Four odd (but mostly loveable) things about Lutheran hymns

A discussion with a friend earlier tonight got me thinking about ways in which Lutheran hymnody differs from Anglican. So as we live in an age of listicles, here are four features of Lutheran hymns that have always struck me (as an adult convert) as distinctive, three of which I have learned to love…

1. The metres can be rather strange

Anglican hymn metres (a measure of syllables per line) are usually pretty straightforward. The classic is “common metre”: 8.6.8.6. Then there’s “short metre” (6.6.8.6) and “long metre” (8.8.8.8). These can be doubled up (“DCM”, “DSM”, “DLM”). You might also get 8.7.8.7.8.7, and so on.

Some Lutheran hymns have predictable metres, but with others, all bets are off. The Easter hymn “I am content! My Jesus ever lives” has a 10.6.10.6.9.9.4.4 metre. Move forward to Pentecost, and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” meanders around a 7.8.8.8.8.8.10.8 pattern. Then there’s the Communion hymn, “O Lord, we praise thee”, an 11.8.11.8.5.9.9.6.7.5 epic that causes even the Lutheran Service Book to throw up its hands and label it as “peculiar meter”:

2. The hymns can be really long 

As the examples above show, Lutheran hymns often have really long stanzas. You might think the writers would make up for it by only writing a few stanzas per hymn. Not so! In the older hymnals, it’s routine to see hymns with 9, 10, 12 or more stanzas, even where the stanzas are as long as those cited above.

In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first hymnal, the classic hymn “Salvation unto us has come” has 14 stanzas (each of 8.7.8.7.8.8.7 metre). The video here spares us most of these:

The latest LCMS hymnal has reduced this down to 10 stanzas, and other hymns are even more drastically cut – a tendency lamented by ELCE pastor, Tapani Simojoki, in this post defending long hymns as a form of catechesis (and fondly recalling singing a 41-stanza hymn on one occasion).

The good thing about hymns of this length is that they can include some really solid material. The Kindle edition of Walther’s Hymnal is a fine (if regrettably pricey) resource for personal devotion, even if most congregations would riot if forced to sing some of the hymns in their entirety.

3. The hymn tunes can be quite bouncy, though 

The good news is that the hymns often keep you on your toes, reducing the chances of your nodding off midway through verse 18. Early Lutheran chorales often had very bouncy rhythms, many of which were later regularised to fit with changing fashions.

Everyone knows Luther’s hymn Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), but the original can come as a surprise to those familiar with its incarnation in Anglican hymnals:

To be honest, it’s the four-square, un-dotted version that strikes me as odd these days.

4. We sit down to sing them

This is the one I really can’t reconcile myself to. I’ve not been to many Lutheran churches – there aren’t many in this country to go to – but it seems pretty universal to sit down for most hymns: 

(Image via Duluth News Tribune.) 

It’s even in the rubrics in our service books, with a special symbol (△) indicating when people should stand for the final verse.

This probably makes sense when you’re singing a 27-stanza chorale. Speaking as my church’s organist, though, who sits at the front of the church to play, the impact on the quality of singing is enormous. When people stand for that final verse, or for the closing hymn, the difference in the sound is transformational. Now that we rarely sing more than five or six verses per hymn, I really don’t see what excuse we have for not standing. Hey ho…

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