Hymnal Music Editing

Unless they have a music background, most Christians aren’t familiar with the intricacies and subtleties of editing music for a hymnal. However, the editorial philosophy for Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs stems from two principles that every Christian can understand: First, respect for the composer. Second, respect for the church.

“Our goal was to represent the author to the congregation,” said editorial board member Craig Roberts.

The editors developed this philosophy by seeking input from all who worked on the hymnal, three dozen Christians with wide experience as hymn-tune composers, songleaders, or sightreaders. “In terms of training, philosophy, and taste, it was quite a cross-section,” observed Roberts.

However, this diverse group of brethren produced an obvious consensus. The editorial policy should be one of restraint, with editors remaining as invisible as possible and making changes only when the composer’s original work was unusable.

“An editor should be like the umpire in a baseball game,” explained Roberts. “People don’t go to the game to watch the umpire. And the umpire doesn’t get to play.”

This hands-off philosophy was evident in the way the editors dealt with hymn arrangements. They addressed hymn harmonies in four main ways.

The first method, which they applied to approximately 85 percent of hymns in the hymnal, was the simplest. They did nothing. Hymns at the heart of the brotherhood’s repertoire, like “Nearer, Still Nearer,” will appear in the hymnal precisely as they have appeared in previous brotherhood hymnals.

“We didn’t want to alter those at all,” said Roberts. As a result, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs contains no arrangements that differ from the harmonies that brethren sing by memory.

The second category was made up of less familiar high-church hymn tunes from denominational traditions. These tunes were originally composed with choirs or musical instruments in mind. When the editors considered such tunes, they felt compelled to make subtle changes to the arrangements. “If we didn’t tweak the hymn tunes, very few people would be able to sing them,” said Roberts.

However, even with these more difficult tunes, the editors changed as little as possible. “We did not aim for gospel simplicity,” explained Roberts. “We were trying to be editors, not creators.”

This desire for restraint led them to preserve the composer’s original chord progressions, while changing notes only occasionally and only to improve voice leading. “We asked, ‘What would this author write like if he wanted to use these chords but was writing for the a cappella congregation?’” noted Roberts. Knowledgeable outsiders who looked at these edits agreed that the edits remained true to the original sound of the tune.

As a result of these few small changes, two dozen or so high-church tunes, though more difficult than gospel songs, have become accessible to the ordinary congregation. Roberts estimated that the average church will be able to use 95 percent of the new tunes in worship, provided that the church takes the time to learn them.

Third, the editors had to make more decisions in dealing with contemporary and folk hymn tunes, simply because those genres are less structured. “In dealing with hymns like ‘I Will Call Upon the Lord’ and ‘You Are My All in All’, we couldn’t find an official version,” said Roberts. This forced the editors to decide among elements from several different arrangements.

Fourth, in addressing about 20 or 30 hymns out of the 850 in the Table of Contents, the editors completely rearranged the harmony. Most of these hymn tunes were completely unfamiliar to the brotherhood. The remainder had appeared in brotherhood hymnals with a number of different arrangements, so that there is no single arrangement that brethren commonly know.

The editors were even more circumspect in dealing with hymn-tune melodies. They changed melodies only to reflect changes that the brotherhood had already made.

For example, the melody of “Take the Name of Jesus with You” as written in modern brotherhood hymnals is not the same as the melody that churches of Christ sing. “We’re singing what Austin Taylor published in 1941,” said Roberts. After that time, other editors published what was written in other books, but brethren continued to sing the Taylor version. By contrast, the sheet music in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs will reflect the actual practice of churches.

However, fewer than 20 hymns received this treatment. “Where we weren’t sure, we didn’t make any changes to the sheet music,” said Roberts. These changes will help songleaders and sightreaders, but they will pass unnoticed by the vast majority of Christians, who will sing the hymn as they always have.

Finally, in another dozen instances, the editors raised or lowered the key of a hymn. They did this in only in cases where the original key of the hymn made it difficult or impossible for untrained singers to sing.

For example, “Remember Me, O Mighty One” was originally written in C, which made the melody too high for brethren to comfortably reach, particularly on Sunday morning. The editors lowered the key to B-flat. In this and other instances, they felt that the key change maintained the sound of the original hymn.

Throughout, the editors were concerned not with their own tastes or opinions, but with the composer and the congregation. “Our job,” said Roberts, “was to take the author’s work and make sure that what’s usable is used.”

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