Some thoughts on long hymns

An extract from the Sunday Cantata episode for Trinity 24, first aired on 3 November 2013 on Lutheran Radio UK.

In my life so far, I have been fortunate enough to have lived in a number of different countries. In fact, I have moved around enough to consider myself a bit of a home-grown expert on culture shock. And one of the things I have noticed is that often the experience of culture shock is greatest when the differences are small but significant, rather than really big. So, for example, moving from Northern Europe to East Africa was very interesting in all sorts of ways, but going from England to the Midwest of the USA brought about a much bigger shock to the system!

Going from a church service within one denomination to a different one can also be a bit of a culture shock. Things that you take for granted are missing, or done very differently, and you will encounter things you didn’t expect at all.

So if you engaged in a bit of time travel and went to church in Leipzig in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, when Johann Sebastian Bach was serving as the director of music to the main churches of that city, even if you are a lifelong Lutheran, I suspect that you would be quite vulnerable to a good dose of culture shock—precisely in the area where the differences are small but significant. The powdered wigs, the body odours, the strange language—those you would expect. But the three-hour service with its one-hour sermon? That might be harder to take.

But it wasn’t only the sermon that made the services last so long. There was, of course, the church cantata for the day, which would usually last between 15 and 30 minutes.

And then, there were the hymns! Lutheran hymn singing is rarely done these days as it was then. I mean, a first-time visitor to a Lutheran church in England may have a look through our hymnal and think that some of our longer hymns with, say 10 stanzas, are a bit on the long side, not to say heavy in their content. But consider this: many of those 10-verse hymns were originally much longer. Some of the longer ones have been split into two separate hymns with, say 6 or 8 verses each. And some others fell out of use altogether as people grew impatient with three-hour services and 30-minute hymns. The longest hymn I have quoted in Sunday Cantata in the course of the past church year had 32 verses. The longest Lutheran hymn I’ve ever sung has 41 verses of eight lines each.

There’s a very good reason for this phenomenon. In Lutheran theology, hymns serve a wider range of purposes than perhaps in most of the rest of Christendom. All Christians sing hymns that praise God and hymns that are prayers addressed to Him. One of the distinctive features of Lutheran hymnody is that much of it is catechetical, which is to say that it is designed to teach God’s word to the congregation. And teaching takes words, and it takes time. And so, we have long hymns—but we also had congregations who were immersed in biblical doctrine through singing it repeatedly, without a hurry. It’s hard to deny that we have lost out when we have opted to spend our time differently as a church.

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2 Responses to Some thoughts on long hymns

  1. Kathryn says:

    Some of the West Gallery hymns in the English tradition are quite long too, and usually truncated for modern hymn books. I’m not immediately aware of any 41-verse wonders, but twelve is certainly commonplace.

  2. Tapani says:

    Indeed. This is not a uniquely Lutheran thing. There was a time when people really took their time to sing, whether Psalms or hymns.

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