Sunday, March 15, 2009

Musical heritage

The music at worship this week covered more than 300 years of music history, from Beethoven to Manz, from an old favorite "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (ELW 803) to a relatively new hymn, "In All Our Grief" (ELW 615). Who would have guessed just from hearing it that the latter was composed in the 20th century?

I'd venture that Christian churches have wrestled with the challenge of what to say and sing in worship for 2000 years. For instance, I mentioned in a previous post the influence of Vaughan Williams on the Anglican church, and Pastor Ferro pointed out that the Church of England has their share of disagreements with his compositions and a troubled relationship with their musical heritage. (Read more in this article, if you're interested.) The ELW has been a cause of dissension within the Lutheran church, which brings me to my topic of the day: why does our organist hate "Shine, Jesus, Shine" so much?!

Yes, that particular hymn is my cliche punching bag, I will admit. What you don't know is that secretly in my heart I truly enjoy the rousing chorus. I can remember singing it at Luther Crest Bible Camp at an evening outdoor worship and being inspired by it. So what's the problem with it for regular Sunday morning worship?

My personal test for the quality of a hymn always begins with two questions:
1. Is the text appropriate?
(Including, does it expound proper Lutheran theology, not simply does it mention God.)
2. Is the music appropriate for congregational singing?

It is on the second count that I have my biggest issue with several selections in the ELW. In particular, "Shine, Jesus, Shine" has a tempo issue. If you sing the refrain fast enough to be exciting and uplifting, then the verses become completely unsingable. So the congregation is stuck with the choice of a compromise tempo, tongue-twisting verses, a depressingly slow refrain, or changing tempos (among the worst of sins to any trained organist).

I'm always reminded of my years as an organist for a Catholic church in Minneapolis. For that congregation, the hymn is perfect: the "vocal leader" would sing the verse into a microphone while a few members of the congregation perhaps mumbled along, and then a few more people would join in happily on the refrain. The Lutheran church, however, places a strong emphasis on participation. That is one of the reasons our music is based on the chorale - it has a regular beat and a predictable form, while allowing creativity for composers and arrangers.

Of course, we'll continue to sing some hymns that aren't my favorites, an experience we all have at some point over the course of the year. But we'll also sing my favorites and yours too. We add to our musical heritage and pass it on, simply doing our best week after week.


  1. PS. On this gorgeous Sunday, wasn't it great to sing the text of the rousing opening hymn?
    "Open now thy gates of beauty, Zion, let me enter there...Oh, how blessed is this place, filled with solace, light, and grace!"

  2. Rev. Robert FerroMarch 16, 2009 at 9:23 AM

    Personally, I really appreciated the music this past Sunday. I even loved the Psalm (which is not usually one of my favorite parts of the service). All the music just seemed to "fit" even though it did cover over 300 years of musical history. If anything, this past Sunday was a good argument for how different music from different times of the church's history can work together beautifully.

  3. I truly appreciate the focus on music that combines the 2 requirements listed here. Recently, I had the misfortune to attend a "contemporary" service where someone did not understand these points. The words of the songs were extremely superficial and repetitive. I have heard these referred to as 7-11 songs: 7 words sung 11 times. When combined with an eminently forgetable melody, they do not lend much to the service. To make it even worse, the songs had nothing to do with the scripture or the pastoral message for the day. So, keep up your good work there. Some of us do appreciate it, even if se can't be there as often as we'd like.