Looking back, looking forward
For a few months in 2001, I played the piano for the Sunday morning services in Central Hall, the home of Edinburgh Methodist Mission, while the sanctuary with its splendid pipe organ was out of commission and our Musical Director Graham Morrison took a sabbatical. Jim Carey took the choir. Before handing back to Graham, I wrote the following article for our monthly church newsletter.
What a pleasure it has been for me to deputise for Graham at the keyboard over the last few months! Jim Carey and I are grateful for the great encouragement given to us by choir, congregation and clergy during that time. Thank you all.
For me, these few months have brought into focus thoughts that I have long had about the various different traditions of hymn tune that come together in our worship of God. Are some traditions “better” than others, and if so in what sense? Should we sing mostly old tunes? Mostly modern ones? Is there a conflict here? Need there be? I should like to take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts.
Almost all of the older “churchy” hymn tunes that we use are good music. They have stood the test of time. Many of the more modern tunes, of whatever tradition, are good music also. But not all of them. I hope I can illustrate what I mean by looking at one example in detail. It is the verse of Go Tell Everyone (Hymns and Psalms 315). See Figure 1.
That is bad music, for at least four reasons.
Firstly, it goes too low. The first four notes and the last note are below the recognised bottom note for high female and male voices. Most singers with a high voice, male or female, find the lowest notes unpleasant to sing and cannot produce a pleasing sound. (By contrast, none of the tunes in Hymns and Psalms or Mission Praise go above the recognised top note for low female and male voices.)
Secondly, it is too static. There are too many repeated notes, without any compensating melodic or rhythmical interest. There is no movement in tonality (key), even temporarily, until the last note. The tune comes to a complete stop after lines 1, 2 and 3. The third line desperately needs some change in both rhythm and harmony. The whole verse sounds as if it is deliberately designed to depress.
Thirdly, it doesn’t fit the words as regards rhythm. The natural prosody of the first line of words is “GOD’S SPIR‑it is in my HEART,” not “GOD’S spir‑it IS in my HEART.” Verse 2 is worse. It may be unrealistic to expect any tune to fit the words perfectly in rhythm, but we look for a better fit than we find here.
Fourthly, it doesn’t fit the words as regards mood. If God’s spirit is truly in my heart, I will not sing in my boots, nor in a minor key, which evokes sadness.
Equally, however, there are five things that I am not saying. I am not saying, “It is bad music because I do not like it.” I am not saying, “It is bad music because it is written in one tradition and I was educated in another.” I am not saying, “It is bad music because it is modern.” I am not saying, “It is bad music because some editions give guitar chords.” I am not saying, “It is bad music because it is intended to be sung in unison.” And I am glad to say that the refrain, in contrast to the verse, is entirely sound.
I wrote the first draft of this in mid‑August, with the morning service of 12 August fresh in my mind. Rev Charles Makonde chose five hymns with splendid tunes for that service, all from Hymns and Psalms, in three different styles. Three tunes (536ii, 258, 569) are in the old tradition. One (739, May the mind of Christ my Saviour) is modern classical. One (492, Give me joy in my heart) is a “happy‑clappy” chorus. And, my word, what a good one it is. Thank you, Charles.
From time to time there are calls for excellence in various aspects of our worship of God. Recently there have been calls for excellence in worship leading, and in our provision for the children. What I am now calling for is excellence in our choice of music. Hymns and Psalms and Mission Praise include hymns and tunes of many styles, from many traditions. It is fitting that such diverse traditions should be represented in our worship of God. But it is important that we should choose the best from each of those traditions. I feel it is a pity if such pursuit of excellence is seen as élitism or snobbery.
Methodism was born in song, born in good song. Why indeed should the devil have all the best tunes? There are more than enough good tunes from many traditions in Hymns and Psalms and in Mission Praise to let all of us give of our best in worshipping God, and to satisfy a variety of tastes at the same time. Then we can all truly sing from the same hymn sheet.
Eric P Smith
30 September 2001