A devotional song. The term, of obscure Greek origin, refers to repertories in every major religion that have the following characteristics:
   • Texts are sacred but non-scriptural strophic poetry.
   • The melodies, through elements of repetition, periodic phrasing, and meter, have strongly patterned structures that make them easy to learn and remember.
   • The songs have popular roots; often they arise outside of authorized liturgies and then grow into some liturgical role.
   These features are not present in all repertories translated as "hymns," but taken together they form a cluster concept that can set this sacred music apart from other types.
   Hymn traditions almost always prefer poetic texts. These are very often highly structured, with isosyllabic lines, uniform strophes, and regular meter. This means that hymn texts are not often taken from sacred writings, since the Bible, the Qur’ān, and the Vedas are for the most part prose. The Buddhist gāthā chant may be an exception. The psalms, a collection of sacred poetry from the Bible that occupies a central position in both Jewish and Christian liturgies from ancient times to the present, would seem to be a major exception to the non-liturgical quality of hymns. However, historically the Jewish and Christian traditions have distinguished between psalmody and hymnody, the term "hymn" being reserved for other non-Biblical texts. The structures of Latin hymns and chanted psalms in the Gregorian tradition, for example, are completely different, particularly since the hymns have lines of uniform length. The distinction was reinforced in the 16th century when Calvinist Protestants insisted that only metrical psalms, and not hymns, could be sung in their worship services, though the two might be musically indistinguishable. But Isaac Watts blurred the distinction in the early 18th century with his psalm paraphrases that quickly found their way into many hymnals of Congregationalists, Methodists, and finally Anglicans and other major Christian denominations by the late 19th century. In this recentWestern Christian context, "hymn" denotes a type of musical setting more than a type of text.
   The music of hymn traditions is typically less complex than liturgical chant and has strong elements of repetition. Such an element may be as simple as a refrain in Hindu bhajan sung by the congregation between more complex solo passages, but the overwhelming preference is for songs in strophic form by which the same melody repeats for each strophe of poetry, creating a mutually reinforcing poetic-melodic structure. Such strophic hymns would include the later Jewish piyyutim, the Byzantine kanon, the Japanese (Buddhist) wasan, and various Christian forms, including the Latin hymn, the Lutheran chorale, Anglican hymns, and hymns of the reformed churches. The later Byzantine kontakion and the Islamic qawwali elaborate their strophic forms with introductory music.
   The most ancient hymn traditions are monophonic. The hymn repertory of the Western world was significantly expanded with the addition of newly composed melodies to traditional hymn melodies to create the polyphonic hymn, beginning with improvised polyphony such as faburden and growing to large composed collections for vespers in the 15th century. Hymns of the Protestant Reformation were also sung monophonically at first, but quickly appeared in simple harmonized versions for all the major Protestant churches by the end of the 16th century. The development and application of modern functional harmony about that time regularized and intensified the metric properties of the hymn tunes by articulating not only whole phrases but strong/weak relationships within the phrases, i.e., measures, sometimes to the extent that the tunes themselves had to be altered. (Compare, for example, the modern version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" with Martin Luther’s original tune "Ein’ Feste {}Burg.") In virtually all Western churches today a four-voiced harmonization of every hymn is expected.
   One principal effect of the poetic text and comparatively simple music is to make hymns relatively easy to learn and memorize, one indicator of the popular origins of many hymns. Every pattern of regular accent, every rhyme, and the periodic melodies offer bountiful cues for the memory. The conception of hymns as a popular sacred music raises a number of historical issues: the inclusion of hymns in authorized liturgy; the reception of hymns by professional liturgical musicians; the propriety of contrafacta; the practicalities of congregational singing; and evangelization.
   Historically, especially in the older religious traditions, hymnody has often begun outside authorized liturgy. In strict Islam, hymns have never been included. In other traditions, hymns might gradually become accepted enough to win some role within the liturgy. Until the 1960s, Latin hymns in the Catholic tradition were regularly used only in the divine office, not the mass, and laude were limited to popular processions outside the churches. Only in the Byzantine rites do hymns occupy an honored place in liturgy from early on. One explanation for this exclusion might be that hymns, arising from an apparently natural human disposition to sing in praise of the Divine, collide with the equally profound awe for sacred writings—the Bible, the Qur’ān, etc.—which become the principal sources for liturgical prayer. These are complex texts, rarely poetic, and cannot directly be turned into hymns. Any liturgical tradition remaining close to its sacred writings will naturally resist hymnody.
   A second reason is that the music to which sacred writings are traditionally set is usually very complex and difficult. Highly trained liturgical musicians naturally regard their art as exalted and often the only proper means of addressing the Divine. Hymn melodies, often arising from popular culture, might easily be considered unworthy of liturgy.
   They might also bring with them the taint of secular culture and the corrupt world, as when Sephardic Jews of the Iberian peninsula adapted piyyutim texts to popular Arabic melodies. This practice of contrafactum is common in many hymn traditions, which is why the hymn text, usually identified by opening words, must be distinguished from the hymn tune, identified with a proper name. In medieval Latin hymn collections a text may appear with many different melodic settings. The earliest important Protestant hymn collections, the Wittenberger Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (1524) and the Genevan Psalter (1562) adapt new texts to folk melodies. Later hymnals specify the poetic meter of a text, so that one may be easily substituted for another using the same melody. But contrafactum necessarily raises the problem of a semantic conflict between the secular melody and the sacred text. For this reason, the practice of Qirā’a Bi’l-Alhān, singing verses of the Qur’ān to popular melodies, was condemned by juridical understandings of Islam, and despite their basis in Talmudic and Midrashic writings, Maimonides opposed including piyyutim in Jewish liturgy.
   The liturgical antipathy toward hymnody was broken in Western Christianity in the 16th century by Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, along with his faith in the salutary spiritual effects of sacred music, naturally brought congregational singing into the heart of the liturgy and the chorale, the Lutheran form of hymnody, was the logical vehicle. When chorales came to be harmonized in four voices in cantional style toward the end of the century, they solved the paradox of simplicity and worthiness that had bedeviled other kinds of hymnody. The main melody, in the top voice, is simple enough for any congregation to learn, along with its poetic and vernacular text, while the other three independent voices provide a rapid harmonic rhythm and a contrapuntal texture complex enough to satisfy the most learned musician. These compositions epitomize what modern Christians mean when they use the term "hymn." Later hymnodies, particularly in the reformed churches, are obviously derivative of the Lutheran synthesis but dilute its quality by employing a much slower harmonic rhythm (one change / four to eight beats vs. one change / one to two beats) and accompanying voices that are hardly independent but merely shadow the main melody. Luther’s ideal of congregational participation was ratified at first by the great popularity and proliferating collections of chorales in the 16th century, then by the collapse of resistance to hymn singing in the reformed and eventually Anglican churches (one result of the Oxford movement), and finally in Roman Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1962 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy encouraged "active participation" of Catholic congregations through music.
   Some historians believe that chorale singing was one of the most effective means of spreading Luther’s doctrines to the common people, and indeed hymnody has been an important tool of evangelization in many traditions. The Hindu preacher Puranda Dasa (1484–1564) composed kirtana on the simpler rāgas to inspire religious revival and they succeeded in some Hindu sects as congregational songs. American revivalists have similarly used the hymnodies known better as spirituals, gospel songs, and praise choruses.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.


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