|Hymn singing in worship|
Worship as adoration is most readily expressed in praise, and praise is best expressed in sung music, or as we know it, hymns of praise. Although many hymns have served as expressions of prayer, thanksgiving, even confessions of faith, hymns traditionally are expressions of praise to God. Augustine defined a hymn as "praise of God by singing." So a hymn involves three elements. First, it is a praise song. Second, it is praise to God. Third, it is praise to God by singing. We could add, by a congregation, although an individual can rightly sing a hymn to God.
From the earliest times the people of Israel used music to enhance their worship both in the Tabernacle and in the Temple, Lev.25:9, Num.10:10, 1Kin.1:34. Such music used a full orchestra of trumpets, harps, cornets.... 2Sam.6:5, 1Chron.23:5.... Great choirs, accompanied by the orchestras, rendered "songs of the Lord", "praising the beauty of holiness", 1Chron.25:6, 2Chron.20:21. The people were exhorted to "sing aloud to the Lord", "sing unto the Lord", Ps.81:8, 95:1. Even in the last day God's people will "have a song" to sing, Isa.30:29.
For the New Testament church singing "unto the Lord", particularly with the psalms, remained a normal part of their meetings, Jam.5:13. In Ephesians and Colossians Paul reminds his readers to "address each other (sing antiphonally) in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord", Eph.5:19. Here we have the origins of hymnody, Psalms (Old Testament Psalms and New Testament Canticles), hymns and songs (Christian compositions). Although there may be some debate as to whether hymns can only be compositions of praise, or can rightly include thanksgiving, prayer, etc., it is quite clear that they are to be directed "to the Lord". They are not songs of mutual affirmation, but rather songs to the Lord alone. For Paul, the main concern was that his readers should sing, not only "with the spirit" (emotionally ?), but "with the understanding also." Although the tune and accompaniment are important in that they shape our emotional response, the substance of the song rests with the words, or more particularly the truth contained in the words. We are to sing to the Lord, addressing him intelligently, or more properly, theologically, 1Cor.14:15. The singing of hymns entails the singing of theology.
It is quite possible that a number of early Christian hymns are actually contained in the New Testament, eg. Colossians 1:15-20. They demonstrate metrical poetic features common to hymn singing.
We know little of the musical style of church music in the early church. The Eastern church developed a style of chant used primarily by the clergy. This style of church music continues today in Orthodox churches. In the West chant became the dominant form of church music and was standardized in Gregorian chant. This style of singing known as "plainsong" developed into two particular forms: responsorial and antiphonal. Secular music in the first millennium was expressed in one of three forms i] Plainsong, initially adopted by the church (In Plainsong the tune is dominated by the words, rather than the words by the tune. For the early church, it was the words that mattered). ii] Cantus Figuratus, a more florid form of Plainsong, iii] Cantus Mesuratus, a measured or metrical song. By the 12th century the trend in church music was toward polyphonic (multivoiced) mass settings (Palestrina, and in England, Gibbons, DeLassus) performed by choirs. This was primarily Cathedral music accompanied by organ, and at times orchestral instruments of the age. The music was very complex and the words hard to hear, although as the Mass was a repeated liturgy the words were well known to the people. By the late middle ages the congregation had not only lost their music (they no longer participated, they were spectators), but they had also lost their theology (truth was compromised).
At the Reformation in the 16th century there was a great advance in church music. Music was given back to the congregation, to the people. There was a downside: i] a reduction in quality, and ii] the beginnings of subjectivism (the seed of individualism). Churches began to replace their soloists with a choir, and if wealthy enough, purchased an organ for accompaniment. Liturgical organ music now came into its own - plain-song hymns, canticles, with mass settings in the catholic churches. Even plainsong verse songs. In Germany, hymns as we know them (chorales), were developed and started to take hold in the reformed churches (including England), often using popular tunes of the time with words in the vernacular rather than in Latin.
Martin Luther's contribution to the development of the modern hymn was pivotal. With the help of specialist musicians he both composed words and music, often drawing on popular melodies of the period to create objective theological songs of praise. He sought to create simple hymns (chorales) that were popular and within the reach of the common people. He was behind the production of the first hymnal in 1524, with 8 hymns, 4 of which he composed himself. He still supported specialized church music and encouraged the use of choirs, particularly boys choirs.
Moving on from the Renaissance, great musicians composed oratorio cantatas which to this day stir the soul (Bach, Hayden, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Handel, Stainer...). These works tended to be confined to the great cathedrals.
