Great hymns of the church: Is there a reason we’re so powerfully moved?  Read on. . .

As a longtime church musician, one of my biggest thrills is "getting with the program." This may sound a bit lame, so an explanation is in order, and Spiritual Enrichment weekend offers a perfect example of the process. A weekend like this one at Westminster always offers a unique opportunity to "get with the program" musically. So, in the best spirit of Spiritual Enrichment, I like to put a lot of thought into selecting congregational hymns and other music that supports and celebrates our growth in community, music that enriches us spiritually right along with the many other enriching messages we’re sure to come away with. The connections may seem a bit indirect, but they are not by any means accidental.

Music has a language all its own, of course, so its connections with the spoken word may not always be obvious. Music is a complex–yet deeply and innately human–blend of forces that works on our bodies, our spirits, our minds, and our emotions in ways scientists are just beginning to unravel. The mysteries involved in just how music affects us have been noted since time immemorial, yet they remain largely unsolved. Did you know, for example, that the ancients believed music had an uncanny ability to influence us for good as well as for evil? Handling music was akin to handling a snake. One had to be careful! In the Pythagorean view, music was a force that could affect the universe. A later, more scientific age emphasized the effects of music on the will and thus on the character and conduct of human beings. According to Aristotle, music directly imitates (represents) the passions or states of the soul–gentleness, anger, courage, etc.; hence, when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, one becomes filled with the same passion. The early church modes (far more extensive and complex than our current notions of major and minor) were likewise felt to evoke specific emotions within the listener. For instance, the sixth mode had characteristics that were thought to induce sloth. Others might induce rage, so were considered dangerous. Though many moderns dismiss this form of categorization as akin to belief in ghosts, we are certainly all aware that music affects humans profoundly. Perhaps the ancients had a valid point, one we would do well to consider.

Today’s hymns were chosen for their strength, their historical significance, and their known ability to inspire a sense of community, which translates into a vast ocean of terrific congregational singing, all for the good on this special Sunday!

All of today’s hymns represent a near-perfect melding of great tunes with great texts. It is no accident that Our God, Our Help (St. Anne). . . and God of Grace (Cwm Rhondda). . . consistently appear in the top-10 of the greatest hymns of all time. These two hymns, and many others like them, have the ability to move us and to help us grow in ways that lesser hymns simply cannot do. St. Anne (remember Bach’s St. Anne fugue played recently?) looks quite unassuming and even insubstantial on the page. But its stately dignity along with its sweeping view of time transforms us, sealing its position as one of the pillars of Christian hymnody. Cwm Rhondda, written by John Hughes, is considered one of the greatest Welsh hymn tunes. Written for a Welsh Cymanfa Ganu (singing festival), it is named for the principal coal town in Glamorganshire. Combined with Harry Emerson Fosdick’s memorable text written for the opening of Riverside Church in New York City in 1930, hymn singing doesn’t get much better than this! Fosdick sought to make the church ecumenical, serving the needs of different social classes and ethnic groups, and this hymn reflects his vision perfectly.

The work of the late Paul Manz (1919-2009) is one of the primary reasons I am proud of my Lutheran musical heritage. Manz, a genius-level improviser, composer, and teacher, got most of his inspiration from the great hymns of the church, and singlehandedly ushered in some of the best hymn singing of the 20th century through his uncanny knack for getting right to the heart of what makes any particular hymn tune great. Listen to the many ways Manz does this in today’s prelude and postlude. Manz’s sense of joy, quirky fun, and total immersion in the music, remains as fresh and contagious as ever in these beautiful arrangements, all springing out of his unique improvisational techniques. The world is a poorer place since Manz’s passing.

Did you know that Westminster commissioned today’s middle hymn–God, Alone our Source and Ending–from one of the great 20th-century hymn writers, Jane Parker Huber (1926-2008)? This was the second time our church benefitted from Ms. Huber’s vast creative powers, having first commissioned her to write what is known to us as The Westminster Hymn (Holy God, You Call Us Daily), written in 1997. In 1999, Ms. Huber wrote God, Alone. . .for the anniversary celebration honoring Haywood Holderness’ 25 years of ministry. She responded quickly to our request for a hymn embodying the spirit of Micah 6:8. As happened in the first commission, we received–within a remarkably short timeframe–a picture-perfect hymn text, set by Ms. Huber’s choice to the beautiful American tune, Beach Spring, an American tune as iconic in its way as the tune, Foundation, which is the basis of Dan Forrest’s stirring arrangement sung by the Chancel Choir this morning. Listen to the varied techniques Mr. Forrest uses to bring out the beauty of the Foundation tune in each verse; many of these techniques are reminiscent of Aaron Copland, whose music perhaps best symbolizes the American spirit. It is through tunes like Beach Spring and Foundation that we experience a sense of justifiable pride in our great American heritage of folk tunes and hymns.

It is my hope that this morning’s music inspires us, encourages us to live as God’s people in community, and undergirds the powerful messages shared on this very special weekend in the life of Westminster!