Texts and Tunes


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Notes and Handout

When Florence and I arrived in Scotland in the autumn of 1975, we began to attend a church that did congregational singing very well, probably better than any congregation of which I had been a part in my life to that point. The pastor was himself a fine musician. As Alice Carlson reminds us, congregations sing well when there is someone who expects them to and Mr. Still expected them to sing well. He would, for example, sometimes correct the tempo mid-hymn. The organist, Gordon Ross, was superb at accompanying congregational song and the organ was magnificent, large enough to move the air in the room, which is a remarkable experience, if you have never had it yourself, as I never had. The acoustics in the sanctuary were excellent and the congregation filled the sanctuary with the sound of its voice.

But what we noticed immediately was that, while the Gilcomston South congregation sang many of the same hymns we were familiar with – though many more Psalm texts than we were used to – they frequently sang them to different tunes. What was more disconcerting to us was the fact that in most cases, not every case but most, we came to prefer the British setting to the American. We know this from our experience here, though some of you won’t be aware of this if you haven’t been worshipping at Faith for many years. We rarely sang For All the Saints when I was growing up, even though it was in Trinity Hymnal, because it was set to “Sarum,” a tune that utterly fails to do justice to the grand sweep of that mighty hymn. It took the Ralph Vaughn Williams’ setting, “Sine Nomine” to bring that great hymn to life in our circles. A similar example would be “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” which we rarely sang in my youth, but once sung to “Helmsley” immediately took its place among the grandest of our hymns. “Holywood,” the tune to which that hymn is still set in Trinity Hymnal is obviously an inferior musical setting and largely explains why that hymn is not better known in our PCA circles. The same could be said for Christ is Made the Sure Foundation; it needed “Westminster Abbey,” the tune to which British Christians sing that hymn, to gain its proper place among us.

I’ve told some of you before that, as an exercise in immersing ourselves in British culture, we watched at dinner time BBC Television’s evening newsmagazine. One night they were featuring a Welsh boxer and as the film followed him doing his road work, the music in the background was the hymn Fight the Good Fight, but not to the bland tune with which I was familiar, but to a tune I eventually discovered was “Deep Harmony.” It isn’t a martial tune either, but fits the text so much better.

It is an uncontroversial assertion that the best hymns and those most beloved of Christian congregations are invariably a happy marriage of text and music. If you’ve seen the film Amazing Grace you will remember the scene in which William Wilberforce sings the hymn Amazing Grace. He sings it to the tune we know, but, of course, when Wilberforce sang Amazing Grace he wouldn’t have sung it to that tune. That was an American tune and didn’t get attached to Newton’s text until later, but no one nowadays imagines singing that text to any other tune. In Scotland today the 23rd Psalm is sung to Crimond, but that is actually quite a new development. In the first edition of Trinity Hymnal there were four musical settings of the 23rd Psalm, in the second edition there are three, but “Brother James Air,” is now the preferred setting. Tastes change and new tunes sometimes supplant old established ones, as James Ward’s “New City Fellowship” setting to Augustus Toplady’s immortal Rock of Ages has supplanted the tune that was one of the most familiar tunes in all of the English-speaking Western world (itself a tune written for that text, as the title “Toplady” indicates). One of my gripes about the fad in our circles of singing classic texts to new peppy tunes with more beat than melody is that the tunes are largely interchangeable and generally ill-matched, certainly not specifically matched to the texts. The new tune some now used for Abide with Me might as well be used for a hundred other texts, none of which has anything to do with death. The fact is, the marriage of music and text in that hymn is as perfect as can be imagined. And part of the reason for that is that the tune was written for that text, as the title of the tune, “Eventide,” demonstrates. Another example of a timeless marriage of text and tune is None Other Lamb to “Rossetti,” a tune obviously written for Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem.

My simple point is that the wrong music can kill the power of even a great text and a fine musical setting can immortalize a great text and even make a moderately successful text more powerful than it otherwise would be.