What Is True Hymn Form?

I stumbled across this post today, rather by mistake in searching for something that the post happens to mention (The Look by Newton/Kauflin).

What I found interesting was that the author of the review appears to have decided on what a true hymn is.  It seems to be characterized by adjectives like stately, uncomplicated, pre-19th century).  While I can certainly agree that a lot of contemporary music is difficult to sing and is rather complex and really shouldn’t be used in a congregational setting, perhaps, I find it odd to assume that the 20th century person cannot advance past 19th century hymn melody.  Using perhaps the same sort of argument, I might simply refer to 19th century music as boring, overly simplistic, and inexpressive.  Apart from anything else, it’s my opinion about what I like to be a hymn vs. what he likes to be a hymn.

Another interesting part is that, according to him, The Look has a melody that is very solo-ish and borders on becoming a “song” and not a “hymn” (interesting distinction, I might add).  I found that the melody to The Look is actually quite simple.  The chorus has a bit of syncopation, but not much.  I have absolutely no problem, nor anyone else I know, remembering the tune and being able to hum or sing it.

Also, it appears that the author would prefer to preserve the original words as much as possible.  While I do understand this and realize people may have different opinions of lyric changing… it seems hard to lump this into a merit/value judgment of the song.  Perhaps you think it’s not fair to the author of the original, that’s fine.  I personally think that, were I able to talk to Newton, he would rather have me change lyrics to make it more understandable to today’s context than simply not use his words.  Of course, it gets a bit iffier when the poem may not have actually been meant as a hymn, which I don’t think it was … but, either way, it seems that Newton would be glad that something he wrote would be used to worship God rather than be picky about it and say “well, if you can’t keep the same words I wrote, then I don’t want you to use it.”  :)  I might be stepping on some toes, especially of songwriters 😉 but assuming we’re all writing for the same aim – to worship and glorify God and encourage others – then it’s hard for me to get too picky about rights and all that.  (that said, I do my best to follow the laws for that, in case you were wondering!)

I wanted to find out what a “true hymn” was more specifically, but couldn’t find it.  I’d be curious to know what the author thinks qualifies as a hymn … or what qualifications it needs to pass.  Unless, of course, songs and hymns are both equal in his view, and it’s just a terminology thing; but that doesn’t appear to be what he thinks (hymns > songs in his terminology).

I also found it disheartening that his ideal (and, admittedly, he expressed that it was indeed his personal opinion, so that’s good) included a vast majority of hymns from pre-19th century.  We should be diligently trying to build on the past hymn writers, to continually seek to express our worship of Christ in … well, to use an overly used word, a relevant context.  New truth?  No way.  But I don’t talk the same way they did in the 17th century, so I don’t expect my songs to, either. I appreciate the old hymns, I appreciate knowing and singing them, but given the choice, I would like to also encourage people from today to write hymns as an expression of their own passionate worship of Christ, and not simply assume that nobody can improve on Wesley.

Incidentally, Wesley came after Watts; I’m glad Wesley didn’t get told “are you trying to improve on Watts?  Give up now, you can’t, just sing Watts’ hymns.” 😉  Hyperbole and exaggeration to be sure (and different continents!), but… :)

Now, I’ll get off all of your toes. 😉 Seriously, I hope I didn’t step on any.  If you’re one of the people who I know would prefer not to change old hymns, I apologize for the toe-stepping 😉 and I do respect the opinion.  I just disagree, to some extent. :)  (I will say that I would hate to have someone edit my song to make it say something I would not have wanted said! so I understand in certain circumstances how it would be a bad thing…)

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3 Responses to What Is True Hymn Form?

  1. My only problem with many updating of words is that it often becomes so ugly!

  2. For example: ‘yours be the glory, ris’n conquering son, endless is the victory, you over death have won’ doesn’t have the same ring, especially the last line. I’d prefer a more drastic rewrite, I think, something like: ‘All glory be yours, risen conquering son, endless is the victory, now over death you’ve won.’

  3. I agree, it can be done badly. But then, new songs can be written badly, but would you argue that they shouldn’t be written because someone might write a bad one? Of course not. :)

    So, whether it’s the music or the lyrics … arranging/editing is little different from composing. It’s possible it’ll turn out badly. The problem is we like to take a few bad examples, ignore the good ones, and make a generalization from that. This happens all the time – hymns are boring, new songs are shallow, modern hymn-writers can’t write, old hymns are too hard to understand, modern songs are too hard, etc. :)

    Ironically, we also tend to ignore criticisms against our preference; for example, “hymns are too hard to understand” is often met with “well, we’re not going to dumb it down for the 20th century” (which, I think, avoids certain things like language evolving, contexts changing, etc., though there is some good reason to it). On the other hand, “modern songs are too hard to sing” seems to often be a view held by those who retort in such a fashion. So, the expectation is that it’s okay for the words to be hard, but the music better not be.

    (of course, it goes the other way too – “hymns are boring!” yet we like to repeat a simple chorus over a couple times. That sounds boring. 😉 )

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