Monday, 27 June 2011

Dances and Didgeridoos

I am intrigued to read the blogpost at The Artsy Honker in which Kathryn Rose remarks that the problem of most traditional hymns is the over-slow way in which they are played. They should be livelier, she says.

Here at the Beaker Folk, I would disagree. From our perspective the main problem with traditional hymns is that they often have a great deal of theology in them. And as Nestorius and Arius discovered, the trouble with theology is that there is so often a winner and a loser. Consider Charles Wesley's "Hark how all the Welkin Rings":

"Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
hail the incarnate Deity!
pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus, our Emmanuel here!"

The accusations and rows can be heard hours later, as the side that claims Charles Wesley was just being poetic throws flower-pots at the side that claims he was a thoroughgoing Docetist. Not to mention the suggestions that "man with men" could perhaps be re-written in these egalitarian times. Whereas if Charlie W. had written "I want to be out of my depth in your love", both sides could have wandered off feeling slightly queasy but otherwise completely safe from fighting.

I have a couple of suggestions to get round this.

One is to use metrical psalms exclusively. The theological arguers can't argue, because the words come - more or less - straight from the Bible. Even the Wee Frees couldn't get too upset. OK, you get the odd line that is utterly incomprehensible - but then sometimes you get something as sweet as the 18th from Sternhold and Hopkins:

3  The fiery darts and thunderbolts
       disperse them here and there;
    And with his frequent lightnings he
       doth put them in great fear.

The other great advantage of these is that you can pretty well sing them all to the same three or four tunes -the 18th in this instance being beautifully suited to the tune we normally sing "The Lord's my Shepherd" to. And that cuts down on music group practice time.

There is another way to draw attention away from the theology of the hymns, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Introduce didgeridoos. The blog title "The Artsy Honker" is, I guess, a reference to Kathryn Rose's ability with that doyen of the West Gallery repertoire, the serpent. And the serpent itself, like its successor the ophicleide, is likely to draw some attention. But just imagine - the opening few lines of "Trust and Obey". People of right attitudes and theological sensitivity are about to rush the organ and drag the organist out of the church to stop him. But then - what's that? Surely somebody has written a didgeridoo part into the hymn. All discussion of theology and musical validity is forgotten, as everyone gazes open-mouthed at the didgeridoo player.

Got to be worth a try, at least. I reckon.


  1. Doesn't the original have an elision "pleased as man with men t'appear"? It's certainly been improved by post Wesley revision and rescue.

  2. Another 300 years and it might pass Chalcedon Compliance.


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