Texts and Music: Hymns, Tunes, and Settings

By Westermeyer, Paul | The Hymn, Autumn 2017 | Go to article overview

Texts and Music: Hymns, Tunes, and Settings


Westermeyer, Paul, The Hymn


Words and Melodies

A hymn is a text made up ofwords. Words are very important. In the Christian view, as the Prologue to John's gospel says, in the beginning was the Word which became flesh. So it is not without reason that composers of hymn tunes seek to make their tunes fit and express the words. And it is not without reason that wise church musicians who lead hymns begin by understanding the words and their meaning, and then they seek to make the musical settings of the texts spin out from and break open the meanings of those words. They do this for introductions to hymns as these prepare for the singing, and they do this throughout entire hymns as they unfold.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to do this. Those of us with modest abilities can do it as can the virtuosos among us. It can be done quite simply, and it can be done with all of the musical complexity one can possibly imagine. In either case it can be done well or poorly, constructively or destructively. Music can get in the way, or it can be what Mary Louise Bringle insightfully calls "translucent" to the text. Words bear on tempo, volume, phrasing, pitch, articulation, breath-that is, all of the aspects of music that musicians learn about in their study and training.

Words of hymns grow out of different linguistic and ethnic contexts. These words and the way they are put together relate to the ways a given group of people moves and communicates, which have both rhythmic and melodic dimensions. The tunes of hymns therefore differ not only within one linguistic or ethnic tradition, but from language to language and ethnicity to ethnicity. A Swahili text will not propel a tune that a Japanese text or a French or a German one will. Translations add another layer to this mix. For example, a Japanese tune with a Japanese text translated into English poses challenging questions. If the tune presumes a simple unison line with little or no instrumental participation, in an English-speaking context where four-part instrumental harmonizations are common, what will you do if you are leading the singing? How will you handle a hymn tune from a culture with musical expectations that are quite different from the one you are serving?

The questions continue. What will you do with an AfricanAmerican spiritual in a white context or a white nineteenthcentury English tune in an African-American context? How does racism rear its ugly head and not only cause hatred and injustice, but interfere with music? What is the most just and hospitable musical solution at the moment and over the long haul? What about a Norwegian context in which a substantial Hmong population is present? What happens musically at the beginning of this togetherness, and what happens over the long haul?

Musicians characteristically hear various sounds from various times and places and then say, "What if we put these together?" And then they propose a possible juxtaposition or transformation. Musicians are very important in this process because, in the music they inherit and in their practice with their ears, they give the lie to any position that says there is only one possible style which we will force-either as a known tradition which is taken to be "sacred" and the "only right" one, or as an unknown tradition that presumes to be ethical but as a quite different and "only right" one which forces an inverted racism? These are not unknown dilemmas when "authorities" uninformed about music tell us they have the answers and the only musical way.

Musicians who are responsible for leading hymns have to think out the various dimensions of a hymn and its music. As they do this, several things become clear. The first concerns the space where hymns are sung. Many of our churches are heavily carpeted and not well suited to singing congregations. In these spaces both words and music get eaten up as if they were in cotton boxes. Second, amplification is ubiquitous and sold as a fix for all such acoustical problems. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Texts and Music: Hymns, Tunes, and Settings
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.