MusicNotes, by Will Buthod

October 10, 2019

This Sunday, we hear in the Gospel about the leper who was made clean, and then turned back and praised God. Jesus sends him on his way and tells him that his faith has made him well. The music will reflect this reading and the others, through themes of healing, restoration, faith, and gratitude.

During this season, we are trying to sing the entire psalms together as a congregation. A very effective method of doing this is simplified Anglican chant. These simple chants, popularized in 1979 by Robert Knox Kennedy, only involve a few notes which resolve at the ends of lines, sung in unison by a congregation. The tunes are simple enough that anyone can sing along and get the ‘flow’ of singing psalms together. We will have someone in front (a cantor) helping to lead, but I want to really encourage you to sing with us. It takes a little practice, but it can be very powerful when an entire congregation is singing from the psalter, our ancient hymnal.

At the offertory, the choir will sing an anthem by Arlen Clarke, Help Lord, my faith. This anthem is our plea to God to center our faith, to not only bless us with restoration, but to increase our faith within us. The text actually comes from two hymns from St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro te devote and Lauda Sion salvatorem. Listen for the underlying Eucharistic themes in the text. In fact, maybe this text is a good prayer for you this week-

Help, Lord, my faith, my hope increase,
And fill my portion in thy peace,
Live ever Bread of love and be my life,
My soul, my sure self to me.

Come, love, come Lord, and that long day
for which I languish, come away,
when this dry soul those eyes shall see,
and drink the unsealed source of thee.

Rise, Royal Sion, rise and sing,
Thy souls, kind Shepherd, thy hearts King.
Give love for life nor let my day grow,
But in new powers to thy name, and praise.

This week, we will begin singing a stanza of Take my life, and let it be at the presentation. This will be our stewardship ‘theme song,’ so let’s sing it heartily!

During communion, to reinforce the themes of water and cleansing, we will also sing an old spiritual, Wade in the Water. The refrain tells us to ‘wade in the water,’ as ‘God is going to trouble the water.’ As a song of comfort and hope, we are reminded to stay close to God as troubles come and we will be cleansed. However, the song may have had a secret meaning during the Underground Railroad. It is believed that Harriet Tubman used this song to tell slaves to avoid the trails and move through water, so that slavecatchers with dogs could not follow their scent. A beautiful thing about music is the multiple layers of meaning happening simultaneously. This one sends a chill down my spine!

See you at church.

October 3, 2019

This Sunday, as many will be away at Parish Weekend, we will have a good time holding down the fort here. I will be joining everyone for the weekend, but will come return to Decatur to lead the music on Sunday. This week, you can expect to sing some hymn classics, almost a hymn festival! I bet you can’t read this list without finding at least one hymn that you like-

-Awake my soul, and with the sun

-I bind unto myself today

-I come with joy to meet my Lord

-My faith looks up to thee

-O, master, let me walk with thee

-Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

-Come, labor on

So, what’s the deal with hymns? Sometimes we get so accustomed to singing (or not singing) them at every service that we forget what they’re all about. We often think of hymns as loud congregational songs accompanied by organ, four-part chorale textures with endless verses and often moving higher than our own voice range. But a hymn is simply a song, usually a song of praise to God. Did you know that the Gloria we sing each week is a hymn? Even the Holy, Holy is a hymn (remember the priest chants, “therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels…who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name”). The scripture says that after Jesus ate his last supper with the disciples, they sang a hymn and went out. I bet it wasn’t Amazing grace

Hymns have been a part of Christian worship for a long time. In fact, they’ve played a role in religion in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece as well. Early on in Christianity, it was common for people to compose a hymn without a particular tune in mind. The hymns written by St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, were matched with a variety of tunes through history and are still sung to different tunes today. However, the rise of Protestantism gave birth to a more standardized approach to hymns, one that involves four-part harmony in major and minor keys, and often a common, standardized tune. Can you imagine Come, thou fount of every blessing sung to another tune than the one you know, Nettleton?

But it’s really just about context, after all. We love our hymns here at HTP, but it seems that hymnody is fading out in a lot of Christian traditions. Hymn is a term often applied to traditional Christian songs, as compared to contemporary Christian songs. Churches are getting rid of hymnals, and congregations are much weaker at singing in four parts. I’ve participated in a lot of worship services where the music was particularly strong, but the mention of a simple hymn struck fear in the hearts of the musicians.

Why a decline in hymnody now? I know that some of you dislike the new systems of projecting the lyrics on a big screen instead of using a hymnal. However, you can’t blame hymn decline on a lack of musical literacy. Most worshippers couldn’t read music in the early church, and I would argue that is still the same today. In fact, most musicians in the world do not read music, but that’s a topic for another blog. Is it perhaps because hymns, like the ones found in The Hymnal 1982, do not resemble any music heard outside of church these days? The homophonic, stanzaic style of hymns in archaic language, sometimes incorporating huge vocal ranges and sung together in large groups, is not the kind of thing you run across in any other context. Could this be creating a challenge for younger people to identify with musically, for example? Do we try hard to learn newer, more modern hymns, or do we stick to the old warhorses?

Why, then, do we continue the tradition at HTP? The texts of the hymns are unbelievably rich, and have, through Christendom, taught us our theology (for better or worse). There is a reason that some of these hymns have stuck around for centuries, across denominational lines. Does a particular hymn remind you of a different time in your life? Was it a comfort to you in your time of need? Does it remind you of your mother? Whatever your connection may be to the hymns we sing, it is important. Whether soul-nourishing or sentimentalist, the hymns allow us a space to worship and a prayer to raise where words simply cannot.

Are there any particular hymnals that you miss singing from? If you could change anything about our hymnal, what would it be? I would love to talk hymns with you when I see you at church!