The following article appeared in the February edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the eighth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.
There’s a storage box in my basement that contains my high school and college football jerseys. My dear wife has inquired a number of times about whether or not we are still going to keep that box of old stuff. Each time she has been lovingly informed that we will hold onto the contents of that box as long as I am still breathing air.
There’s a group of hymns that seemingly fall into the same category: (1) been around a long time; (2) not seeing much use; (3) holding onto them may seem rather questionable. They typically come from 16th- or 17th-century Lutheranism. Examples from Christian Worship (CW) would be Luther’s “In the Midst of Earthly Life” (CW 534) or Gerhardt’s “I Will Sing My Maker’s Praises” (CW 253). They are sometimes nicknamed “heritage hymns.” Some have wondered if we should preserve them under that name in a hymn category of their own. Others wonder, “Are we really going to print them, again, in the next book?”
Among the things people sometimes say about these “old Lutheran hymns” is that they are “too sad-sounding,” “too strange-sounding,” or just “too hard to sing.” There may be some truth to these statements, but it isn’t necessarily the whole truth.
“Sad-sounding”—Of 192 German chorales in Christian Worship, only 45 are in a minor or minor-sounding key. Music in a minor key can certainly be appropriate for serious themes such as contrition and cross-bearing, but it is not sad by definition. “What Child Is This” (CW 67) and “The King of Glory Comes” (CW 363) are both in a minor key, and we probably wouldn’t call them sad.
“Strange-sounding”—Our 21st-century American ears sense that something’s different when hearing the music of “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” (CW 410). Of 192 German chorales in Christian Worship, 24 use what is known as modal music (as do some Star Wars themes and any number of Beatles songs). With its different scale of tones, it’s not what we’re accustomed to listening to, to say nothing of singing. And yet we do! Just not consistently. “What Wondrous Love Is This?” (CW 120) and “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart” (CW 269) are both written in the same musical mode, but WELS congregations sing “Wondrous Love” 12 times more frequently than “Peace and Joy.”
“Hard to sing”—In a side-by-side comparison, musicians would conclude that the melody of “Evening and Morning” (CW 430) should be noticeably easier to sing than that of “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (CW 206). Yet WELS congregations sing “Wake, Awake” 20 times more often than “Evening and Morning.” You may have never sung or even heard of “Evening and Morning.”
In the hymnal in which I write all my notes, “Wake, Awake” has a note that says, “TT 1599.” That’s shorthand for “this text and tune have been paired together since 1599.” For “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (CW 38), it says, “TT 1539.” You do the math.
Our next hymnal will include a good number of hymns written and composed in the 21st century, but something has to be said for a melody and a text that have been sung together for more than two centuries before the United States became a nation. If 20, even if 40, of the seldom-sung heritage hymns appeared in the next hymnal, there will still be 600 others to choose from if worship planners wish to bypass the “not easy” ones. What has to be said, though, is that such hymns have demonstrated their worth.
The heart of the matter
Songwriter Harlan Howard is quoted as saying, “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.” That will always be at least half true of these classic Lutheran hymns. They will have the truth of the gospel, but seldom will they be a three-chord song. The composers were craftsmen, well-trained in their musical trade. The authors treated rich biblical themes that were not always in the shallow end of the pool. Stashing these hymns away in their own nostalgic hymn category—perhaps to be used on special occasions, perhaps not—falls short of what they deserve. What W.G. Polack (author of The Handbook to The Lutheran Hymnal) said of one of the more difficult heritage hymns really applies to all of the musically challenging ones: “The congregation that masters this tune possesses a treasure of which it will never grow weary.”
While I’ve enjoyed hearing it on the radio, I’m guessing people may not be singing Blake Shelton’s “I’ll Name the Dogs” three hundred years from now. But something good happens when worship leaders and musicians lay out plans, invest the time, and do the work of teaching the congregation solid Christian hymns that have already lasted that long. And that’s what’s most true of the “not easy” hymns—they need to be taught.
Even the chorale has to be taught to people before they can appreciate the lessons it teaches. A fundamental understanding of the chorale, as the sung Word of God and a confession of faith in music and poetry, can only exist in the realm of theory unless the people are encouraged to learn and sing chorales in practice (“The Chorale: Transcending Time and Culture,” Robin Leaver).
There’s no great benefit in pulling those old football jerseys of mine out of storage, even if I still plan to keep them. There is, however, a boatload of benefit in hearing and singing the gospel-rich heritage hymns of Lutheranism. While more frequent use of them does not make the pastor who selects them or the congregation that sings them any more Lutheran, we encourage leaders to take up the task of teaching them because we have no plans to be the hymnal project that lets them go. They are one slice of many hymn resources we are working to make available.
Introducing Older Hymns
When it’s time to roll one out one of these heritage hymns, remember to: (1) use announcements, articles, and classes to educate people about its upcoming use in worship; (2) let children or adult choirs learn it and teach it to the congregation; (3) sing the same one several weeks in a row to give people a chance to learn it.
Christian Worship: Handbook is one resource for interesting information about these hymns’ backgrounds, authors, and composers. For example, consider the fascinating story behind CW 574. Access the story by going to Christian Worship: Handbook, p. 581, or by visiting welshymnal.com/cw574.
We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal. The deadline for submitting feedback is May 1, 2018.