Thursday, August 25, 2011

On the Nature of British Hymns and Worship

Quick aside on British hymns: absolutely exquisite stuff, great theology, written with a higher form of language that creates a stirring style of worship. But there is a second kind of hymn as well: a familiar one with a twist. We've sung five hymns that I've recognized since arriving, and three had completely unrecognizable melodies that threw me for a loop. I'm sure the look on my face was priceless during those 30 seconds as I tried to reconcile what my brain knew and what I was hearing. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing at all, the words are still what matter but it does create a different backdrop for the words. And that, in turn, evokes a different kind of worship, if that makes sense.

For example, "My Jesus I Love Thee" was one of the transformed hymns from this past Sunday. Stateside, this is one of my all-around favorite hymns: pretty solid theology, beautiful and vivid imagery revolving around the brow, and a new angle of looking at all the times we should love Jesus the most (pretty much all the time), all set to a mellow, reflective melody that borders on haunting. Anyways, over here the melody is in a major key and has more tempo, which gives it an almost bouncing quality that detracts from the content, or at the very least does not lend itself to the same introspection and reflection on what the song is saying. The beautiful words are still there, so this is just a minor gripe, but it doesn't rise to the same heights that the original(?) does.

The pianist, Christine, explained that hundreds of selections in the hymnal have two tunes--presumably one British tune and one American--and some even have a third, distinctly Welsh rendition. And, in all fairness, the other differing tunes were great, but none stood out so much as this one to me. The brighter, more upbeat stream of notes doesn't take away from the words, but it is a tune more geared for a song of praise, or something more lighthearted. It just doesn't quite fit.

This dischord between music and lyrics can be found, after a fashion, in a not-so-insignificant number of contemporary worship songs. They are magnificently written and contain some glorious insights about our magnificent God or about the life of a God-follower, but the energy of the song overpowers the truth and might drown out the message altogether. Traditionally, the melody in music has been a frame in which to place the artist's message. When people are focusing on the frame instead of what's inside the frame, something has gone wrong.

It is simply amazing how this shifted from a look at British hymns into an editorial on the state of music in just three paragraphs...that was definitely not my intent. So, back to Wales: hymns are set to different music over here, but they are no less awesome because of it, if not more awesome. Even "My Jesus I Love Thee" is truly fantastic in its own right. I for one can't wait to hear more of them, and I'll try to get them up on here if I can! Hwyl!

No comments:

Post a Comment