Monday, 28 September 2009

Hymnody, Psalmody, and knowing your audience

The ordination service yesterday morning at Southwark Cathedral had a few elements that have stuck in my mind.

One was a sung metrical setting of the Nicene Creed. Of course this made me happy; I can sing creeds, and believe them, because of the augmentation of the possible that seems to get through my thick skull when I sing or chant instead of speaking. I struggled with the lack of music dots in front of me but the tune used was easy to pick up, and I was very glad to be able to sing it.

The other was the choice of recessional hymn. It was Siya Hamba, with the Zulu words first, followed by several verses of English. I learned that song in the 1990s and know it quite well, but I didn't think it was a good choice for the occasion. The message of the song is appropriate enough, but there are other things to consider. The congregation contained a higher-than-usual number of people who probably don't spend a lot of time in church, and definitely a lot of people who probably do not know that song or be comfortable singing along with syncopated rhythms in a foreign language (there may well have been some Zulu speakers in the audience but I suspect not very many). It's difficult to recess in a seemly and dignified manner to a song that really feels more like you should be dancing. It isn't the easiest song to accompany on the pipe organ - the organist did a very good job, but it isn't exactly idiomatic writing for that instrument. On the other hand, the repetition of the words meant that anyone who has learned the song probably does remember it reasonably easily.

I like a lot of West Gallery music. This is mostly metrical psalmody -- that is, psalmody translated such that it has rhyme and meter. Thus a typical doxology, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost" etc might be sung as follows in 8686 meter:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The God whom we adore,
Be glory; as it was, is now
And shall be evermore.

or like this in 8888:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The God whom earth and heav'n adore,
Be glory; as it was of old,
Is now, and shall be evermore.

There are various different translations flying around the internet. I linked to one in this post in May but it seems to be broken now, but the wikipedia article has external links to a number of metrical psalters.

West Gallery music is wonderful; it was written by amateurs for amateurs, performed by real people who had other work to do, not just professionals. The theology is generally good (hard to go wrong with psalmody) and it reflects folk music traditions of the time.

This has got me thinking... hymnody these days is not always in a wonderful state. Nick Baines has blogged about this in some depth. We can't just freeze hymnody in time and only use what has been written before: that way lies irrelevance. Nor must we embrace everything new just because it is new: some of it will be theologically or musically inappropriate.

As I see it there are two main problems with some of the modern hymnody being written; the words and the music. That sounds like a sweeping condemnation of everything new, and it isn't meant to be! However, much of what is new includes bad poetry or sloppy theology, and just because words are written with Christian intent does not mean they should be sung. Similarly, just because some piece of music is written with worship in mind or appeals to a particular group or is appropriate for one setting does not mean it is appropriate for congregational hymnody. I feel choosing music that people can participate in and relate to is an important part of good liturgy.

I think in the current cultural environment, finding a common denominator for musical language is going to be a big challenge. We aren't anywhere near as limited by geography in our exposure to various traditions, and the last half-century has seen a shift away from music as a participatory activity to one of passive consumption. This means that your average congregation might include traditionally-trained classical musicians like myself with little exposure outside of their specialist genre (and very eclectic exposure within it), people who listen to or perform pop music of a particular time period or genre, people who listen to or perform "alternative" music from a number of distinctive genres, and people who are experts in a variety of folk traditions. The variety is huge! The music participation people may have encountered in school or elsewhere is also more varied than I understand it was ten or fifteen years ago in this country. None of those are in and of themselves negative things, but they mean that finding music the whole congregation can participate in is quite a challenge. The resources available for professionals or amateurs to lead the musical portions of worship are also highly variable. And there are going to be issues around disability and inclusion, and also literacy.

I don't think all these issues can be addressed by any one hymn or hymn-writer or hymnal: support for some of these issues is better handled at a local level by people who can sensitively and skilfully assess the situation and come up with creative solutions. But I do think it's important to keep them in mind.

To this end, I would consider the following when writing music for communal worship:

My understanding is that most congregations do not wish to rehearse their hymnody before services. They may be led by a choir of singers (of varying skill) or by instruments, but hymnody ideally also needs to be suitable for occasional offices when the choir may not be available. Most congregants aren't going to hear these hymns more often than during church services, so the melodies need to be memorable. Many congregants don't sing in daily life and so the melodies need to be singable by people who perhaps lack confidence in their singing.

