul Baloche, Gateway Worship, Hillsong, New Life, etc.
The album is a good one. It’s a great listen and has great production. The texts of the songs are wonderful, and the worship leaders are all great, authentic people, passionate about God’s glory. But I’m discouraged about what’s going on in modern worship with regards to “resetting” hymns, and this is a prime example.*
I’ll begin my analysis with a vignette of a typical conversation I often have with people when I tell them about what I’m trying to accomplish with The Glad Sound. I’m sure my friends at Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, and Sojourn Community Church have had similar dialogues.
Person: So what’s your project about?
Zac: We’re taking the texts of old hymns and setting them to new music…new melodies, chord structures, and instrumentation.
Person: Oh, I LOVE that! I love it when we sing “updated” hymns in our church.
Zac: Tell me about that a bit more.
Person: You know, when they take an old hymn and “jazz it up” by adding drums or guitars or something. They just make those outdated hymns contemporary.
Zac: Oh, cool. (sigh…) [the conversation continues as I try to explain how what we’re doing is different, and hopefully better]
I don’t know how many times I have had this conversation. People don’t understand that when we’re “resetting” hymns, we are not keeping the music, at all. We are not “updating” or “jazzing up” the melodies and chord structures. It’s as though we’re taking a written poem and setting music to it for the first time. The old tune and the new tune have nothing to do with each other, except that they can be affixed to the same text. I’m not completely against this type of re-hymn setting. I think in some cases it works and sounds great (for some reason, I’ve felt that songs in 3/4 and 6/8 work better for this). But more often than not, it sounds forced, canned, and a bit artificial. There’s a good reason for this. The music was composed in a different style and genre (often block chord writing) that doesn’t easily and naturally import to modern styles (melodies with fewer chord changes between). Often, I feel that the original composers are rolling over in their graves when their music is bent out of shape. (Again, I’m not totally against it…I plan on at least attempting to jam the plainsong chant melody of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” into a modern groove on our next album…traditionalites, don’t shoot me, please).
These types of conversations, and these types of “updated hymns” albums like “iworship hymns,” betray a myopia quite pervasive in mainstream evangelical music: the only way to do hymns in modern worship settings is to take the original melodies and affix a new instrumentation, syncopation, and beat to them. Friends, THERE IS ANOTHER WAY! And this other way is something that’s been going on for centuries (see my previous post on this for more detail). For centuries, musicians have sought to re-clothe an old hymn in the current musical vernacular. Almost any time you look in a hymnal and see a text written in one year and the music written much later, that’s usually the case.
Why is it that we only think we have one option here? Why is it that new modern worship “hymns” projects deliver to us the same thing again and again? Please don’t take me as complaining about these projects. I’m more observing and lamenting the fact that there aren’t more who are “updating” hymns in ways which feel more natural to everyone. In conversations where I’m talking to a lover of old hymns who actually gets what I’m doing, they’re appreciative, not only that I’m giving modern worshipers a taste of old hymns, but that I’m not tampering with the musical integrity of the tunes previously used for these hymns.
I just know that there is so much more to be done in re-setting hymns, but every time I pick up a new “hymns” album, it’s just the same old concept, recycled. There are SO many hymns to be brought back to the church, and there are SO many great songwriters out there! Step up! You can have so much more freedom with these hymns than you might realize!
Peace, love, dove.
*One mild exception to my discussion on the iworship hymns album is “When I Survey,” by Kathryn Scott, re-set to the tune to “O Danny Boy.” It’s actually a beautiful setting and brings out some different nuances of the text that I’m interested in exploring.
Every innovative endeavor is bound to receive some backlash…
And I’ve certainly had my share of less than enthusiastic comments about my re-setting of old hymn texts to new music. Tonight is an evening where I feel like proffering a response.
Sometimes I encounter old hymn lovers who give off the air (or say explicitly) that they don’t appreciate old hymns being tinkered with, tampered with, even desecrated. Perhaps some are aware (but I find that many are not) that such a practice of setting old texts to new melodies for modern ears and new generations of Christian assemblies has seen many iterations over church history. Even more ironic is that some of the beloved hymns that I and my hymns movement cohorts are accused of desecrating are already once-over desecrated texts. Perhaps, then, for the person unfamiliar with the history of hymnody, I’ll crack open the door of just how historic re-hymning truly is by offering a brief sketch of one man, Lowell Mason (1792-1872).
