“The pandemonium of psalm singing”

As a follow up to our earlier discussion of P&W music and the way shifts in worship music betoken broader anxieties and changes in religious expression, I recalled the following passage from George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards. Here Marsden is discussing eighteenth century worship music as it relates to the ascendancy of Calvinist protestantism in early American colonial life.

Among the most noticeable changes marking the sometimes subtle transformation from Puritanism to Calvinistic evangelicalism … was the reform of singing in worship. New England congregational singing had become chaotic and dissonant [by the 1730s]. Seventeenth-century Puritans had strictly followed the anti-Anglican principle that nothing should be part of public worship except what was commanded in Scripture. Like others of the Reformed [tradition], they would sing only literally translated biblical psalms. Although many Puritans owned musical instruments, they would not think of using them in the meetinghouse. As though to underscore the point that music was incidental to words, they published the metric psalms without musical notes. Congregations sang to any one of a number of familiar psalm tunes. A precentor, or leading singer, would “set the tune” by singing at least the first line, and the congregation would join in. Over the years the collective memory of the tunes evolved or devolved. Further, members of the congregation sang variations on the original notes as it pleased them. Whereas today this might be regarded as a wonderful folk tradition, by the early eighteenth century the near chaos seemed appalling to those attuned to the refined musical standards of the day.

Judge Samuel Sewall was the precentor at Old South Church [in Boston] from 1694 to 1718. In 1713 he reported in his diary that he started the psalm tune “Windsor” in a key much too high and ended up unintentionally moving into the tune “High Dutch.” Twice in 1718, not long before giving up the job, he reported that he was unable to keep the “gallery” from forcing their way “irresistibly” into “St. David’s” despite his setting the tune of “York.” One early proponent of reform wrote in 1721 that “the tunes are now miserably tortured and twisted and quavered … it sounds in the ear of a good judge like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time with perpetual interferings with one another.” The irreverent James Franklin satirized in the New England Courant that he was “credibly informed that a certain gentlewoman miscarried at the ungrateful and yelling noise of a deacon” whom he suggested might be employed as a “procurer for abortions.” (143-144)

And people say I’m harsh. Perhaps his blog was averyfrankline?

While we’re on the subject of scholarly treatments of hymns, let me also point your attention to this collection of critical essays on hymns by (mostly) historians (hat tip, JL): Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology. The book is lighter on analysis and critical insight than I’d prefer, but it provides an excellent historical take on the evolution of hymnody in American Protestantism. One of the things it reinforces, apropos our P&W discussion, is that what we now consider “traditional” hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries were both like P&W music (in that they were consciously constructed to appeal to mass audiences in a congregational worship) and entirely superior to P&W (in that their authors quite consciously embedded in hymns multivalent images, rhetoric, and meanings).

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  1. Dean Adkins wrote:

    B. F. Elmore in “Tracing the Roots of Southern Gospel Singers” quotes the English Puritan William Prynne’s attitude toward singing in New England:

    “As for Devine Service and Common Prayer, it is so chaunted and misused and mangled of our costly hired, curious, and nice Musitians (not to instruct the audience withall, nor to stir up men’s mindes to devotion, but with whorish harmony to tickle their eares;) that it may justly seem not to be a noyse made of men, but rather a bleating of bruite beasts; while Coristers ney descant as it were a sort of Colts; others bellow a tenour, as it were a company of oxen; others barke a counter-point, as it were a Kennell of Dogs; others roar out a treble like a sort of Buls; others grunt out a base as it were a number of Hogs; so that a foule evill favored noyse is made, but as for wordes and Sentences, nothing is understanded at all; but the authority and power of judgement is taken away both from the minde and from the eares utterly.”

  2. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Doug made a point to me in an email regarding “simple” vs. “simplistic” lyrics.

    I agree. Elegant lyrics are often simple, but never simplistic.

    I’m all for taking the Gospel to the masses. Often new musical movements are demeaned because traditionalists simply don’t like the modern styles, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with that.

    What I oppose is this dumbing down of the Gospel that seems to have taken over the Christian radio airwaves.

  3. RNGfreckles wrote:

    I agree with Mr. Murray. Half of the choir at my church does not know how to read music. The music our old choir director bought (before I was put in charge) was very “dumbed down.” I now find it a challenge when the choir does not want to try a new song, because it sounds hard.

    As for the hymns, Fanny Crosby’s songs were banned for years. But now, they are the most beloved in our hymn book.

    “Sing to me songs about Jesus. Songs that will never grow old.” -Charles F. Weigle

  4. RF wrote:

    The problem I have with it (s I’ve stated before) is that pastors and MOM seem to have embraced it without regard for their congregations.

    And, of course, I feel RGNfreckles’ pain. Recently we had a new choir member leave practice in disgust. “Why do you people have to sing harmony. It’s too hard. Isn’t unison good enough for you?”

  5. J H wrote:

    My mother calls much of what we call the P & W songs, 7/11 songs. You know, seven words repeated eleven times.

    Oh, and I need to add; I hope you are in shape when you sing them because you will be standing for at least a 1/2 hour while doing so. I think the lengthy standing is the influence of Pentecostalism in our country.

    My take.

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