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Monday, February 01, 2010

con ed clips - reflection on contemporized hymns

I recently attended the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship. One of the seminars included Dan Schutte, the writer of "Here I Am, Lord." In the course of the seminar he was asked about writing new music to old hymn texts and, despite having just shared a piece where he did that, he urged caution in using antiquated language.

Another conference attendee, Zac Hicks, blogged about this question:

I’ve noticed that when I’ve slammed KJV-song after KJV-song upon a congregation, it’s a bit overwhelming and they eventually seem to shut down because it’s too hard to keep the brain processors firing on such a high level.
He goes on to explain the value to judiciously using antiquated text, while not wearing people out on it.
Christians need to remember that the Church universal is not only the Church across space but the church across time. When we engage in older texts, we join hands with the saints of old, singing the songs they sang.
Christians need to perpetually challenge the “dumbing down” of cultural standards. God calls us to integrity and beauty. There is a strong pull in culture to slide off the hill of high standards, and that includes linguistic standards. In an age when English-speakers are losing the breadth of the English language, it’s worth gently challenging culture to think differently.
I agree with Zac and encourage use of ancient texts, but not not an exclusive diet of ancient or modern language, as people begin to choke after too much of the same.

Having said that, one additional way (besides only contemporizing the music) to employ ancient hymns is to modernize the language. This can be dicey, and I wouldn't do so with creeds or prayers shared around the church. But, selectively and carefully with hymn texts, I think it can be done well.

Here's one example of how I've done that with a classic hymn, "And Can it Be." Further, I not only contemporize the accompaniment, but also simplified the melody somewhat, which is quite difficult with successive arpeggios for the voice. You can hear the song in the player below, and see the lyrical adaptations beneath that. You'll note that I was turning six lines into four short lines... some phrases were left out; some compacted. Never fear; we still sing the traditional hymn too!

And Can It Be? | How Can it Be?
Charles Wesley, 1753. Arr. Robert Austell, 1995.

And can it be that I should gain | How can it be that I would take
An int'rest in the Savior's blood?
| Interest in Jesus' death?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
| Even when he died for me -
For me, who him to death pursued?
| The one who put him there to die

Amazing love! how can it be
| Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me
| That you, my God, would die for me!

[verse not in my presby or Baptist hymnal...]
'Tis mystery all! Th'Immortal dies!
| Who would have thought that God could die?
Who can explore His strange design?
| Who could even understand?
In vain the first born seraph tries
| Even the angels shook their heads
To sound the depths of love divine!
| No one could ever comprehend.

Amazing love! how can it be | Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me
| That you, my God, would die for me!

He left his Father's throne above
| When Jesus left Heaven above
So free, so infinite his grace! Emptied Himself of all but love
| A free and boundless gift of love
...and bled for Adam's helpless race
| Given to us, a helpless race
'Tis mercy all, immense and free
| -----
For, O my God, it found out me.
| Searching me out so I could see God's face.

[combines parts of vv. 3-4]
v. 4 No condemnation now I dread:
| Never will I now fear to die
v. 4 Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
| Jesus and life with him are mine
v. 3 Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound...
| ------my chains fell off, my heart was free | Free from those chains I stand released
| Amazed by this love God's given to me.
Amazing love! how can it be | Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me | That you, my God, would die for me!


Zac Hicks said...

Nice re-write, Robert! I appreciate any and all efforts to preserve hymnody and give it to the next generation. Sorry we didn't get a chance to meet at the symposium. I look forward to hearing "Depth of Worship."

Thank you, too for the shout-out and interaction. Feel free to take a listen to our hymn rewrites as well! http://www.zachicks.com/listen


Viola Larson said...

Robert I enjoyed that very much and it does preserve the sense of worship the song carries.

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