The overarching theme in the season of Epiphany is that of the revelation of God, of how God chooses to reveal Himself and His will. Not unsurprisingly, therefore, the lessons throughout the season speak both to the reality of God’s revelation in words of prophecy and in words of Scripture. We are given the call narratives of Jeremiah and Isaiah. We witness Jesus instructing from the words of the prophets. We experience St. Paul writing of the inspiration given by God to those who teach in His Name.
Hymns which arise commonly in the season include those making explicit reference to Scripture, such as Spread, O spread, thou mighty word (no. 530), and Blessèd Jesus, at thy word (no. 440). We encounter hymns referring to call, such as They cast their nets in Galilee (no. 661). And we encounter hymns which refer especially to prophecy, such as God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ heirs (no. 359), used commonly at ordinations.
God of the prophets … provides an example of a “diatonic” (from the Greek for “by/through musical sounds”) hymn, one in which for each syllable in a word one note is sung. The words are stirring, certainly, but let’s pay attention to the music. The tune is known as Toulon (after the city in France), and is found in the “Genevan Psalter” (1551). The music is an expression of a prominent theological debate of the Reformation. The Calvinists (centered in Geneva) reacted strongly against the elaborate music of Medieval and Renaissance Catholic tradition, in which long musical lines involving many notes per syllable had become common. As early as the fourteenth century in England, John Wycliffe (sometimes referred to in Evangelical circles as “The Morning Star of the Reformation”) protested against polyphony (singing in multiple vocal lines and voices) in Church music. The Calvinists—to the extent they did not reject music in worship entirely—attempted to replicate the musical practices of the early Church, focusing on plain chant being applied syllabically. This resulted, for example, in England in The Book of Common Prayer Noted.
There can be strength in diatonic music in worship. For example, in Rite I services of Holy Eucharist, one option for Mass settings is found in the music of John Merbeecke (d. 1585) which used to be the “go to” in many parishes. This can be found in the Service Music of The Hymnal 1982 as S90 (Kyrie), S113 (Sanctus), S157 (Agnus Dei), and S201 (Gloria in excelsis). In the late twentieth century an alternate diatonic setting New Plainsong was composed by David Hurd (b. 1950).
Strength lies, as well, in polyphony and in “melismatic” music (multiple notes per syllable, often in a “trope” as found, for example in simple form in O come, O come Emanuel, no. 56). But feelings ran high during the Reformation! In 1582, two thousand citizens of Edinburgh turned out to sing this hymn to welcome the return of a popular preacher who had been exiled, and in 1602 the citizens of Geneva sang the hymn to offer thanksgiving for the defeat of invading Catholic forces.
We are past drama of this level, but feelings can run high about music in worship. The strength of our tradition is that The Hymnal 1982 includes polyphony, harmony, plainsong, diatonic hymns and service music—all forms. This tradition has been supplemented by publications looking to broader sources (e.g., African American spirituals and contemporary praise music). Whatever we sing, may we sing as those filled by the Holy Spirit to lift our voices in praise, thanksgiving, adoration— in real worship!