Skip to comments.Dust on the Hymnal: Pondering the Decline of Hymn Singing in American Denominations
Posted on 06/02/2014 1:42:10 AM PDT by markomalley
One of the more prominent features of Protestant denominations over the decades was hymn singing. Get in your time machine go back 50 years, to any Protestant denomination, and you would find every member of the congregation on their feet, hymnal in hand, singing quite loudly, even harmonizing the old familiar hymns: Onward Christian Soldiers .Amazing Grace .When the Roll is called up Yonder .More About Jesus .Praise God from Whom All Blessing Flow!
Catholics congregations were rather different. Low Masses in Latin were common where there was little or no singing. High mass featured complex music that a trained choir largely handled. And the few hymns the Catholics did know quite well, were generally not sung with the gusto anywhere near that of the Protestants.
Ill admit, Im a big fan of the metrical hymns of the Protestant tradition. One of the regrets I have is that, in the years just after the Second Vatican Council when vernacular songs were permitted, was that we did not borrow more heavily from the English and German traditions of hymns.
Hymns are stately, easy to learn, and have memorable melodies. They were also metrical, which meant that they were sung to a steady beat and almost never had the complicated rhythms of many modern church songs. Congregations have a hard time singing syncopated rhythm (a variety of rhythms which are in some way unexpected which make part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat).
Many of the old Protestant hymns, especially those from the English tradition, are actually magnificent translations of the Latin hymns of the ancient Catholic Church. Many of them also beautifully paraphrase the Psalms. As such, their themes were biblical, and richly theological.
A beautiful example of this is the English translation of a verse from the beautiful Hymn by St. Ambrose (Veni Redemptor Gentium):
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light;
An endless light that shines serene,
Where twilight never intervenes.
And there is this line from the well-known English him For all the Saints:
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long;
Steels on the ear a distant triumph song
and hearts are brave again and arms are strong
One final example is from the grand hymn O Worship the King:
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.
I love to sing and listen to these old hymns, I love to play them at the organ.
But lo and behold, it seems the old hymns are dying out, even in many of the Protestant denominations, especially those of the Evangelical sort. Paradoxically, many of the old mainline Protestant denominations which are theologically and morally very liberal are one of the few places where the old hymns are still sung. Many of the Evangelical denominations which adhere more closely to biblical teachings and morality are now using Christian contemporary music which seems to have largely replaced the old hymns.
But most Christian contemporary music, is really music to listen to more, than to sing, and certainly is not designed to be sung by a large group of people.
Here are some excerpts from a recent article article at the Holy Soup Blog by Thom Schulz: (I add a few remarks of my own in plain red text)
Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority werent singing .Thats been the case for years nowin churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring . (Looks and sounds like a average Catholic Congregation)
What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect its a number of unfortunate factors.
Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event .It seems its paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. (Yes this is certainly the case in most megachurches which are even built like theaters and many of the services look more like a production than a worship service.
[Further] The musicians volume is cranked up so high that congregants cant hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they dont sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing. Yes, I learned this as an organist, that if I played too loud, people stopped singing. The singing of the faithful needs to be supported and accompanied, not drowned out and overwhelmed. In some Catholic parishes volume from musicians and even lectors and preachers is a problem too where even smaller church structures have massive PA systems that overload the listeners rather than enhance their listening).
Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy I long for an environment that evokes my real heartfelt vocal participation. As stated above it is really rather difficult to get a larger congregation to sing syncopated music. Clear metrical music is better if congregational participation is desired. Just because some song by a soloist sounds nice doesnt mean its easy to sing. I get the impression that a lot of Catholic contemporary music is really written for soloists and then forced on the congregation who vote with their mouth which stays shut during the song. All the wild flaying of a cantors arms doesnt really change the situation either. If something is singable for a congregation, the wild gesticulation of the lady cantor is not needed.
At any rate, Ill just conclude again by saying that I favor metrical hymns for congressional singing and there is a noble history of some five hundred year on which to draw. There are some nice Gregorian Hymns too. I know the combos is bound to find more than a few comments about ditching hymns too and sining the Introit, gradual, etc. But honestly the number of parishes that can accomplish that reasonably are few. Further, even if a trained schola exists in your parish, the topic here is conjugational singing. Sadly, that reality seems to be disappearing even in the denominations which once resounded with hymns and enthusiastic singing by most of the congregation. Its too bad really.
Im interested in your experience of congregational singing. I find in most parishes that less than 20% even make a pretense of singing. My own congregation is a bit of an exception since we use a lot of Gospel hymns and music that are very easy for the congregation to sing; lots of refrains and memorable melodies. What of your parish?
