The month of July marks the middle of the summer and a popular time of travel. Katie and I are excited to travel to The University of the South for the Sewanee Church Music Conference, a time of rest, learning, and connecting with other musicians. We will certainly come away with many ideas for the 2016-2017 music season here at Christ Church. After Sewanee, we will travel to Virginia for a couple of weeks. It seems that summer is defined by going on a journey for the purpose of renewal. While we are away, Paul Shimel, an assistant organist at Christ Church Parish in Pensacola, will once again graciously fill in for me. Please extend a warm welcome to him!
As I was selecting the music for this month, I noticed how our musical focus changes during the summer months. Without choir anthems, the focus turns more directly toward the hymns. Hymns are at the center of our program on a weekly basis. It wasn't always this way in the church. In fact, the Latin hymns of the pre-reformation Roman Catholic Church were almost always sung by the clergy. We tend to think of Martin Luther (1483-1546) as a person who brought hymns to the people, but even these were often sung by the choir or a soloist. While the people probably sang along with familiar tunes, congregational hymns really didn't become an expected practice in Catholic denominations until the 19th century. There is something wonderful about hymns that has taken them from window dressing to the very heart of church music. Prior to the coming of congregational song, music during the service consisted of texts selected by the church to be sung at appointed times during the service. There were sung psalms and anthems, but the congregation really wasn't expected to sing, and the musicians didn't really exercise much control over which texts were sung. Of course, there is evidence that congregational singing was present in ancient Judaism and the early church, but it seems to have died out by the Middle Ages.
The question of how and why hymns became such an integral part of our worship is thoroughly studied by the field of hymnology. I feel that hymns are a great way for everyone present in an assembly to participate in prayers and liturgy. While it can be tricky to choose the right hymn to go with the readings, it can personalize the service to fit the needs of the congregation, and to make specific connections between different ideas. While in some services the hymns may all be related to the Gospel reading, they can also be related to a particular event within the service. At other times the hymns can address events happening in the congregation, the city, and the world. Rather than being appointed by the church for a specific day and place, our hymns are like the palate of a painter, drawn from the history of a congregation, a denomination, and even stretching across an entire religion. Hymn texts are penned by rich and poor, clergy and laity, young and old, and they are paired with tunes stretching back to the Middle Ages (and before) and some written yesterday. Musically, a good hymn is made when a great text is paired with a tune that is, at once, fairly easy to sing and expressive of its text.
Help me broaden our palate of hymns this summer by sending me some hymn suggestions. Send me an email and I will try to fit it in when liturgically appropriate. While the summertime may bring journeys and new ideas, we embark on a journey of hymnody every Sunday. Thanks be to God for that.