A sort of via negativa list of things that make hymnody difficult for me:
-very disjunct melodies with large or awkward leaps
-too much syncopation, especially in situations where others are obviously not familiar with it and the accompaniment (if any) does not have a strong beat
-hymn tunes that are so long that I cannot remember them unless I have music dots to look at -- I'm okay if I can hear it once or twice through before we start singing, but most of the time you only get a line and I'm not so good at remembering and following at the same time.
-languages I don't understand, especially if they start the hymn or it's difficult to hear how others are executing vowels and consonants
-melodies set too high or two low for a comfortable singing range

This means an ideal hymn tune, among other things, will have a repetitive melody with reasonably predictable notes and rhythms. That in turn lends itself to metrical text.

I think I probably need to stick to tried-and-true texts, at least at first. I'm not a poet and I'm certainly not a trained theologian, and I would veer too easily into cringe-worthy words or dodgy theology if I attempted to write my own words without a lot of guidance from people more knowledgeable than I am. For me the obvious place to start is with psalmody -- it has been around for a few thousand years, after all. But the traditional metrical psalters are not suitable for a modern congregation: the language is seen as archaic by some and will simply be strange to those who don't speak English as their first language. I need to stick to modern translations. I'm not a translator, so I need to use others' work here.

Thankfully Dale A Schoening, a United Methodist minister in Iowa, has published a bunch of these and also some metrical canticles with an alternative copyright arrangement. I haven't read them yet to check for awkward language or syllabic stress, and there are several missing, but it's a good start. He's also stated the meter used for each and even suggested some tunes.

I need to develop some of this further, I think, but I'm quite tired now and need to stop here.


it's margaret said...

We have started a Spanish-language service where I serve, and the music is quite compelling and different. I LOVE it and am challenged at the same time. But, there we are! And yes, congregational hymnody is quite different from performance!

Song in my Heart said...

The likelihood of my getting involved in Spanish-language services here in England is pretty low; I love that you're doing this and that you are (from waht I've seen of comments etc) trying to provide music appropriate for the context.

I guess context-sensitive congregational hymnody is really what I was writing about in this post... the challenges of the context I'm thinking of (a typical semi-suburban London parish with a variety of cultures, comfort levels and possible literacy issues, significantly depleted choral leadership and patchy attendance) can also be strengths if treated with care.

I do think one can go too far, making things so accessible and context-sensitive that they become boring or patronising. Again I look back to my experience of the synagogues, where I did not speak or understand the language of worship and there were NO music dots available and yet was made to feel welcome and was able to participate to an extent. The music in that context was limited by Jewish Orthodox interpretations of laws regarding Shabbat, and the lack of instrumentation meant that people had to sing (and sometimes to clap and dance and drum on tables) or have no music at all.

I should think more about why that worked so well. Some of it is that we were blessed with some strong singers who didn't put on airs about being star cantors but led singing in such a way that people could join in. Some of it is the repetition. Some of it is the informal nature of parts of the liturgy (I generally stuck around the entire time but when you've got two services of 90+ minutes with a bit of cake and a sermon stuck in between, people are going to come and go), which somehow made it seem less bad to sing along and risk making a mistake. Some of it was that the entire liturgy felt more participatory than many Christian services do; less strict delineation between clergy and laity (Rabbis are just laypeople with specific education, nothing more and nothing less) and even the requirement of a minyan to pray some of the prayers contribute something to that.

And maybe, too, that's part of why I always end up in the choir at church, sooner or later. In many churches it seems to be an assumption that the congregation attend services rather than participating in them, that the congregants are passive consumers of this thing called "worship" and don't have contributions of their own to make. Which I think is complete bollocks, but it's still a lot easier to avoid that feeling when I take a role which is clearly meant to be more active and which, ideally, draws the congregation into more active worship, too. (Just part of the reason, though; there's other stuff around singing and making music that makes it a more appropriate form of worship for me)

Wow there are lots of worms in this can! Thank you for your comment, Margaret; I'll have to think more on these issues.

Spanish is a beautiful language to sing in. The vowels are so much easier than English ones, and the consonants don't tend to bunch as horribly. While I value vernacular worship, having experienced worship in a completely foreign language and all the barriers that had for me, I do sometimes pine for some Latin.