Msgr Pope ping
A Mighty Fortress
I can’t stand Christian pop music. Give me the old stoic hymnal any day. I occasionally go to my sister’s church. And they must play a full hour of Christian pop. BORING!
I do not care for the use of “praise” music in congregational settings, with the projection of the words on a screen, like a Mitch Miller sing-along. This has become prevalent even in the Church of Christ with the New Testament, non-instrumental approach to songs. Some CoC congregations have added “praise bands” in the auditorium. My main objection to the “praise” music is it is repetitious and doesn’t really “praise,” IMO.
Give me some Southern gospel shaped-note singing any day. Most any Stamps-Baxter songbook selection will do.
The ECUSA Hymnal 1982 is due to be revised. I am not at all looking forward to what they come up with. Modernity-culture PC nonsense, I suspect...
If I see a drum kit in a church I walk out immediately.
The charismatics have tried to take over the music at our church. Twice a month we have to use the special blue binder, but instrumentally they’ve only gone so far as to add cymbals and a guitar. We have an amazing pipe organ of which I’m a fan, and the organist always “jams out” after the benediction hymn. The praise music just is not my thing.
I don’t sing the modern 7/11 songs (7 words, repeated 11 times) because I don’t know the tunes and entrances. I can read music and so can join an unfamiliar tune when following the music. And to those who can’t read music: LEARN HOW! It isn’t that hard. As it is, we are not presenting our best to God.
The above really isn't so. An overhead slide with the words, and many many of the contemporary songs are great for congregational singing. There is also a genre that combines the old hymns with words of praise or new rhythms that is absolutely praise worthy. "Glorious Day" comes to mind by
The Methodists in the Methodist town of Ocean Grove, NJ, have a choir that sings the great Protestant songs during their services - pure Americana. Not only do they have a great choir, they hire four singers every summer from the Metropolitan Opera to augment the singing. So somebody is doing it right!
The reason why the contempary Christian is being played more in Evangelical churches, so it is to bring in a much more younger group of believers.
That being said, try listening to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, whose director (and she is a choir director) Carol Cymbala, not only directs but also writes most of their music - while not being able to read or write music!!!
Along with her husband, Jim, who pastors the diverse church, Carol began their "choir" with a mere 9 people, today ranges in the neighborhood of 250, including some tremendously talented folk who move to the area to be able to sing along with Carol.
This choir has recorded albums and travel to share the love of Christ with their gift of singing.
You feel the angels singing when listening to some of the BTC's music yet I, like you, still long for the days of singing with the congregation, using a hymnal.
To listen to some of Carol's fine gifts, go here: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=brooklyn+tabernacle+choir+youtube&qpvt=brooklyn+tabernacle+choir+youtube&FORM=VDRE
Ditto....in a FLASH! The only exception is on Youth Sunday.
I am married to the worship leader of our church....we rock the place every Sunday morning.
I grew up with the Hymnal.....boring. And not always relevant...who knows what a sheave is anyway?
If we could get rid of the insipid pap from Marty Haugen and David Haas things might start to look up.
Modern instruments are tuned at standard 440 and old hymns were written when the key of “a” was as low as 410...often depending on the the “a” pipe of an organ. So sometimes a hymn written say in the key of c can be hard to sing especially when when the high notes can be an octave and third higher than base clef c(standard starting note for treble clef c). Some Baptist hymn books have lowered the registers of many songs by a 1/2 step to a step in recognition of this problem and many songs are now much more singable and enjoyable.
My issue with many contemporary Christian praise music is that it is often written by folks who tend to sing in a high tenor or soprano pop like tessitura. The praise and worship band leaders will imitate these songs in the way they heard them on the radio and sing like solo virtuosos with trick rhythm riffs and sudden full octave shifts that most untrained voices can’t follow( baritones and mezzos, basses and altos are lost or are stuck singing at a higher register than they may be comfortable, or may try to harmonize if they are talented enough to follow these complex ‘jiggy’ meolodies, or they go screaming to the comforts of traditional worship services). Sound engineers trade subtlety and finesse in operating the speakers for the power of brute force, blasting the ears of the listeners, intimidating many folks into silence.
I know some contemporary Christian music is very good, though the shorter praise songs don’t have to be repeated 10 times ad nauseum. The time spent repeating the same songs could be used for more praise songs or longer hymns.
My main objection to a lot of praise music is that while MUCH OF IT IN FACT DOES “praise God”, especially scripturally derived.(Such as the song of Miriam and the prophetesses...known as Horse and Rider)....some praise and worship teams repeat each song about 10 times, making the message of the song sound like a repetitive mind control cultic rant! Twice is enough for some of these songs then they should move on to other songs, testimonies, scriptures, ect.!