Discover more from Musically Speaking
The Glory of Multiple Tunes
How One Easter Hymn's Text Shines Differently in Multiple Tune Settings
One definition of hymns states that “hymns are simple in form, but they may be studied in many ways: as poetry: as music; as theology; as vehicles for worship, evangelism, religious education, ministry, and fellowship; and as historical and cultural artifacts.”
This definition helpfully shows how many layers of meaning are present in hymnody. Good art, like good hymnody, is like an onion in that it should be able to be peeled back further and further and find more value as we work to the center. You may garner one meaning when you pick up a piece of poetry to read for the first time. Then, subsequent readings may and should yield new and fuller understandings of what the composer was seeking to say.
Thanks for reading Musically Speaking! Subscribe for free to receive new posts in your email and the Substack App.
But there is more than that. A good tune can bring to life the text in a helpful way. So, then can a second tune for that exact text. See the below Easter text:
Hearts to heaven and voices raise.
Sing to God a hymn of gladness,
sing to God a hymn of praise.
He who on the cross a victim
for the world’s salvation bled,
Jesus Christ, the King of glory,
now is risen from the dead.
I first learned this text to the tune EBENEZER which is in a minor key. This tune is often used for the hymn text, “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” It is a hauntingly beautiful tune that takes a different approach to the crucifixion and resurrection. Instead of pure joy and vitality, this tune allows for meditative praise in a different style. Here is a little bit of the sheet music:
The driving minor triplets in the melody make this a memorable tune. This serious tune provides an appropriate mood and weightiness to a joyful but ultimately profound reality—that Christ’s death and resurrection changed everything.But with these great lyrics, there is more than one way to adorn and glorify this text. This text has also been set to the famous Beethoven melody from his Ninth Symphony that gets the tune name HYMN TO JOY or ODE TO JOY. Here is a little of that sheet music as well:
More people would quickly find this joyful major tune fitting for the theme of resurrection. But each of these tunes (EBENEZER & HYMN TO JOY) adorn the text in different and helpful ways. Maybe you sing the joyful HYMN TO JOY version on the first Sunday of Easter, and perhaps you sing the EBENEZER tune on later Sundays in Easter.
There is room for both of these. Wisdom is needed to decide the fittingness of when to use these tunes. The choice is which is more fitting and not so much which is right and wrong.
The Musical Frame of Our People
Some prefer a particular hymn tune paired with a singular text, where you don’t sing one text to multiple tunes. If I understand correctly, the thinking goes, “There are so many tunes available that we don’t need to double up.” I don’t doubt that there are wonderful tunes out there that could be paired with hymn texts. While there’s nothing wrong with this in one sense, I’m not convinced this is as profitable as it may seem initially.
As mentioned above, one text can carry a different effect/emphasis based on another tune companion. This brings the text into a new focus or reflection. Why not allow for this? Also, consider the frame of the people learning the tune. If they master this tune, then they have doubled their investment value. They can now sing two texts as easily as one. This could greatly help in not exasperating our people who may struggle to learn new music because of music inability or possible indifference.
As with all things, wisdom must be the goal. I’m not saying sing as many texts to one tune as possible—quite the opposite. Instead, don’t arbitrarily rule out multiple tunes for the same hymn text. Glorious things can happen to the text when it can be sung in two or more melodies.
Last December, a pastor friend of mine in Florida had his church sing the ANTIOCH hymn tune and iconic “Joy to the World” text that we all know and love in a church psalm singing event. But, then, they sang the text to another joyful fuging tune setting.They were not trying to retire/replace the ANTIOCH tune. Instead, singing the text to a new tune provided the group with a way to put a different emphasis on parts of the hymn text that might be on autopilot when sung to the familiar tune. Other phrases are emphasized and repeated in this alternate tune, allowing for variety and creativity. The text is not compromised by being sung in a second tune, nor are the people confused. Instead, they can appreciate the glories of the text in fuller ways than just one tune setting can provide.
Infinitely Creative & Wise
Our Heavenly Father is not only the Master Creator but also infinitely wise and creative. Likewise, He does not just give us only one type of oak tree. If I’m not mistaken, we have hundreds in the United States alone, with significant and slight variations and combinations thereof. Our Father is the God of extravagance, not utilitarianism. We know this and like to do much of what he does. We don’t, therefore, only eat green beans when we cook roast beef. Some days we wear that paisley shirt/tie with the navy blazer, and sometimes we wear it with a corduroy khaki one. We mix and match and look for the glories of the possible combinations.
Our Heavenly Father has called us to be like Him—wise and creative. He has indeed given us all things richly to enjoy. I’m thankful for the opportunity to sing hymns like this Allelulia, Alleluia text to various tunes. Below are two links to these hymns in PDF so you can also sing/play through them. Happy Eastertide!
Music, David W.., Reynolds, William Jensen., Price, Milburn. A Survey of Christian Hymnody. United States: Hope Publishing Company, 1999, xi.
Along these lines, consider how Martin Luther and J. S. Bach’s “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” is one of the most celebrated Easter hymns despite having a minor key. It is a welcome treatment of the resurrection. It has a major key component and a minor key component. Both are helpful.
A fuging tune is a hymn where the voices sing at different times and intervals, painting a musical text mosaic. This was common in the 1600-1700s in England and primarily in the United States. It has grown in popularity in my church’s denomination in recent decades.