Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What Makes a Hymn Useful?

Last night, I received my final proof copy of Useful Hymns (expanded edition) in the mail from Lulu. This morning, I approved it and pulled the trigger on sales and distribution. It is currently priced at $33.48, with a 20 percent discount ($26.78) if purchased directly from Lulu. After a lot of hard work and some irritating delays, what more can I say but, "Thanks be to God!"

To answer the question posed in this entry's title, I would probably have to repeat stuff I have said before. Perhaps I should note that one of the things I'm trying to do with this book is fight back against the "tacky hymns" tackiness that I have lampooned so often on this blog - in some people's view, to an offensive degree. The contrast between the examples I criticized on the "Tacky Hymns" thread and the alternatives presented in Useful Hymns should not need too much analysis and explanation.

Another thing I want it to do is redirect the way hymns are being introduced in today's church, away from "springing hymns that have not been discussed or tested on the church through the latest synodically approved pew hymnal" and toward "authors putting their own stuff out there and seeing what people make of it."

But finally, I have previously alluded to a Gracia Grindal essay on "what makes a hymn Lutheran," in the introduction to a book of hymns that I would mostly have shunted into the "tacky hymns" category. So I guess there isn't a broad consensus on this - on what makes hymns Lutheran, on what makes them beautiful, on what makes them non-tacky, on what makes them (in a word) useful.

It is obvious the question bears answering, but I don't want to get too detailed about it. Writing hymns is an art form; indeed, it is a union and interpenetration of multiple art forms, unparalleled throughout human creativity in complexity, sophistication, the potential for sublimity, and the risk of failure. Further, a successful hymn is an amazingly distilled and compact artifact of the literary, musical, and theological arts. It can have a powerful influence on believers for many generations, either for truth or error. It can be deeply moving and meaningful to individuals. And while there are principles that can be learned from studying hymnody, trying to reduce it to a precise science would not be productive. I'm not usually the kind of person who says things like "You could kill the spirit." But seriously, you could.

Like creating art music, writing excellent hymns is not something we should leave up to other ages of history or other religious communities. I have a conjecture that an active culture of hymn-writing is as vital to the health of the living church at any time as an active culture of yeast is to a commercial bakery. And I think it is also important to make a distinction about the purpose of hymns, about who should be singing them. Hymns may, and should, be used by individuals for their private, and even silent, devotions; sung by choirs or soloists; studied in the classroom either for catechetical purposes or as examples for literary and musical analysis; quoted in sermons and essays; cited in doctrinal debates or apologetic pamphlets addressed to unbelievers; perhaps even engraved on fancy paper and sent as greeting cards for the encouragement and consolation of others. But mainly, their purpose is to be sung by a congregation: to be an instrument for putting the words of the faith into the mouths of the faithful. A conscientious hymn-writer will necessarily struggle to craft hymns that are effective for that purpose. To the extent he succeeds, his hymns may be useful.

Another point toward the question of what makes hymns useful has to do with spotting potential uses for hymns: being alert to opportunities to serve a need in the lives of the faithful, to fill a gap in the available hymn literature that answers to a foreseeable purpose. Some hymns are written for very narrow purposes or occasions, such as the dedication or anniversary of a specific church or institution. Some hymns are so general, or so light on content, that their usefulness is mainly as an "all-purpose" number to stick into any opening on any occasion. But between those extremes, there is plenty of room for hymns that answer to needs that regularly arise in the lives of individual Christians, congregations, or entire church bodies. Needs like, for example, encouragement while battling temptation, hungering for the Sacrament, suffering in body or mind, grieving, worrying, feeling concerned about the body politic, being divided from loved ones or other Christians, etc.

There are other ways hymns may be useful, such as clarifying key doctrines, meditating on the lessons for each Sunday of the church year, and explaining the relevance of certain Bible stories to the lives of today's believers. But perhaps more to the point than what purposes the hymns serve is their manner of serving them.

I don't think it is vital for the usefulness of a hymn to be written in modern, man-on-the-street language. I think it is acceptable, and even desirable, for hymns to use dignified, cultured language that sets them apart from gutter speech and ephemeral pop culture. I am not averse to writing hymns in a modestly archaic poetic register, though the density and obscurity of poetic devices in a single hymn should be limited by compassion for laypeople with middling literacy. I try to let a high-toned modern idiom predominate in my work. I aim to write skillful, economical verse that fades to transparency between the reader or singer and the subject it portrays. But I also recognize it wouldn't really be poetry - there wouldn't be any point in making the effort, really - if it weren't more interesting and aesthetically beautiful than a block of prose that conveyed the same meaning.

