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Monday, January 31, 2005

Sun of my soul: separating the sacred and the worldly in worship

Note: This post can be seen as a further comment on my earlier post reviewing John Frame's defense of contemporary worship music.

"Sun of My Soul", written by John Keble in 1820, has an interesting and instructive history which I discovered when looking up the hymn in The Cyber Hymnal. “Hursley,” from the Ka­thol­isch­es Ge­sang­buch (Vi­en­na: 1774) is given as the music to which the hymn is most commonly sung today. In addition, two alternate tunes are given: “Keble,” by John B. Dykes (1875) and “Abends,” by Herbert S. Oakeley (1874). The following is Oakeley's own explanation of why he decided to compose a new alternate tune for the words of the hymn:

I was, many years ago, im­pelled to set Keble’s words to mu­sic for Hen­ry Bak­er, in con­se­quence of the in­ad­e­qua­cy if not vul­gar­i­ty of the tune which had got into gen­er­al use. I re­fer to “Hurs­ley,” which, how­ev­er, is now less oft­en sung than for­mer­ly.

“Hursley,” strange to say, had been in use in Ger­ma­ny--where, as a rule, chor­al­es (An­gli­cè hymn tunes) are so dig­ni­fied and ad­mirable—-since cir­ci­ter 1792, and is at­trib­ut­ed to Paul Rit­ter.

One of my rea­sons for dis­lik­ing it so much is the re­sem­blance it bears to a drink­ing song, “Se vu­ol bal­la­re,” in Noz­ze di Fi­ga­ro. As Mo­zart pro­duced that op­e­ra in 1786, he is re­spon­si­ble for the open­ing strain, which suits his Bac­cha­nal­i­an words ve­ry well. But to hear "Sun of my soul, Thou Savi­our dear," sung to a live­ly tune, un­suit­a­ble to sac­red words, had the ef­fect of driv­ing me out of church.

Oakeley's words illustrate how the principle of association is an important one when we consider what we bring into the church service. One of the best discussions of this principle I know is in Don Lucarini and John Blanchard's Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement (Evangelical Press, 2002). In the chapter that deals with this principle, the authors take on the common argument made by proponents of CCM that it is acceptable to use popular contemporary secular tunes for worship because folk and bar tunes of Wesley's era have become our "great hymns of the faith". In other words, if even great traditional hymnwriters did not disdain the use of the 'worldly' music for their songs, then music is probably neutral and any attractive tune can be reclaimed, as it were, as Egyptian gold.

First off, the claim that Wesley used bar tunes without compunction is a suspect one--a convenient urban legend! John Makujima's Measuring the Music has a more detailed discussion on this issue. And if I remember correctly, the point made by Lucarini and Blanchard is an excellent one that explains why most conservative Christians, unlike Oakeley, have no qualms at all about using the 'bacchanialian' tune in worship: in short, the associations between "Hursley" and Mozart's opera have waned to a point when people are no longer offended or stumbled by the music. This is a classic case of God's prohibition to the Israelites boiling a young goat in its mother's milk (e.g. Exodus 23:19). This practice was not intrinsically bad, just associated too strongly with pagan sacrifices.

Will what happened to "Hursley" happen to rock and pop music we have today? Does the principle apply in much the same way? I personally very much doubt it. Rock and pop are music styles vastly different in kind from Mozart's compositions, and they are openly acknowledged by some of their artistes to be clearly opposed to God in their very natures. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of music can post a comment.

Sun of My Soul (John Keble, 1820)

Sun of my soul, Thou Savior dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
O may no earthborn cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.

When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
Forever on my Savior’s breast.

Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.

If some poor wandering child of Thine
Has spurned today the voice divine,
Now, Lord, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.

Watch by the sick, enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store;
Be every mourner’s sleep tonight,
Like infants’ slumbers, pure and right.

Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take,
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in Heaven above.

(Closing hymn of the final service in which Rev. Dr. T. T. Shields--one of the most respected, uncompromising and fiery preachers of 20th century Canada--preached, on 30 May 1954, before the Lord called him home on 4 April 1855, concluding his 45-year pastorship of his beloved Jarvis Street Baptist Church.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A comment from Hursley in England - after 9 years!
Sir Herbert Oakley's objection to the tune "Hursley" seems very dated and somewhat unfair. "Hursley" is better known as "Grosser Gott" in the US and most of continental Europe. It is a very fine, majestic chorale to which Americans sing the similarly majestic and inspiring hymn "Holy God, we praise thy name". Paradoxically, Keble's hymn "Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear" has gone out of fashion in England, so the tune "Hursley" now gets few airings here.

8:22 AM  

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