Monday, February 22, 2010

Singing (LDS) Hymns of Praise

I have long had a deep appreciation for Latter-Day Saint hymns. I frequently sing hymns, play them on the piano, listen to them, or even just replay them in my head.

The messages of many hymn lyrics are spiritually profound. Hymn tunes alone often seem to carry a sense of the sacred. The combination of a hymn’s lyrics and tune can carry a spiritual message to the soul that exceeds the sum of the parts. Sometimes that can be a soul healing balm. Other times it may be a witness of truth or a motivation to do right.

One of my favorite hymn listening experiences is when a woman in our ward (congregation) and a man from a nearby ward team up to play a piano-violin duet hymn medley. Choirs can be enjoyable to hear as well.

But best of all is listening to my little daughter sing sacred songs. She has loved to sing since she was very young. She frequently spontaneously sings wherever she happens to be. Most often, her songs are children’s sacred songs. Almost every night you can hear her sing herself to sleep after bedding down for the night. It is a precious and sacred experience to be a dad listening on the other side of the door.

While I derive strength from listening to hymns, it is even more impactful for me to sing or play hymns myself. The action oriented, first person nature of this activity is soul enveloping.

While I love many LDS hymns, I must admit that there are a few that I find rather odd. At the beginning of family home evening each week, we sing a hymn from the LDS hymnal. We began years ago with hymn #1. Each week we advance to the next hymn number. Sometimes we repeat a hymn if the family has found it especially difficult. We have run through the entire book a couple of times, so we have sung every one of the 341 hymns in the book.

If I had to guess, I’d suppose that most active LDS adults that live in the most populous areas of church membership are very familiar with about 50 hymns. They probably have some familiarity with another 50 and can recognize more. But I’d bet that most of them would be very surprised at some of the songs in the book.

Every once in a while our family comes across a hymn that we’re certain is in the book only because it was written by a church general authority, a member of the church music committee, or a relative of one of these. Seriously, there is a reason that you never hear some of these hymns. Sometimes it may be due to the tune and other times the lyrics (or both in some unfortunate situations).

Conversely, we have come upon a few hymns I have never heard in any meeting that seem to be wonderful both in word and tune. Other decent hymns are seldom sung. My kids think that songs like Raise Your Voices to the Lord (two short two-line verses), Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord (one verse), When Faith Endures (one verse), and Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow (one verse) ought to be sung more often.

Not every hymn is intended for congregational singing. Some, such as What Was Witnessed in the Heavens? are suited only to talented choirs. You never hear some tunes because they are too complex for the average accompanist to play. (Some composers seem to have been competing to jam the maximum number of accidentals into a hymn.) Other hymns come from a musical era that has fallen out of style.

There are hymns that I am sure others love that I can’t stand. The tune to Come unto Him drives me nuts. The lyrics are beautiful. But I can’t listen to the tune without hearing it played on a circus calliope in my head. A friend of mine detests Who’s on the Lord’s Side? because the tune sounds like a seafaring ditty. He says that every time he hears it, he expects to see Popeye come floating by in his boat with his pipe clenched in his teeth. (Toot, toot!)

Another friend dislikes If You Could Hie to Kolob because it’s dreary and continually repeats the phrase, “There is no end to ….” She quips, “There is no end to this song!” Father, This Hour Has Been One of Joy is set to one of the least joyful tunes I have ever heard. In fact, there’s a whole section of dreary hymns that sound like music designed to induce depression. (Are those really necessary?)

Some hymns with nice lyrics but unpleasant tunes can be redeemed by singing them to the tune of another hymn. Each hymn has a meter. The tunes of hymns that share the same meter are interchangeable. Switching the tune and lyrics of two familiar hymns can add variety. For example, you can sing the lyrics of Sing We Now At Parting to the tune of Onward, Christian Soldiers. Look at the meter section of the hymnal and try mixing and matching hymn tunes at home. Even some hymns with mismatched meters can be mixed. You can sing the lyrics of Joseph Smith’s First Prayer to the tune of Jesus, Lover of My Soul.

While sacred matters should be treated with appropriate demeanor, I must admit that our family is not above occasionally poking fun at certain hymns. Truth Reflects upon our Senses is a running joke in our home for two reasons.

When I was a kid, every time we sang this song, the voices of two older widows in the ward could be heard above the congregation. These wonderful sisters probably had beautiful voices years earlier. But age had taken its toll to the point that they sounded an awful lot like cats in heat. Also, their vocal training had come in an age when sliding from note to note was popular. People singing like that are sure to hit the actual note at some point, albeit, briefly. I loved these ladies, but their singing grated. And it never grated worse than when singing Truth Reflects.

Then there’s the rhyming problem. The hymn’s lyricist, Eliza R. Snow was a renowned LDS poet. But even for a Massachusetts native, the rhyming of some of the lines of the third verse is strained beyond recognition. I’ve never been able to make “mote” and “out” rhyme. Likewise with “dim” and “beam.” It is not uncommon for members of our family to joke about having a bim in their eye or seeing a supporting bim in a construction project.

One recent Sunday when singing this hymn, my teenage son glanced slyly at me sideways along the bench and sang, “Once I said unto another, in thine eye there is a mote. If thou art a friend and brother, hold and let me pull it ote.” I held my composure. He then sang, “But I could not see it fairly for my sight was very dim. When I came to search more clearly, in mine eye there was a bim.” I chuckled right in the middle of the song.

I like some hymns better than others. I suspect that most other worshippers feel the same way. But I usually count it a blessing to sing even those hymns I don’t particularly care for. I am grateful for talented and willing accompanists. I have often taken my turn as music director, but in wards like mine a director is hardly needed. The congregation follows the organist.

The current edition of the LDS Hymn book was published in 1985, so it is a quarter century old this year. The previous edition came out in 1948/1950, some 35+ years earlier. A lot of sacred LDS music has been written since 1985, but given the track record, I assume that it will be quite a while before a new LDS hymnal is published. In the meantime, the hymns in the 1985 edition will continue to bring peace and joy to me and hopefully to many others.

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