Contemporizing Charles Wesley Hymns for Congregational Singing

by Dean McIntyre

CD coverIt took some time; but since the great upheaval in church music style and congregational repertoire began fifty years ago, most denominations, congregations, and worship and music leaders again agree on the importance and merit of including traditional hymns. Oh, the language, rhythm, melody, harmonies, and accompanying instruments may be different from what they were fifty years ago, but hymns remain an important part of contemporary congregational worship.

The hymns of Charles Wesley have always held an important place in the worship repertoire. But their long phrases, dated meanings, complex sentence structure, and sometimes dense theological language have caused contemporary composers a struggle to be faithful to Wesley's texts within their own contemporary musical idioms. The result has often been a Wesley hymn intended for the congregation to sing, but with musical style that makes it difficult. The question is:

Is there a basic incompatibility between contemporary musical styles and Wesley's classical texts? And if there is, should we be composing more classical hymnic music that uses more contemporary harmonies and rhythms for Wesley texts? Or should we alter Wesley's texts so that they better fit the modern style? And how much can we alter them and still call them Wesley? (See "The Contemporary Charles Wesley" for additional discussion of this conflict.)

 

One recent attempt at contemporizing Wesley's texts is the CD, Love Divine: The Songs of Charles Wesley for Today's Generation, released by Kingsway Worship Company in Britain. The CD includes thirteen of Wesley's best and best-known hymns, set to mostly new tunes and accompaniments by various artists. I confess to finding most attempts at contemporizing Wesley for congregational singing to be less than successful due to the reasons mentioned above. This effort, however, is more successful. I have kept it in my car and work CD players for the past month to give it sufficient time for consideration. Repeated listenings have helped to identify a number of stylistic features of this CD. I don't find these features to be present in all or even many other contemporary hymn CDs for congregational singing, so perhaps naming these musical features would be useful in making classic hymn texts more congregationally performable in contemporary styles. Here are some of those features:

Summary of Techniques:

  • Range agreeable to congregational singing.
  • Careful rhythmic setting of the text.
  • Musical phrase length to match Wesley's text length.
  • Faithful use of Wesley texts, most often including archaic pronouns.
  • Interesting melodies, mostly diatonic.
  • Good matching of emotional content of music to text.
  • Rising phrases and building crescendo to climax.
  • Use of more than primary harmonies.
  • Use of minor keys.
  • Use of modulation to related harmonic minor and major tonal areas.
  • Succeeds as performance CD for listening, but arrangements are entirely adaptable for congregational singing.
  • Frequent use of extended ending to disperse tension.
  • Use of instrumental interlude.

 

I also note the following characteristics more often found in contemporary and alternative rather than traditional musical styles:

  • A contemporary blending of harmonies that includes non-harmonic and non-chord tones.
  • Chordal dissonances frequently go unresolved.
  • Importance of rhythm and percussion to the overall sound mix.
  • Use of a rhythmic back-beat and subdivision in guitars.
  • Use of electronic and synthesized sounds.
  • A sharp, edgy quality to solo voice.
  • Use of a solo breathy tone for expressive emotional effect.
  • Slurring of both pitches and diction, especially in a solo melody.
  • Use of "Nashville" vocal quality -- a blending of country and folk sound, speech and pronunciation by British singers.

 

Here is a listing of the Wesley hymns included on this CD and a few notes and observations on the settings.

 

  1. "I Know that My Redeemer Lives"
    • Melody echoes the familiar melody from Handel's Messiah.
    • Uses Wesley's stanzas as a more traditionally styled verse, each completed with a contrasting refrain or response in more contemporary style.
    • Includes careful rhythmic setting of the text, often in a one-note-per-syllable style.
       
  2. "Rejoice the Lord Is King"
    • Careful rhythmic setting of text.
    • Skillful harmonic painting of "Lift up your heart" section to heighten tension.
    • Contrasting melodic/harmonic treatment for middle stanzas.
    • Prominent drum rhythm, insistent, used like an organ pedal point, for tension/release (referred to below as "drum pedal").
       
  3. "And Can It Be"
    • Balance of melodic rise and fall in each phrase.
    • Careful rhythmic setting of text.
    • Repetition of important phrases.
       
  4. "Jesus, We Look to Thee"
    • Traditionally shaped melodic lines.
    • Interesting, even surprising, harmonic shifts into secondary areas.
    • Careful rhythmic setting of text.
    • Drum pedal.
       
  5. "Jesus, Lover of My Soul"
    • Careful rhythmic setting of text.
    • Classical sense of melodic and phrase structure.
    • Use of melodic and harmonic sequence.
    • Drum pedal.
       
  6. "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"
    • Static harmony and rhythmic underlay contrasts effectively with melodic movement.
    • Contrasting response or refrain added.
       
  7. "Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above"
    Blending of B section refrain in contemporary praise and
    worship style.
     
  8. "Jesus, the Name High Over All"
    • Classical A-B phrase structure of melody and harmony
    • Drum pedal
       
  9. "O for a Thousand Tongues toSing"
    • Almost a pop quality, semi-ballad style.
    • Drum pedal.
    • Building crescendo for climax.
    • Extended coda and synthesized fade.
    • Use of instrumental interlude.
       
  10. "Love Divine"
    • Very simple piano accompaniment at beginning.
    • Ballad style throughout.
    • Effective use of contrasting A&B: low/high, solo/harmony, major/minor ("Changed from glory into glory").
    • "Lost in wonder, love and grace" repeats and
      fades, quite descriptive.
       
  11. "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"
    • Minor key, almost a Jewish dance quality.
    • Prominence and importance of "Hallelujah"; given extended treatment (major)
       
  12. "Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies"
    • Almost a hymn tune as melody.
    • March-like patterns in snare drum.
    • Busy synthesized patterns under the melody and as interludes.
    • Overall effect is one of joy, celebration, happiness.
       
  13. "Oh for a Heart to Praise My God"
    • Simple statement of text and melody.
    • Extended fade.

 

I've noted several reasons why the treatment of Wesley's hymns on this CD might make this music more agreeable for congregational singing than some other attempts at contemporizing:

  • It preserves the content and integrity of Wesley's texts.
  • It skillfully joins Wesley's texts with contemporary tropes and additions.
  • Within the contemporary musical idiom, it treats the text mostly in a one-note-per-syllable manner, as does traditional hymnody.
  • There is some use of musically painting, describing, or commenting upon the content of the text, one of the hallmarks of well-composed hymn melodies.
  • Melody, rhythm, and harmony, while interesting and artfully done, combine and interweave as a unit, always supportive of and subordinate to the text.

 

The CD can be enjoyed and appreciated on at least three levels:

  • As an aid to devotional listening and private meditation.
  • As entertainment and enjoyment of contemporary sacred style.
  • As support or accompaniment for congregational singing. The church would benefit from the print publication of these settings so that local musicians could learn and use them in worship.

 

The CD and this article might make for a multi-week small-group or Sunday School study or discussion of Wesley hymns, contemporary musical styles in worship, or more generally, congregational singing. Be sure to have hymnals on hand to sing, study, and compare.

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April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday


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April 22, 2014
Pastors: Making a Good Move

Designed for pastors who are moving to a new appointment, this event will include ways to say good-bye in the current congregation and say hello to a new place and new people. Tips and advice from several sources for this change that impacts your well-being, your family and friends.

Date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Time: 6:30 pm, Central Daylight Time
Duration: 1 hour
Presenter: Betsey Heavner