31 January 2013

Thoughts from a Hymnwriters Conference

On Monday morning we sang the appointed Psalm 145 and the verses struck me as very fitting:  "One generation shall commend Your works to another, and shall declare Your mighty acts!" Is not this the very essence of the Church's hymns, her sung confession? And how utterly impoverished is the generation that refuses to sing any song but their own, who will not listen to their fathers and mothers in the faith as they declare the wondrous works of God!

So we gathered. About 30 hymnwriters, the presenters, and a few guests. We gathered and we began with prayer and ended with prayer and the whole thing was wrapped in the Church's daily prayers. Evening Prayer started off (and why not, since the Church reckons the day from the evening!) and Compline at the close. And then Matins, Responsive Prayer at noon, Evening Prayer at sunset, and Compline to close out the day yet again. Then Matins and Itinerarium.  We made extensive use of the Church's first hymnbook, the Psalter. God's hymns are, after all, the very best. But we also walked through the centuries in the hymns we sang at Office. And incense arose with our prayers each evening.

The presentations were all above par in my estimation. Herl kicked us off with "What Works and What Doesn't" and that was a lot of fun. Most shocking was when he gave us the original of the prettified "Sweet Flowrets of the Martyr Band." Oh, my! Milky brains dashed on rock, drowning children and the soldier waiting for the bubbles to stop and then smiling. AND then the hymnist singing that so should we smile. Gasp! Not at the wreckage of human life, but at the gift of a life that death could not take from them.

Next day after Matins, Pastor Steve Starke (probably the most noted LCMS hymnist at the moment) gave us great joy in perspectives - interweaving visual art with the musical. He encouraged standing firm against trends in main-stream hymnody that gut the faith.

The morning wrapped up with Drs. David Schmitt and David Maxwell doing "the nuts and bolts." Schmitt had an outstanding analogy. He used to work at a french restaurant and he spoke of the importance of the background music for the experience and how getting the rhythm and rime right is like that perfect background music that you don't notice, but that's an integral component of the good meal.  Iambs and troches and spondees a plenty! Most fun was asking the folks to analyze "One things's needful." Give it a whirl and see what YOU come up with!

In the afternoon, Matthew Carver addressed the art and science of translation. He began with an allusion to Pliny the Younger's famous description of Christian worship as folks gathering before sunrise to "sing a hymn to Christ as to God." He invited any would-be translators to make sure they knew the original well and could sing it, to know Luther's Bible and the Confessions well so as not to miss any allusions, and most wonderfully he addressed the spiritual state. Not a place for pride. "Go see your pastor and make confession!" Wonderful stuff.

Then Fred Baue gave a most entertaining and thought-provoking presentation on hymns as lyric poetry, that is words written to be sung, and so the commonality with popular songs across the ages. Very practical and good insights throughout.

The close of Monday found us after a bit of gemütlichkeit gathered in the chapel for a hymn sing. We originally scheduled it for half an hour; thought better and made it 45 minutes; and then finally ended up with an hour's worth and still the folks were not tired of singing! We alternated from LSB and their own compositions. I wish we'd had had time to cover them all, but alas. I brought the hymn sing to a close after the hour and we prayed Compline. But afterwards folks were STILL not done singing. On a shockingly warm January night, under a beautiful full moon, a group stood outside singing together. "Nun ruhen" in German and English...Luther's metrical Psalms (12 and 13)...and many, many others. Well into the night. Amazing.

Tuesday we were blessed to hear Peter Reske present on "Hark! How all the Welken Rings: Thoughts from a Hymn Editor." That, of course, is the original of Wesley's line that some kind editor repaired to "Hark! The herald angels sing." His most wonderful section by all reports was on "how to murder your darlings!"

From start to finish it was an absolutely wonderful time together. Thank you to EVERYONE who helped to make it happen. And my greatest thanks to Joseph Herl who served as conference musician and blessed us well in whatever piece of music was thrown his way. Oh, speaking of him, during the hymn sing, he interrupted at one point and said with a twinkle in his eye (and he has that twinkle down pat): "I NEVER get asked to play pieces like this at a hymn sing. Don't you want to sing 'What a Friend'?" He was promptly booed and went back to "Lord, Thee I Love" and "To Jordan Came."

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