Poetics of Hymnody
With regard to the poetry of hymns - whether crafting my own, or evaluating that of others - I particularly value economy of words. I think conspicuous wordiness is a dead giveaway of a lack of experience or ability in writing poetry. A good hymn will sound like it's squeezing a lot of meaning into a few words, rather than reaching for extra words to stretch its message to fill a given meter and rhyme scheme. An economical hymn may be quite long, because it is trying to say a lot, or because its argument requires a lot of logical steps or scriptural examples. But the impression such a hymn should convey is one of thoroughness, rather than prolixity.

Another piece of the poetic puzzle is a vividness of expression that awakens the imagination, the senses, the emotions, and the memory of other literature. As most experienced writers will readily say, though some still struggle with it in practice, the right way to achieve this is not by loading your lines with adjectives and adverbs, but by choosing strong verbs and being deft with a well-turned metaphor or simile. All the other poetic devices you learned in 10th-grade English class, like alliteration and assonance, may also be of some use.

I doubt anyone could write more than 200 hymns in the same meter without going insane. Variety is what keeps you interested in what you're doing as a hymn-writer. So being acquainted with, or prepared to experiment with, a variety of stanza structures is a plus. You'll find some meters are harder than others to pull off, but the results are sometimes surprisingly rewarding. The same goes for rhyme schemes. It can help to be open to modest experiments in patterns of end-rhymes, internal rhymes, and what my 12th-grade English prof called "slant-rime" (sic) - which may also require you to grow a thick skin when dealing with pedants who consider anything but a perfect rhyme to be a versifying error.

The main thing, I guess, is to start writing poetry after having read a lot of poetry, and to continue reading a lot of other poetry, learning and thinking about why it does or doesn't work, practicing how to imitate and extend those techniques that work, and eventually to write enough poetry that it stops reading like a student's painful attempt to fulfill a classroom assignment and begins to show signs of being your own style. Along the way you will write a lot of stuff that you won't keep, and some stuff that you can only save by radically revising it, before you reach the point where a finished poem springs right into your mind and flows through your hand onto paper with only slight alterations, then or thereafter.

If you're serious about wanting to write good poetry someday, don't give up. Begin with the understanding that, like any other skill, it's going to take thousands of hours of hands-on experience to achieve an expert level. You could shut yourself up in a cell with adequate light, plumbing, reading and writing materials, a desk and a chair, and someone to pass you food and drink through a slot in the door, and by devoting every waking hour to the discipline of learning to write poetry, you may become Robert Frost (or at least Robert Browning) in about five years. Or you could take a stab at it on and off for 25 years, with occasional periods of intense focus, as I did. I recommend the latter. The life experience that comes packaged with it will give you more interesting material to write about.

Music of Hymnody
I daresay learning to write music is an ambition that captivates fewer people than the writing of poetry. While a few people have a natural genius for inventing memorable melodies and improvising the harmony and accompaniment to go with them, most of us mere mortals only arrive there with anything resembling confidence after a course of music theory. Those geniuses, if they don't read music, may be condemned to having to dictate their compositions to someone who has taken music theory, in order to get them down on paper. So one way or another, the writing of hymn music is probably going to involve the study of that subject, at either first or second hand.

Music theory is a tough subject. Few people even begin to study it, and it shakes most of them off within the first semester. The tiny remnant who survive the entire curriculum, as undergraduate music majors, are often bonded like brothers (and sisters) in arms. A good preparation, before even trying to survive music theory, is to become a proficient note-reader, which probably means learning to play the piano. That's also not a bad idea if your ambition is eventually to be able to write realistically playable hymn tunes and accompaniment. If you have the natural genius for it, you might even be able to skip taking theory after achieving keyboard and note-reading proficiency. But once you've done that, I guarantee you'll find that taking music theory becomes a less intimidating prospect, and pays dividends in the variety and sophistication of the music you are capable of creating.

You might be surprised to learn there is a stage in the study of music theory when four-part harmonizations of traditional chorales (hymn-tunes) become a staple of students' harmonic analysis and composition exercises. A lot of hymn arrangements in mid-20th century hymnals are examples of typical, "textbook harmony" that could have been written any time since Martin Luther's day until now. There are also a lot of arrangements, predominating in some hymn-books, typical of 19th-century hymn composition in being either excessively smarmy or tediously, harmonically static. And there are hymn arrangements from the late 20th century to the present that are a little freer and more flowing in their texture, and often more "modern" in their harmony as well. My ideas of useful hymnody dispose me to prefer either the earliest or latest of these three style periods, and to avoid the one in the middle.

