In anticipation of Daniel Berghout’s upcoming lecture at the Church History Library on August 14, 2014, Keepapitchinin will be featuring a selection or two from long-time Tabernacle organist, hymn writer, and German immigrant Alexander Schreiner (1901-1987).
Twelve years before the Church published the most recent edition of the LDS Hymnbook, Alexander Schreiner put out a call in the Ensign for new hymns. “The task and challenge before us now and during the next few years is to produce a body of one or two hundred new hymns that will reflect the talents of our finest and most spiritual poets and our best musicians.”
He continued, “Because our environment becomes ever more modern, complex, and interesting, we should encourage the writing of new hymns that are more than just a rehash of former tunes and poetic sentiments. In our new hymns we should strive for new subjects, stronger subjects, timely subjects, faith-promoting subjects, and heartwarming subjects.”
He went on to explain what “hymn” means and explained that there are different types of hymns.
A hymn is a special kind of poetry addressed to Deity as a prayer. The ancient Greeks sang hymns to their pagan deities. We sing to the everlasting God, our Heavenly Father, and we should address most of our hymns as prayers to heaven….
The apostle Paul also gave instructions on hymns: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16.)
This indicates that Paul understood something of the several types of hymns used in his day. He also reiterated what several prophets of the Old Testament often recommended, that we should sing “with grace in our hearts to the Lord.”
Our hymnbook of 1840 is titled L.D.S. Hymns. But the title page goes into more detail: Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor, who published this book in Liverpool, correctly understood that there are different kinds of hymns….
When using the hymnbook, we should refer to all of its contents by the overall term hymns. This is the proper ecclesiastical designation, because the hymnbook contains something far more important and significant than just songs. Hymns are classified technically under at least five types: true hymns, psalms, spiritual songs, chorales, and the so-called gospel hymns.
The True Hymn: The ideal hymn is a sacred song addressed to Deity. Such hymns are the most important ones in our hymnbook. They may not always be spirited in rhythm, but they are always spiritual in quality. And spiritual values are the highest of all values.
Psalms: Paul mentioned the singing of psalms. These are hymns taken from the Old Testament. The psalms are the Western world’s best-loved poems, and the noblest. The Pilgrims sang psalms, and the Puritans, in 1640, had the complete book of Psalms in rhyme and meter. The Calvinists preferred singing psalms to any other kind of hymn. Coming from the Old Testament, the psalms are addressed to Jehovah and do not mention the name Jesus Christ, although several of the psalms carry references to the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Several psalms are included in our hymnbook, such as “The Lord Is My Shepherd” and “Praise Ye the Lord.”
Spiritual Songs: These are so designated because they exhort and uplift the worshipers and are addressed to them rather than to Deity. They are sung, as it were, before the Lord. Songs such as “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “Come, Let Us Anew,” and “Ere You Left Your Room This Morning” come under this classification.
Chorales: These are characterized chiefly by their even rhythm, which lends great stateliness to their performance. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “The Voice of God Again Is Heard” are both classified as chorales.
Gospel Hymns: The term gospel hymn is really a misnomer because these hymns rarely refer to the gospel. They were developed in the past century by enthusiastic gospel revivalist preachers. Examples of such hymns are “We Are All Enlisted,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Today While the Sun Shines.”
Songs with refrains usually belong to the gospel hymn style, which is characterized by frank cheerfulness, with dotted, dancing rhythms, spirited rather than spiritual in quality, and with practical, homely messages. The value of the gospel hymn lies chiefly in its optimism, in the fun of singing it, and in its ability to stir the singers to action. In general, these hymns are not considered to be very high in either poetic or musical quality, though their message may be strong.
To be successful, a hymn must begin with a strong opening statement that can be used as its title. A poem usually has a title, but a poem is seldom usable as a hymn. Examples of good titles are illustrated in most of the hymns in our hymnbook. However, there are exceptions. … We once had a hymn that began with “Father, lead me out of darkness.” This has now been changed to “Lead me into life eternal,” which is both the title and the opening statement. A strong title should begin the first stanza and also serve as a central subject for each of the other stanzas.
Traditionally, a hymn does not have a chorus. A song with a chorus stems from a ballad, in which a solo singer teaches the group (the chorus) to sing the chorus. Then he will sing alone, with perhaps guitar accompaniment, a verse that is then answered by the group singing the chorus. Following a second solo stanza, the chorus again sings, and so on.
Writers should avoid using choruses for hymns, although one that is very brief might on occasion be effective. The meter of succeeding stanzas must be precisely the same, with all the accents in the same places.1
What are your favorite hymns, and in which of these categories do they belong? Do you have a favorite hymn writer?
Have you ever written a hymn, or attempted to do so? What was your experience? Is there any advice you would share with someone considering writing a hymn?
What changes have you seen in hymn singing or hymn writing over your lifetime? Do our congregations sing different hymns now than when you were a child? Has the style of hymn-singing changed?