Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hymnal free, harmony free

For today’s recessional, our small congregation gave a hearty rendition of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s greatest hit. No, not HMS Pinafore — but Onward Christian Soldiers. The tune (St. Gertrude) has a great oompa bass line, of the sort you’d expect from someone who’s composed for a tuba in a brass band. Yes, Sir Arthur’s harmonization is very 19th century, but it’s a lot of fun and quite singable — Hymn 557 in my favorite hymnal.

This reminded me of my experience last month, singing one of my favorite tunes: Hyfrydol, the Rowland Prichard tune that appears twice in Hymnal 1940. The first time was with my favorite words: Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling” — the pre-communion hymn from our wedding, when I had a photocopy of the hymn (#479) in my coat to sing the harmony and all the words. The next Sunday was with W.C. Dix’s “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” (#347), a very good hymn but without the personal significance for me of Wesley’s wedding words.

But there’s a rub. The first time we sang Hyfrydol, it was at a hymnal-free church where the words are projected on the screen rather than bound in a book in the pews. (This parish is normally a rock-band CCM church, but does Rite I hymns at the early service to humor the small pocket of traditionalists). The second time (with the second-choice lyric) was with good ol’ Hymnal 1940, harmony edition.

As I remarked two months ago, there is a sense among many of the contemporary worship crowd in Schism II that hymnals are passé. These folks would argue “let TEC keep Church Publishing Inc.” because we won’t be needing a printed hymnal anyway. (The Schism I crowd seems committed to Hymnal 1940 for at least another generation).

The problem is, hymnal-free is also harmony-free. Without printed music, learning the tune is a bit of a challenge for newcomers (e.g. from another Christian denomination or for kids), while singing harmony is impossible for all but the most accomplished musicians (most of whom are sitting in the choir loft). Although I’d sung the Hyfrydol harmony many times, it was too complex without having the music or having a chance to practice beforehand.

From my hymnal shopping, it’s clear that printed hymnals with music (let alone harmony) are a comparatively recent phenomenon. Many of the CoE parishioners who died and left behind The English Hymnal or Hymns Ancient & Modern often as not left behind a book with just the words. Still today, a lot of TEC (or Continuing Anglican) churches have melody-only hymnals for some or all of those in the pews.

My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that the four-part hymnals in the home date back to when the middle class could afford a piano in the home. In 1909, the most expensive item in the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog was a $138 piano, making home music available to most farm families across Midwest and Plains states. Today, a 61- or 88-key electronic keyboard is available for $100 from Costco or big box electronics stores — equivalent to $4 in 1909 dollars.

Thanks to Bach and his successors, four-party harmony has been part of Christian worship for 300 years, and part of pew-singing for at least one third of that period. Let’s hope that technology is used to preserve this important musical and liturgical element, rather than to remove it.

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