Thursday, October 1, 2009

Towards a Better Hymnody

I recently ran across this little digitized pamphlet written in 1959 by an Austrailian teacher named Frank J. Funston. You can read it for yourself here.

The pamphlet is titled "Towards a Better Hymnody" and has some great insights about music in the church that would be our loss if we were not to consider them today. I've gone ahead and picked out some wonderful quotes that I'm sure will be beneficial to anyone interested. As the title suggests, Funston is basically putting forth suggestions and criteria that are recognizable in good songs and looking to apply this to modern hymnody. I should say that Funston's use of the word hymn is basically synonomous with 'worship song' as in 1959 all church music was recognized as 'hymns' rather than 'hymns vs praise chorus' for example.

I'll start you off with Funston's imagery of the whole of Christian hymnody as a stream. I love this illustration and will definately use it in the future.

"It would be an attractive project to chart the whole stream of hymnody. Some little knowledge of it is, in fact, desirable if our hymns are to make the maximum contribution of enrichment to our worship. We could seek the springs from which the stream rises, what are its main tributaries--sombre or sparkling, restful or tumultuous, clouded or clear as they may be, but each bringing its distinctive contribution. We could inspect the shallows, the deeps and the occasional whirlpools along its course. Power plants there are in places, and unfortunately, too, commercial interests are here and there to corrupt what should be a pure stream. Nevertheless, legitimate commerce of prayer, devotion, praise and doctrine are borne along on its waters."

Hymns and Good Music

"We need tunes which are not just catchy or temporary; instead, let us seek and use those that are robust and dignified without being stodgy or highbrow or difficult."

"Nobody who knows anything of the history of religious revivals from the days of Moody and Sankey down to Billy Graham could possibly query that there is a place for the lighter music of the gospel song with its catchy phrase, its resounding refrain and its sometimes disconnected lines of thought, but it is not on such foundations that a worthy and lasting all-purpose hymnody is built."

Hymns and Sound Theology

"The theology of the creeds has often been a bone of contention, but the theology of hymns may often fulfil a very different function, and be quite constructive in the direction of binding together different groups of Christians. Thus very perfunctory search of an Anglican and a Methodist hymnal could show that, while each had hymns from their own and the other body, both also had large numbers of hymns from Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker and other sources."

"There are two elements of danger--one inherent in the writer of the hymn, the other in the user. Firstly, because hymn-writing talent it neither confined to one branch of the Christian church, nor indeed flourishes more markedly in one branch than another, there must be a certain amount of "screening" rather than indiscriminate use of hymns...Secondly, it is futile to look for "a full gospel" in every hymn. No hymn need be suspect because its writer is not theologically precisely in step with those who use it. As we have all heard sermons with which we would agree--but only up to a point--so some of our best hymns are pruned of verses theologically unacceptable, and other excellent hymns have very little of theology in them. No sermon, no passage of Scripture, and no hymn contains a full gospel, nor can they be expected to do so."

Hymns and High Literary Standards

"We forbear to mention some of "the horrors of hymnody"--whole verses which defy analysis either grammatically or as to their spiritual content, and others so utterly muddled or absurd in their figures of speech that it would become difficult to use them once one came to give some clear thought, to the expressions used."

"Instead, of attempting any major general task regarding literary excellences, we will here limit ourselves to two minor manifestations in this field. (1) Those involving structure include progression or development in thought...(2) Minor elegances often very effectively used by poets who are "masters of sound" include alliteration and assonance."

Trends In Modern Hymnody

[Remember 'modern' to him is 50 years ago...but this is still applicable.]

"Perhaps [some] lines of improvement may be suggested:(1) We could surely make better use of our present hymnody...(2) The intelligent use of hymns written in a special form would deepen their meaning...(3) As a brotherhood, we must be alive to the possibilities of using new hymns." [some examples he gives:] "new hymns through missions, new hymn tunes, new hymn texts through unstudied languages, new lyrics written by youth"

Some Helpful Advice
"Let us be under no illusions about the habit of "cutting out verses." Surely those who edit hymnals are not the only ones with the right to exercise this prerogative!...[B]ut whatever the occasion for limiting the number of verses to be sung, let it be done intelligently and only after a careful examination so that there is no marked break in the continuity of thought."

"At the very least, we can sing on, still hoping! If we cannot achieve it all, we would still be unwise not to make the attempt."

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