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Adventures in hymnody

Feb. 28, 2014 at midnight
Updated Feb. 27, 2014 at 8:28 p.m.


Have you ever really looked at your church's hymnal? Have you ever wondered where those songs came from and why those particular songs were chosen? This is a very brief history of some of the musicians and theologians determining those choices.

Early Christian music was based on Jewish and Byzantine religious chants, primarily focused on praise or psalms, such as the 150 Psalms attributed to King David in the Old Testament.

These were sung by priests or cantors and trained choirs that sang in unison, often in a call and response style without harmony or instrumental accompaniment.

Plainsong, or Gregorian chant, was the music of the Catholic-controlled Western world well into the 16th century. Plainsong is spiritual prayer designed to unite the faithful in devout thoughts while the participants symbolically re-enact the Last Supper and take Communion. Over time, the music of the Mass gets more elaborate and adds more instruments and harmony, but the role of music in worship does not change until the Reformation.

As St. Augustine writes in his Confessions: "The weaker mind may be stimulated to devout thoughts by the delights of the ear. Yet when I happen to be moved more by the singing than by what is sung, I confess to have sinned grievously . ... "

This philosophy makes some music musical and other music secular, or of the world or of the Devil. All church music was in Latin, or, in the case of the Eastern Orthodox, Greek. The participants weren't there to enjoy or understand what was being sung.

As far as church music is concerned, the two most influential Protestant reformers are Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). Most modern Protestant denominations can find their roots in one of their two approaches. Martin Luther was a priest and skilled musician who loved music and felt it to be a great tool to change people's hearts and minds.

He said, "Beautiful music is the art of of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful gifts God has given us." Luther believed the center of worship should focus on the congregation, especially in singing. He encouraged the use of literary, poetic and secular vernacular to widen the appeal of the Christian message.

The chorale is probably one of his biggest contributions. The other may be the belief that music and musicians could glorify God. Just because music was pleasurable did not necessarily make it sinful. He also felt that art and artists should be supported and that they should strive to make their art pleasing to God.

Many denominations are in the Luther camp, including Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists. John Calvin, however, taught that the only use of music was to sing the Psalms or other scriptures.

He said, "these things being not only superfluous but useless are to be abstained from, because pure and simple modulation is sufficient for the praise of God, if it is sung with the heart and the mouth." The beauty of music was a temptation and "useless."

Music from Calvin-influenced denominations, therefore, have very simple to no arrangements and little to no instrumentation. The Congregationalists, Unitarians and Presbyterians all subscribe to John Calvin's approach.

Calvin influenced Hymnbooks known as "Psalters" that became common with one note per syllable or metric. All hymns still use this metric system. In hymn meter, you count the number of syllables per line verses thinking in poetic "feet."

"Amazing Grace" and "Joy to the World," for example, are both in 8.6.8.6, or in common meter. In early hymn books, only the words would be given, and by knowing the hymn meter, you could choose a tune that the congregation already knew and that would fit the hymn's meter.

Try singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "Joy to the World" or vice versa, and you'll understand. The songs have different accents on different syllables, but they both have the same hymn meter.

In the 16th century, the Church of England became the only sanctioned religion in England. If you didn't agree or follow the rules, you were considered a dissenter or nonconformist. One very influential nonconformist was the minister and hymnist Isaac Watts.

Watts took the Psalms and paraphrased them - often from his own individual perspective. This was revolutionary and opened the door to hymnists such as Charles Wesley and many others who wrote about a more personal relationship with God or Jesus.

In America, one of two key figures was American composer and singing teacher William Billings. Billings developed his own compositions without any formal training. He was, perhaps, the most popular composer in a Revolutionary America.

The remnants of his style of American frontier music make up shape note and primitive singing to this day. Nevertheless, this approach was almost eradicated by the music educator and composer Lowell Mason, who was trained in classical European music and felt that Billings and others were too primitive and backward.

He believed that we should honor the European composers and teach standard music notation and common practice rules of harmony and theory in public schools. The rules of arranging and music theory from the common practice era of Mozart and Hayden are still taught in public schools and colleges today.

Hymnody is a fascinating subject to explore. You can find out who wrote and selected the hymns in your hymnal and why they did so.

Kiya Heartwood is a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin. She was the guest speaker at the Victoria Unitarian Universalist Church. Heartwood is an awarding winning songwriter, performer and musician.

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