When a hymn retune is needed

wow three posts in one week Adam! Good job kid!
hymnscan
A print from the Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church (1917), p. 406  Courtesy of hymnary.org

I’m all for the current resurgence of setting old texts to new music. It’s fantastic for us young evangelicals who seek and crave lyrical depth and historical grounding. It’s great for churches that have ‘worn out’ the top 40 CCLI songs and looking for new songs by reaching backward. A bit of ‘retrovation’ if I may implement my new favorite neologism.

Many times these hymn re-tunes are successful, and bring back an otherwise forgotten text to 21st century congregations. Other times they miss the mark. Lackluster texts with unimaginative melodies simply add to an overwhelming corpus of contemporary hymnody that confuses and alienates worshippers. It’s great for the hymn (re)writers, to gain experience composing new tunes, trying out new arrangements, and sometimes failing, but is it really effective? With new CCM songs written every day, and 90% of them won’t last more than a year.  The last thing we need is to revive an extant mediocre text.

What are the things needed for a hymn re-tune to succeed? I’ll explain them using an excellent example, Greg Thompson of High Street Hymns’ 2004 setting of “Jesus Lord of life and glory” by James Cummins (1839).  Incidentally, we’re singing it this Sunday at TCC.  Here is my litmus test

1) The text must be good. Like, real good.

I can’t emphasize this one enough. The text has to be SO GOOD, that we can’t not sing it. It has to make you look at the gospel with a new pair of glasses. Though the perspective and cultural context of hymn writers of centuries past is different from our own 21st century hermeneutic, people are always people, sin is always sin, and God is always God.

Besides the aim for gospel centric lyrics, they must also be valuable poetically, both sense and sound. The words must not only pack a theological punch, but must be pleasant to say and pleasing to the ear.

Take our example, “Jesus Lord of Life and Glory.” The alliteration of phrases such as “Lord of life,” “while our waiting souls,” and “when the world around …” roll off the tongue with ease; they’re a joy to say and sing!

Consider also the structure of the text, which lends itself nicely to our contemporary verse/chorus idiom. Each verse concludes with this final line: “By thy mercy, O Deliver us, Good Lord,” rendering all the preceding text as submission to God.  It’s especially poignant in his fourth verse:

When the world around is smiling,
in the time of wealth and ease,
earthly joys our hearts beguiling,
in the day of health and peace
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

2) The original genesis of tune use must be fragmented

(see pie chart)

HymnTunepiechart
Exhibit B – Who’s ever sung ST. RAFAEL anyway?

The OLD hymn must use a tune (or tunes) that are relatively unfamiliar to the typical worshipper. If a tune is too readily recalled it will be near impossible to remove the conventional wisdom of the past. Especially if the old hymn exists in the existing pew hymnals. “Why can’t we just sing it the old way! I knew that one!”

Check out this pie chart – Exhibit B.  “Jesus Lord of life and glory” shows itself to be a promising candidate for a hymn retune. Not only are the most commonly used tunes unknown (ST RAFAEL and ST AUSTIN…wut?), the “other” category is just as big as the other two. This essentially indicates this text is not tethered to a certain tune, and can be freely re-set to new music.

3) Original tune (or tunes) must be unfamiliar

(see bar graph)

HymnUse graph
the hymnal stock market…

This is perhaps more like #2a, as it is similar to point #2. Not only must the current usage be fragmented, the usage must be low. The graph on the right shows a very low occurrence in hymnals from the hymns original publication, no large spikes or even any increase in use. It also hasn’t died away, but seems to be hanging on in one or two hymnals. Today it is listed in the Trinity Hymnal, #569, and no others. Perfect.

When these three factors align, the new setting might just ave a shot at succeeding. We haven’t begun to discuss the compositional decisions that need to be made – we’ll save that for another blog post.

All this to say, I’m loving the re-tune by High Street Hymns.  Check it out online here:

Buy the track here:
http://highstreethymns.bandcamp.com/track/by-thy-mercy-jesus-lord-of-life-and-glory

Or come to TCC this Sunday and sing it with us!

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Published by

adamkurihara

Musician, worship leader, choral conductor, organist

4 thoughts on “When a hymn retune is needed”

  1. Hey Adam,

    Nice post man. We just spent the last two months learning “Jesus lord of life and glory”, (though I know it as “By Thy Mercy”) and after 6 weeks if singing it it still felt fresh and vital. I’m gonna try teaching a piece in a couple months that defies you 2nd and 3rd points though :), the Indelible Grace retune of “The Church’s One Foundation”. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    Jake

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. yea that’s a good one. AURELIA is a fantastic tune, but it really depends on the congregation. I don’t think many folks will know the original so it might fly at PBC. Blessings!

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