Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Poetry in hymnody; rocking the hymns by listening to the poem

For an example of how we might apply the principles of poetry to music in the church, let's take a look at Isaac Watts' great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

It seems to me, sad to say, that most people who play this hymn miss the point, musically speaking.  The typical arrangement begins and ends at forte, and is played at such a rate to "get through three or four verses before the congregation gets tired of the tune."   If we read it carefully, however, we see Watts is in awe and deeply contemplative; we might actually arrange it better this way.

In Verse 1, Watts is approaching that awful hill with horror and dread; one instrumentalist plays only the melody softly as the congregation whispers the lyrics. 

In Verse 2, Watts is applying what he sees to his life and responding as he approaches the Cross.  Mezzo forte, complete the chords and perhaps add an instrumentalist.

In Verse 3, Watts is (effectively) at the foot of the cross, proclaiming it to the world.  Forte, and if the organist or bassist wants to indulge some power chords, have at it.

Verse 4; Mezzo piano; the poet is backing away from the Cross, waiting for the first of the week.

It's not the only reasonable interpretation of this hymn, of course; changes in tempo or other themes might convey the message well as well.  What we do, however, when we listen to the poem and play accordingly is to use musical themes to emphasize the message.  It's also worth noting that the basic structure I've outlined is used both in heavy metal ballads (Stairway to Heaven) and classical music (Beethoven's symphonies).  Music musically played is both a "Stairway to Heaven" and a bridge between generations.

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