Musical Revision in a Minor Key

Musical Revision in a Minor Key June 30, 2020

The Liturgical And Universal General Harmonizers (LAUGH) have released a recent guideline for the musical revision of outdated hymns. In a never-ending effort to bring the church into the 21st century, the following analysis of how a traditional hymn might be transformed is recommended for use by all traditionalists.

LAUGH has selected the first stanza of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” as its model musical transformation. The text is from the liturgy of St. James (3rd or 4th century), while the melody is from a traditional French carol (15th or 16th century). LAUGH has elected to focus on the transformation of the now worn out lyrics.

Here is the first stanza as now commonly sung:

  1. Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
  2. and with fear and trembling stand;
  3. ponder nothing earthly-minded,
  4. for with blessing in his hand,
  5. Christ our God to earth descendeth,
  6. our full homage to demand.

It is not too difficult to spot immediate problems a baby believer might have with this.  The first problem with the lyrics as they now stand is that they are all contained in one carefully crafted sentence. Admirable as this might be in poetry, in modern congregational singing such literary virtuosity can have no place. It is too difficult to follow on the fly and therefore must be chopped into short sentences. Hemingway, and not Faulkner, must be our model here.  Alternatively, one could dispense with punctuation altogether as is often done in praise choruses, where complete units of thought are not necessary.

Instituting this change yields the following improvement:

  1. Let all mortal flesh keep silence.
  2. With fear and trembling stand.
  3. Ponder nothing earthly-minded.
  4. With judgment in his hand,
  5. Christ our God to earth descendeth,
  6. our full homage to demand.

It is obvious, however, that this has not improved things too much, especially since it is difficult to desegregate the last three lines without injuring the meaning.

Happily, we move on to a second concern.

Secondly, the diction needs to relevantized in several ways. Some of the words are either archaic or outside the pocket-dictionary vocabulary of the average worshipper. For instance, there is no reason in the world, other than mere nostalgia, for “descendeth” to be retained.  “Homage” deserves an even harsher fate since it is not an entry in the standard 21st-century worshipper’s working vocabulary. “Honor” will be substituted for the time being, since it begins with the same consonant-vowel combination and contains the same number of syllables.

After making the necessary amendments, we now have the following:

  1. Let all human beings keep silence.
  2. With fear and trembling stand.
  3. Think of nothing earthly-minded.
  4. With blessing in his hand,
  5. Christ our God to earth descends,
  6. our full honor to demand.

But now there must be a uniformity in thought and expression. We find the work of re-writing a hymn akin to a major reconstructive surgery where everything must be re-arranged in order to save the patient. Some of the words and phrases that seemed acceptable in comparison to obvious candidates for obsolescence now prove to be inferior to the more modern words and phrases we have introduced.  It is therefore necessary to smooth things out in this way, to go beyond changing the obvious archaic words and obsolete phrases, presenting us with this stanza:

  1. Let all human beings be quiet.
  2. Stand with fear and trembling.
  3. Think of heavenly things.
  4. With blessing in his hand,
  5. Christ comes down to earth,
  6. to demand all our praise.

The next problem which emerges clearly, as the darkness of the past clears away, is that some of the ideas, and not merely the words or expressions, are not palatable or intelligible to modern man. “Fear and trembling,” for example, though biblical in origin, is apt to be seen in an unnecessarily negative and self-effacing, rather than self-esteeming, light and should be corrected.

Having made the necessary changes, we arrive at the following version:

  1. Human beings be quiet.
  2. Get ready for Jesus to come.
  3. Think of heavenly things.
  4. With blessing in his hand,
  5. Jesus comes to earth,
  6. to ask all our praise.

There is also still too much thought here for the average worshipper to hold in his/her mind at once, and we have not attempted to unify what thought is there. We simply must simplify even more. The phrases “Get ready for Jesus to come” and “Jesus comes to earth” are so close now that they can easily be made into a common phrase, “Jesus is coming,” which can act as a refrain throughout. This will serve both to rid us of some of the distracting diversity of thought in the hymn as well as to serve as a simplifier and unifier. The last phrase, “to ask all our praise” is still too demanding on the part of Christ and no longer fits with the rest of the stanza.  Also, it doesn’t speak deeply enough of our human condition and what Jesus has done for us.

Finally, we have said nothing about the music to accompany my new and improved version of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” As with the words, a moment’s reflection will prove to anyone that the tune is inappropriate for the 21st century. It sounds too much like Gregorian chant to most of us. You have to adjust the syllables to fit in with the meter. Worse than that, it may be seen by some as too melancholic, serious, and self-effacing. We need something peppier, or at least easier and upbeat. Something suitable for airplay on Christian radio stations across the land.

With all of these changes, we arrive at the final transformation, which LAUGH humbly commends to your use:

Let’s be quiet now

Jesus is coming

Think of heaven now

Jesus is coming

He’s coming to bless you

Jesus is coming

He is coming

He loves you.

(To be sung to the tune of “Kum Ba Ya”)

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