Hymns Live On for Hundreds of Years

Rod's piece pic
Written Spring of 2014

“There’s a reason that some music has stuck around for hundreds of years, whereas some of the things we’re singing now, in twenty years, no one will have ever heard of,” says Rodney Derstine, music teacher at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. I sat down with Rod recently to hear his views on music in the church and how hymns seem to be disappearing from our Mennonite church worship services. “I like hearing the four part harmony.”

Rod grew up in a singing family. His mother had a strong influence on his love of music in that she listened to classical composers on the radio. He also remembers playing forty-fives of classical music over and over again. From Bach and 17th century chorales to Sing the Story, Rod loves music of all kinds.

“It’s fun to see students enjoying hymns.” Rod tells his students each year, “I’m not looking to change what you listen to, but I’m looking to expand what you like.” He tells them it’s like when he first started eating Japanese food. “The more I ate it, the more I really started to like it and then even crave it.” He feels if music is constructed well and has a good text; ultimately, the kids will enjoy it.

“Many students today have no concept of hymns or even a religious background. But I keep plugging away at it, continuing to lead hymns in chapel.” He admits some years he has become discouraged with how the singing in chapel has sounded, but he tries not to take it too seriously if the singing doesn’t go well. “You don’t have to hit a homerun every time you sing.” Rod continues to introduce songs such as #118 (Hymnal: A Worship Book), “Praise God from Whom” in chapel. “I just try to expose them to different things.”

I asked Rod if he believes that community people are more attracted to the contemporary choruses than hymns. “That’s a myth, especially if you do old hymns with texts that have depth. There is a richness and so much variety in hymns, if done well.”

Rod believes that music is most powerful when we are moved beyond ourselves. “A number of years ago when we were living in Oregon, I chose to lead the hymn “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” on a Sunday morning at Salem Mennonite Church. I didn’t realize that Rich Reger was sitting in the back row and had been estranged from the church for many years. When I led that song, he began crying. He told me later it was that hymn that brought him home. Rich later became a pastor. He died this last year of cancer. He was a dear friend…and that hymn brought him back.”

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Mennonite Music in Eastern Pennsylvania

Salford Mennonite Congregation, 1976-3(1)
Written Winter 2014

“Many people seem to desire choruses and songs with a rapid movement. [Hopefully] the Mennonites will discontinue the use of these light songs and will return to the more worshipful and doctrinal hymns… of the Church Hymnal.” These words were written by J.C. Wenger in 1937 and published in History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference. Today, many are upset in our churches over the influx of scripture songs and worship teams, but the desire of the younger generation to include songs with “rapid movement” has been going on for centuries here in the Franconia Mennonite Conference.

After listening to some SMC church members frustrated with the recent changes in the music in our Sunday morning worship service, I decided to find out if singing in four–part harmony was traditionally Mennonite. I had the feeling that we weren’t seeing the whole picture and that Mennonites didn’t always sing in four–part harmony. So I contacted Joel Alderfer from the Mennonite Heritage Center to hear how our Anabaptist heritage, from the Ausbund to today, has influenced the Franconia Mennonites and their attitudes toward music and worship.

German-speaking Mennonites, who settled between the Delaware and Susquehanna between 1683 and 1773, brought their music with them across the Atlantic. Using both their own Anabaptist ancestors’ compositions and hymns from other European spiritual traditions, they reprinted their old European hymnbook, the Ausbund, in 1742, and first published their own hymnbook, the Zions Harfe, in 1803. The Zion’s Harfe was widely used in Franconia Conference Mennonite meetinghouses and contained only German hymn-texts with no musical notation. In that time, the song leader or vorsinger sat near the pulpit, on one of the raised side benches, and led einstimme (in unison) the German texts to the music of old folk tunes. Since hymn singing was mainly an oral tradition with tunes passed down from one song leader to the next, it was unusual for church members to have access to their own hymn book. Songs were sung in unison and by memory, as the singing of individual parts was considered prideful.

In the mid-1800s, singing schools, a community-based movement that began with Protestants in New England, became popular among the young people of the Indian Valley region. The community came together in social gatherings held in local schoolhouses for a week or two weeks with an itinerant teacher instructing them how to sight-read German and English hymns in three-part and later, four-part harmony. The young people in the region learned not only how to sing a cappella but also how to sing the hymns that were unique to this German and Pennsylvania Dutch speaking community.

