Thursday, February 25, 2010

No respect

I have to admit that I don't listen to American Public Media's Composers Datebook regularly. I mostly blame the delivery method. After all, I read Writers' Almanac online almost daily, but clicking play on a daily audio clip always seems to require one too many steps for convenience. Fortunately, people around me are faithful listeners and don't let me miss the best segments. I received two emails this week about the broadcast from Feb. 22nd.

The broadcast included a discussion of the anniversary of the premiere performance of Virgil Thomson's "Symphony on a Hymn Tune." It should more properly be titled a symphony on two hymn tunes. Not only did he utilize the well-known tune "How Firm a Foundation," but he also layered it with strains of "Jesus Loves Me." The piece was not a success, with the NY Times describing it as "Too trivial and inconsequential, too unoriginal in its material, and flimsy in its material to merit discussion."

Could that opinion have stemmed in part from the use of the simple tune "Jesus Loves Me" in a symphonic setting? Pastor commented to me that it seemed like that particular tune is the Rodney Dangerfield of the hymnal, getting no respect. It seemed especially timely to me today, given the sermon hymn last night, "There Is a Green Hill, Far Away." It too was originally composed for children, with a simple tune and text. Some people see beauty and meaning in that comforting simplicity, while others dismiss it as lacking depth.

I'm sure there's a range of opinion on singing simple hymn tunes, so what do you think, readers? Are such hymns best relegated to Sunday School or do they deserve a place in worship? And what hymns would you nominate for Rodney Dangerfield status - those favorites of yours that seem to get no respect?


  1. everyone loves to hate On eagles wings!

  2. Hi from Sauk Centre! I say leave the kids tunes to the kids choir, but then I'm childless so maybe that colors my view.

  3. I am a caregiver for our congregation's 89 year old Elsa Krieger. Pastor Ferro visited her yesterday and gave her communion after the gospel reading and a short sermon. We askd her if she would like to sing a closing hymn. She chose "Jesus Loves Me."

    Joanne Sadlon

  4. P.S.
    So much emphasis is placed on whether the hymn or song is scripture based, historical, written by a famous composer, Lutheran or otherwise. We like to sing from our hearts. “Jesus Loves Me” sums up our faith in the simplest way. Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. Little ones, not just children, but also the weak ones, the suffering, and the down and out sing that Jesus is stronger.
    In the ends stages of her life, Elsa remembers those words.

  5. Joanne, Thanks for sharing that story. It's one great example of why simple singable hymn tunes are an important part of our faith throughout our lives.

  6. Many older hymnals have a section entitled "Hymns for Children". I think many people would be surprised by the hymns in these sections. Many of them are part of the standard repetoire and some of our most beloved hymns.

    In the Lutheran "Common Service Book" published in 1917, the hymns in the "children's" section include: Silent Night, Lo, How a Rose, Once in Royal David's City, There is a Green Hill Far Away, Hosanna! Loud Hosanna!, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us, Now the Day is Over.

    It seems as if the hymns that our grandparents sang as children became some of their favorite hymns which then worked their way into the "Adult" section of the hymnal as they grew older.

    What does this mean for the future of church music? Are we helping our children learn good and memorable hymns and songs that they can carry with them into their adulthood?

  7. Tom, I like the Rodney Dangerfield picture with the blog. It gave me a laugh. Good choice.

  8. The most cliche, and trite, tune must be "kum ba yah." A simple tune I enjoy is "Just As I Am," which the organist here recently let us sing one verse unaccompanied - quite nice. Another family favorite is "Let Us Break Bread Together," of course!