We’re having an interesting discussion about the WHI show on “happy-clappy” worship. One of the things for which I have been “banging the drum” is the need for contemporary settings of the Psalms. I love the Book of Psalms for Singing. There are some great tunes there and I love the singable Genevan tunes. We ought to keep all the good, older singable tunes. I know there are about 5-6 tunes for Ps 23 but crimond is the only one that I care to sing. I can’t imagine that will change — but I suppose it could.
Nevertheless, we are saddled with a lot of tunes for the psalms in the Psalter-Hymnal (CRC 1959) and in the BoPforS that are not singable. Okay, perhaps we need to work on it a little more, but as non-Reformed and non-Christian folk walk into our services how much dare we ask of them? Not only must we ask of them to learn our vocabulary — this is non-negotiable — and our faith but our cultural forms as well? I doubt that.
I’m sure that there are contemporary musicians (of which I am not one!) who can write appropriate contemporary tunes for the psalms. We need tunes that can be sung by congregations of all ages (5-90), that come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and that are intended to be sung by groups and that reflect the tone of the psalm being sung. That’s a tall order.
Traditionalists (“that’s the way we’ve always done it”) need to move beyond the assumption that “reverent” means “classical, European” and contemporary (“Shine, Jesus Shine”) folk need to realize that there is more to worship tunes than the same schmaltzy do-wop line over and over (does anyone realize how much CCM is just do-wop music?) We need Irish/celtic tunes, we need African tunes, we need Latin tunes, we need ancient tunes. We need a collection of tunes that aren’t written ONLY for little old ladies (here I’m thinking of the blue Trinity Hymnal in which every tune seems to be set so high that only ladies of a certain age can sing them). I’m still not sure what syncopation is, but I hear it’s a had idea for congregational singing.
The Trinity Psalter is a good start, inasmuch as it uses mainly familiar American tunes, and there are a number of other Psalters that have appeared in recent years, but few of them incorporate many contemporary tunes. I hear that the OPC is working on a psalter, but that’s all I know. The most recent Psalter-Hymnal uses some interesting tunes but the newer red Trinity Hymnal has the psalms scattered throughout so that one needs the spiritual gift of “finding psalms” to locate them. I don’t have any proof, but I’m convinced that the old TH was that way to spite Mr Murray. I don’t understand why the newer (red) TH did this. I don’t understand it at all.
As you can probably tell, I don’t usually know much about what I write here and on this topic I know less than usual. I don’t read music. I don’t write it. In worship, I follow the precenter or, if needs be, the instrumentalist. Still, I can tell when the congregation can’t sing a tune and I can tell when a tune just isn’t appropriate for sacred worship.
Some contemporary forms are not appropriate because they are not intended to be sung by congregations. E.g. rap music arose as a way of highlighting an individual performer. Rock music is not intended, ordinarily, to be sung by large groups. At least do-wop music can be sung a cappella by large groups but it lacks the necessary reverence to be used in public worship and rock music that is slowed down becomes schmaltzy and goofy and thereby disqualified. Elevator music is not appropriate for public worship. Andy Williams and Elvis tunes are not appropriate for public worship — I don’t sing “How Great Thou Art” for the same reasons I don’t sing “In the Garden:” 1) it’s non-canonical; 2) It’s schmaltzy and sentimental and inappropriate to public worship. Tunes that are intended to manipulate the emotions are inappropriate. Any tune that is played over the speakers at Wal-Mart in ipso facto out.
Here’s something to think about. We sang a psalm yesterday that was arranged by Sullivan of “Gilbert and Sullivan” fame. If one knows G&S one can tell that it is a Sullivan tune. One can almost here it as the stereo blasts, “I am an Englishman.” That was once a contemporary tune. The associations it must have had when it was done must have been quite strong. Light opera isn’t sacred worship, but the tune works. It’s simple, singable, and the its tone seems to fit the psalm.
There are musicians today who could do the very same thing. Some are working on it. If I can encourage you musicians: work faster! (Somehow I guess that didn’t help). There will never be a perfect Psalter. The Genevan Psalter wasn’t perfect, but at least it was complete and it was “contemporary” for its time — but it included many older tunes as well as contemporary tunes. We can do the same thing. If we’re going to revive Psalmody we must do the same thing in our time that they did in theirs.