Eventually this type of a cappella hymn singing began to be accepted by the surrounding churches, including the German Reformed, Lutheran, Brethren, Schwenkfelder, and Mennonite churches. Some even started sponsoring their own singing schools. In the Mennonite church, this continued into the 20th century, even as late as the 1960’s, where charismatic singing school teachers such as Herman Godshall (Franconia), Samuel Godshall (Deep Run), Henry Bechtel (Vincent), Warren Swartley (Souderton) and Millard Detweiler (Doylestown) made reading “shape notes” a fun experience.

In addition to the singing schools, the hymns were changing due to more interest in speaking and singing English. The Sunday school movement of the mid 1800’s used English. Apparently, in this time period if a town wanted to establish themselves as a reputable town they needed to have a chapel where Union (non-denominational) Sunday school was held. An early English-language Mennonite hymnbook, Hymns & Tunes (1890), mainly with text only, was used in some congregations as a transitional book. The Church and Sunday School Hymnal of 1902 included musical notes with English words and was used in many Franconia Conference congregations. But the more conservative churches along the 113 corridor also continued to use the Zion’s Harf, featuring the traditional German language and no musical notation. Even after the 1927 Church Hymnal was published and adopted by many congregations, a special edition soon appeared with a German appendix of 150 hymns, compiled by Bishop A.G. Clemmer of Franconia.

It took a long time for some Mennonites to see spiritual value in English hymns and gospel songs. There is a story of a preacher in the Deep Run East congregation (John Gross), who wept when English hymns were sung in church. Some churches continued to sing one German hymn each Sunday in worship, even into the 1960’s, to appease the older generation.

Today, the seasoned church members cherish the four-part harmony that represents our rich Mennonite heritage, but musical trends keep changing and our younger, community-based attendees desire congregational music that honors the past while staying relevant to the present. These challenges are not new to our time and will continue to shape our Anabaptist Mennonite traditions as we live and adapt in our current culture.

Thanks to Joel Alderfer of the Mennonite Heritage Center for his research and discussion on the subject of Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Music.

If a Song Goes Unheard

Editorial pic

Written Spring of 2014

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Or better yet, if a song goes unheard, does it really matter? If music is not present in a child’s life and the child lacks proper instruction in singing, can the child ever learn how to sing a cappella?

Last Wed night I was surprised to see my oldest son, the one that in high school never sang in a choir or even acted remotely interested in singing, enter the church choir room. My jaw dropped and I just watched him in amazement find a seat among the bass section of the choir members. He sat beside his cousin and same age friend, Caleb.

Now I realize that kids often learn to appreciate things that they didn’t appreciate while living at home, like red beets and Cornish hens, but do adult children suddenly want to sing? In recent years, he has watched his cousin and younger brother go on choir tours to Europe and sing hymns in their spare time, but does that really make singing appealing? And how does one go about singing when he or she has not participated in it for many years. Is it ever too late to learn how to read notes and sing in parts?

Don’t get me wrong, Patrick definitely sang as a young boy. We played all the Wee Sing and Donut Man cassette tapes that were available and I remember when Patrick was 5 or 6, confidently telling my mother she had a gifted singer as a grandson, and that he would definitely make Touring Choir at Christopher Dock in the gap the Benner children had left behind. It was also around this age that I looked into a local nursery school program that encouraged music to gifted prodigies. But for the price, he would have been registered. Sadly, it didn’t work out as we had hoped and high school came and went without an opportunity to sing under the tutelage of Rodney Derstine.

After choir practice, my husband Ken took the burden of Patrick’s lack of singing expertise squarely on his own shoulders. He claimed it was his bout with dermatomyositis and his inability to sing for a few years that hindered the formational years of Patrick’s singing. Ken loves to sing and grew up in a singing family from Kalona, Iowa, one that often sang at church members’ funerals and weddings.

“Aww, Ken, it’s not your fault,” I said as I kissed his overly conscientious brow. Patrick just watched us with a smile on his face, insisting, “I want to learn to sing in 3 months.” In the words of a hymn, “Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost for ever…”