Reflections on Text and Style

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July 7, 2009: I began the day with “O God Beyond All Praising” and ended it with “Rockin’ the Runway,” which is essentially Contemporary Christian/Praise & Worship. In the middle I worked on my own hymn text, so while I stood at the concert tonight singing, I was also analyzing the texts.

Many of these songwriters—unlike me—are quite prolific. I envy them that; I love writing songs, but I wrestle constantly with text. For communal worship, I don’t want to speak in the first person, nor do I want to use the wagging finger “you.” And these days I insist on the syllables matching from verse to verse. I try to console my frustration by focusing on Stravinsky’s philosophy: the greater the limitation, the greater the art.

But the songwriters I heard tonight follow a totally different set of rules, and their music works for worship, too. The rules for CCM are a lot more relaxed, more tied to the spoken language. There’s something visceral about this music, the beat and the riffs and the way the words live so close to the heart, like the prayers you breathe and feel, but can’t find the words to say. These writers say them for us. Hymn texts are very elevated; they raise our sights—P&W grabs us right where we are. Detractors of either style of music could use this paragraph as ammunition, but the simple fact is that both styles are powerful, and prayerful, and I love them both—and everything in between.

For hundreds of years, the music of the Church was art music—medieval motets, the incredibly dense textures of the Renaissance, the long, drawn-out, (unusable) high Masses of the masters, and so on. Composers used popular tunes—drinking songs, even—as the basis for their sacred music, but not in their original form; they were always altered to suit the liturgy.

In the post-Vatican II world, popular styles have again been lifted from the culture and adapted for sacred use. In my lifetime we have traveled from the much-derided folk style through the music of the Jesuits, to the Haas/Haugen era, and beyond. The “new” music is P&W and Contemporary Christian. That all this has happened and continues to happen in less than 35 years illustrates just how rapidly the changes are occurring. Unstoppable, by the way, and thank God for that. There’s room for all musical styles in worship.

But I’m writing this at 12:27 a.m. and I am totally shot…must get Nicholas to go to sleep…must sleep… sleep…sleep…

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