Sometime ago, I started a thread about how to write a tune, but I never carried it through as planned. Maybe I'll get back to it sometime. But for now, I think it is enough to say that useful hymn tunes can be inspired by the example of one's favorite tunes from any period, nationality, or denomination in Christian history. When I write hymn tunes, I aim to achieve the greatest possible variety in style, both in the shape of the melody and in the style of accompaniment, from Reformation-era German chorales to American shape-note part-songs, from medieval church modes to Scandinavian Romanticism, and from high Anglican hymn tunes to contemporary art songs. Sometimes their harmony is traditional, chordal, hymnal-style chorale; sometimes it is dissonant and weird. Their resemblance to the models I had in mind may be evident more in my imagination than to anyone else. But whatever style or register I try to adopt in a given tune, above all I aim to make them memorable and distinct in their melodic contours, to have an effective harmonic structure and dramatic shape, and to be propelled forward by a certain rhythmic energy. And again, I want to write tunes that a congregation might reasonably be asked to try and learn to sing.

Spirituality of Hymnody
Once you get past the way the words are put together and the tune a congregation may be expected to sing, the biggest part of the question "What makes a hymn useful?" remains. Given a little time to read back over my own blog, I am sure I could produce several notable examples of hymns that were very successful as poems and/or as pieces of music (whether for the congregation to sing or not), yet flew wide of the mark of really being a useful hymn. At bottom, a hymn's poetry and music are excellent in vain if it doesn't have that theological je ne sais quoi. That bit of French right there means, "I don't know what." But actually, I do know what. And now I'm going to tell it to you.

First, no one without the Holy Spirit, and without faith in Christ, can write an excellent Christian hymn. They can perhaps write a shallow and dead imitation or parody of one, but those who would be taken in by it ought to have higher standards. Exceptions to this rule will immediately come to mind; for example, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was personally an atheist, contributed to The English Hymnal of 1906 (which he co-edited with the noted socialist Percy Dearmer) a number of very attractive hymn tunes, including the famous SINE NOMINE (since then wedded to "For all the saints who from their labors rest"), some of them adapted from British folk-tunes, that are still spreading into more and more hymn-books. But I make no claim about the theological qualifications to write or arrange the music for a hymn; for that, the only qualifications necessary are of musical concern. I remain convinced that for a hymn text to avoid being tacky in its application to Lutheran corporate worship, it cannot be written by someone who rejects the faith. This is all another way of saying truly useful hymnody is a gift of God.

Second, it must be written to the glory of God, without confusing the Persons of the Trinity or dividing His Substance, and without obscuring the union of God and Man in one person, Jesus Christ.

Third, Christ should be at the center of it, either the object to whom it is addressed or the subject of whom it is concerned, depicted as the source of every good, especially of the forgiveness of our sins and eternal salvation.

Fourth, it should be true to the witness of God's Word in the Bible, and should correctly apply His benefits for us in the proclamation of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, baptism, and the Lord's Supper.

Fifth, it should not so make light of Christ's suffering and cross, or of the afflictions of the faithful, as to peddle the cheap grace of a false gospel of individual self-salvation or of reward and glory, in this world or any other, to be obtained through man's works, decisions, feelings, spiritual gifts, religious observances, sacrifices, etc., etc.

Sixth, without despising the gifts and opportunities God provides for His church in the present life, it should point the hearts of today's struggling believers toward the time and place not yet revealed, in which the faithful will behold the glorious face of Christ and be comforted for all eternity.

To put these six criteria into one brief, though perhaps too heavily laden sentence, a useful hymn is a reflection of God-given faith in the true God; Christ-centered, normed by Scripture, rich in biblical thought, oriented through the means of grace on the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in the cross of Jesus, sensitive to the struggles of believers, keyed into our life as vessels of grace in the present world, yet also locked on target in the promised world to come.

This is what I have tried to achieve by writing more than 200 "useful hymns." This is the reverse of what I deplore in my bitchy attacks on "tacky hymns." It is what I hope my new book will encourage other Lutheran hymn-writers to strive for in what, if my suggestion carries any weight, will soon become a bumper-crop of hymn-books, large and small, out of which the church may profitably enrich its store of sacred songs.

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