Mason was a Massachusettes-born Georgia boy, banker turned church musician. After the explosive heyday of Watts and Wesley (when they shifted in the eyes of the church from being the contemporary movers and shakers to being the more staid, “traditional” hymns…funny how that works), notwithstanding some notable hymns and hymnwriters in between, church song was growing stale. The old hymns felt tired, and worshipers wanted more fresh hymns for a new era in evangelicalism. The flurry of the first Great Awakening had come and gone, and the revival dust was settling. Mason observed American congregations, saddened by the lifelessness in the singing. He commented:
“Go where we may into the place of worship…when the singing commences…the congregation are either on the one hand gazing at the select performers to admire the music, or on the other expressing their dissatisfaction by general symptoms of restlessness.”*
Mason was dissatisfied with lifelessness and decided to do something about it. He did so, not by shirking the traditions but by re-expressing them in modern ways. He began affixing new tunes, melodies, and chord structures to glorious old hymn texts…a musical garb he believed modern listeners in his day would appreciate and resonate with. Check out the impressive list that the nethymnal offers of over 80 new tunes Mason composed here. Let me point out a few hymns that Mason re-hymned:
Joy to the World! A Watts hymn written in 1719…the original tune of which was certainly not what we sing today! Mason took the music of G. F. Handel and arranged it for congregational singing…a tune that is now immortally tied to this text.
There is a Fountain Filled with Blood. William Cowper’s 1772 hymn saw new light when Mason re-energized it and hymns of the same meter for modern ears. Interestingly, the tune that we often sing with it today (not Mason’s tune) is a 19th century camp song (ah, those silly youth and their wild music!).
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. This beloved 1707 Watts hymn was not sung to the tune we know and love, until Mason came along and wrote “Hamburg” in 1824, blessing the church in perpetuity.
The list could go on.
In the light of this, it’s quite ironic when hard and fast hymn-lovers criticize folks like myself who attempt to clothe old hymns in new music. Were it not for the members of the “hymns movement” of old, like Lowell Mason, they would not have some of their most beloved hymns! Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, Sojourn Community Church, Sovereign Grace…they’re not doing anything new. They’re recycling a repeated practice in church music history–giving back historic hymns to the modern church by re-setting them with new tunes and instrumentation.
Though some traditional hymn lovers criticize this practice, at the end of the day we join hands with the same burden. It’s a burden to see to it that great hymns don’t lose their place in the changing church. Some hymn lovers believe that the only way to relieve this burden is to dig one’s heels in and keep singing them the way they’ve always been sung. Re-tuning them is a transgression too far across the line. I humbly disagree, because, though I share their burden not only for the texts but the music, I find that the loss of music is by far and away the lesser of two evils (and sometimes the loss of music is not an evil at all, but a great good…as some of those horrid tunes need to be put in the grave! :)). I’ve waded long enough in the stream of modern worship to know that “sing em our way or the highway” will only polarize, divide, and push away. For now, modern worship, for better or worse, is tied to a certain set of musical priorities and parameters, and the music is not ancillary to the worship expression but part of the DNA of what draws worshipers to that style (which, as history tells, will change, too).
So all we’re doing in the hymns movement is attempting to be 21st century Masons. We believe in the power of these old texts. Therefore, with our musical ability, we’ll attempt to smuggle them in modern music, so that perhaps some might give them a hearing and be pleasantly surprised when a poetic profundity socks them in the gut, drawing them deeper into knowledge, insight, wisdom, and the worship of God.
And if this little post can’t convince some of my criticizers that what I’m doing is worthwhile, at least perhaps it can take some of the blinders off, curing historical myopia.
*Thomas Hastings, Biblical Repertory, July 1829, pp. 414, 415
Isaac Watts (1674-1748): English pastor, author, teacher, and one of the greatest hymn-writers of all time. Many do not know that Watts was a polarizing figure in his day because of the startling changes he was introducing to Protestant worship. After the Reformation through to Watts’ time, congregations almost exclusively sang Psalmody—hymns whose texts were exactly or closely derived from those of the biblical Psalms. Young Watts found these “traditional” services dry and spiritually devoid, and one day (so the legend goes) he returned from worship complaining about the poor quality of the hymns. His father responded, probably wanting just to keep him quiet, “Give us something better, young man.” Watts’ whole life, as it turns out, seems to be a response to that initial challenge by his father. The Church experienced a rebirth as the “contemporary” hymns of Watts and others who followed flooded parishes with theologically rich, highly emotive, powerfully engaging songs of worship. Through Watts and others, the Holy Spirit breathed fresh life into the worship of Christ’s church, not taking away from the glorious heritage of biblical Psalmody, but adding to it a rich dimension of “hymns and spiritual songs.” It is ironic, then, that traditional worship is often pegged as boring, dry, or even lifeless, when it is heir to some of the most exciting revolutions in church music history!