Familiar vs. Unfamiliar Hymns
Recently I asked my Ward Music Chairman if we could please sing Hymn #197 “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown” for a sacrament hymn. After all it is listed under the topic of “Sacrament” and it is one of my favorite hymns, the only one in our hymnal by J.S. Bach. Due to the changing harmonies I love playing it on the organ. My Ward Music Chairman told me we can’t do it because it’s not familiar. What??? I told her that was ridiculous, that it’s been around since the 1700’s and if it wasn’t familiar to some it ought to become familiar. Then we proceeded to sing a sacrament hymn that Sunday, one that was new to the 1985 hymnal. It too was unfamiliar just a few years ago until someone decided we should sing it once, twice, then it became familiar. That’s how it works.
Occasionally local leaders request that only hymns that are familiar to the congregation be sung in sacrament meeting. The problem is which are the familiar hymns? What is familiar to one may not be to another. To me, “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown” is very familiar. It’s the main chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The music is in every Christian hymnal I’ve ever browsed. The hymn text describes the sacrifice of our Savior. It is a message central to our religion. Why then can we not sing it or any other hymn for that matter?
On the LDS Church Music website and in the hymnbook it states:
- Achieving Balance in the Selection of Hymns: In addition to using hymns already known and loved, members are encouraged to become acquainted with new or less familiar hymns. Try to achieve a good balance between familiar favorites and less well-known hymns.
- Hymns for Stake Conference: Standard, well-known hymns are often the best choice for stake conference, particularly if hymnbooks are not available for the entire congregation.
Notice that well-known hymns are suggested for stake conference but no such statement is made regarding sacrament meeting. However, achieving a good balance is suggested. I like the 80/20 rule I heard someone mention years ago, 80% familiar and 20% less-familiar hymns. When choosing a less-familiar hymn it is helpful to have the organist play the entire hymn for the introduction. Have the organist play it for prelude music. Have the choir perform it or ask the Relief Society sisters to sing it in their meeting the week before. Then, by the time the ward is introduced to this hymn in sacrament meeting is is no longer unfamiliar.
The Latter-day Saint hymns teach great doctrine. Each hymn is meaningful and sacred. We should strive for familiarity with all of these inspired hymns.