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Sunday
Sep092012

Old hymns

I'm writing this before heading out to church today. I don't know what the music will be like, though I'm sure it will be well done, and I'm not worried about it. I can enjoy both traditional and more contemporary music, pieces that are contemplative and songs that are upbeat.

Music can add much to the worship experience, and it's unfortunate that musical tastes have become a bone of contention in many churches -- often a very big bone. Sometimes the conflict comes with a new pastor who wants to change the character of the worship service by changing the music. Sometimes it arises from a vocal group within the congregation that wants to more or less of a particular style of music. 

Observers were talking about "worship wars" as much as two decades ago, and disagreements continue, with many seeking helpful ways to blend various styles of worship music, with some succeeding, and some not doing so well.

Christian singer-songwriter Ken Medema, in a delightful interview slated for the October issue of Baptists Today, suggested that maybe churches should just forgo music altogether for three months or so and see what it's like.

I have an alternate suggestion. Maybe we could try using some of the oldest written music ever found, a collection of Hurrian hymns that were found in the Ugaritic city of Ras Shamra. The Hurrians lived in an area that included what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey. They spoke a language unlike others in the region, but adopted a type of cuneiform as a means of writing. When scholars sought to translate some of the newly found text some years ago, they noticed an odd assortment of symbol or words that didn't seem to translate -- until they realized that it was a type of musical notation.

And, though the clay tablets are often fragmentary and Hurrian is notoriously difficult to translate, it became obvious that the musical texts were hymns to various Hurrian gods. The best preserved, known as "Hurrian Hymn 6" or "A Zaluzi to the Gods" (click the link to listen) offers praise to Nikkal, a moon goddess associated with the fertility of orchards.

Scholars and musicians, working together, have sought to recreate some of the ancient music, though they don't always agree on how the notations should be interpreted. One can't be sure that they have it right, but most efforts have produced a series of slow, meditative melodies that are quite nice in their own way. I suspect, however, if fed a regular diet of Hurrian hymns for three months (here are four others), most churches would be happy to return to music written within the past 300 years, if not 300 days.

Then, if folks start complaining again, the music minister could always threaten to pull out a couple of Hurrian hymns for the next Sunday, and things should quiet down.

 

[Graphic from Free Vector Graphics, tablet from Archaeology News Network]

Reader Comments (1)

I led singing at a Baptist church for several years in the late '70s and '80s, and regularly got two complaints. We sang all the verses (it preserves the message of the hymn, the poetry, etc.) and we sang them a bit faster than some would like -- too up tempo. My response was, "Well, I am trying to get all the message in within the time allotted for the music, and I don't want people getting relaxed by the lullaby of slow paced music and falling asleep when the sermon starts." So we sang all four verses in a very little more time than most would sing three.

Sep 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArce

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