The next great advance in hymnody took place during the Evangelical revival. The Wesleyan's, in particular, took hymn singing to great heights. For the Evangelicals, hymns were a means of proclaiming and teaching Biblical truth. Hymn-singing now became part of English parish church life. The parish clerk's solo renditions of one of Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms was replace by congregational hymn-singing, usually led by a parish choir. This prompted the production of hymnals (anthologies of religious verse), one of the earliest collections being Martin Madan's "Psalms and Hymns".
Hymn tradition was further enriched by the Oxford movement. The Victorian era further contributed sentimental hymns (eg. "O love that will not let me go" as compared to the objectivity of a Reformation hymn such as "A mighty fortress is our God").
The hymns of the twentieth century have tended to be subjective compositions, bringing to fruition the seeds sown in Renascence thinking. Sadly, hymnody constricted in the latter half of the century with the growth of chorus-style singing driven by the Charismatic revival. In chorus-style music there is no attempt to comment on the sense of the scripture or scriptural truth set in the words. The chorus is thru composed, ie. there is no refrain or second verse and therefore the chorus is often repeated as if a mantra. Often there is little substance in the words. The weight is on the music, on its ability to stir the emotions. Yet the truth should stir the emotions, not the music. This type of music is the product of a post modernist society.
Hymns for worship
With the movement away from a hymn form of church music toward a chorus style, there is a decreasing number of worthwhile new compositions, yet there is still life in the tradition and we may yet see a revival of our hymn-singing tradition in the future. The crucial issue is that we properly use hymns for our approach to God, ie. that they serve as tools for adoration rather than be distractions. The following aspects of hymnody should be considered:
i] A hymn is a song of praise (although one may add thanksgiving, confession, prayer, proclamation...) to God. Some modern hymns tend to be subjective expressions of personal feelings and as such do not really qualify as a "song unto the Lord." They may be very encouraging, affirming of our Christian walk, but probably should not be used as a hymn in worship. If used they confuse the business of hymn singing. A hymn is a (metrical) song of praise to the Lord.
ii] The central focus of a hymn is the words. A hymn must be true, it must declare truth. When we sing to the Lord we sing truth to him, about him, of him. The emphases should not be on what I am doing, how I feel. We should ask this question of every hymn we select for worship: is there a universalism in the truth being sung, or are we just affirming a subjective feeling? We must also remember that there are many hymns which fail to properly express Biblical truth. Some are even all but heretical. The words must be considered.
iii] As hymns proclaim truth it is important for them to link in with the seasonal or Biblical theme of the church service. Selected hymns can enhance the truth of the readings and sermon. When the selection is poor, ideas clash.
iv] The music (tune, melody, harmony) serves only to enhance the words (the truth) of the hymn. The song carries the words upward, enriching them. The tune does not exist for itself, but for the words. As with liturgy, a particular tune gets linked with a particular set of words, and it is often very confusing to the worshiper if a new or different tune is used with a well-known set of words. On the other hand, a new tune can give new insights to a particular set of words, heightening and emphasizing particular aspects of the words left hidden by the previous tune. On balance it is probably best to let the words live with their old tune. In this way the worshiper is not hindered in their approach to God. They can leave the words and the tune behind, and in the spirit enter the sanctuary of the Lord.
v] There is a tendency for congregations to get in a rut when it comes to their hymn repertoire. The twelve favorites just get repeated in a regular cycle until the congregation is locked into sameness. The introduction of new hymns, both old and new compositions, to the repertoire of the congregation, serves to develop understanding and thus our capacity to "sing to the Lord".
vi] Musicians are rarely appreciated unless they are paid. This is a foolishness, given the contribution that musicians can make to the life of the church. Often musicians are criticized for hymn selection, innovation, and anything else that disturbs the complacency of a congregation. Most churches would probably do well to realize the worth of their musicians and affirm the gift rather than criticize it.
vii] Unless the church is willing to set people aside as musicians the standard of music will continue to fall. If we want good, even great music, we need to train our youth in choir and musicianship so that they can take on that roll for their generation.
viii] Church music should be intergenerational. Young and old should be doing the Lord's praise together. This demonstrates the value of keeping our tradition of church music going, a tradition unique to the Christian faith. Children have to be trained in church music right from the beginning (eg. The English choir boy). At the most basic level it means that our young people must be incorporated in the worship of their local Christian community.
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