From medieval to contemporary tunes: Church hymns in Germany | Music | DW | 28.03.2016
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From medieval to contemporary tunes: Church hymns in Germany

These days, German church congregations have a wide-ranging choice between timeless classic hymns and contemporary church music - a mixture that is as colorful as the secular music charts.

"Sing to the Lord a new song," a verse says in the Bible's Book of Psalms.

Throughout history, Christians appear to have been more than willing to add a musical dimension to their traditions, rites and beliefs. Over the past few years, Christian pop music, rock, gospel and jazz have become ever more important to parishes in Germany as well.

"In our churches, we see a cultural divergence similar to what is happening in the music world as such," says Albert Frey, one of Germany's most popular interpreters and producers of Christian pop music.

Many Christians just don't care much for classic, traditional hymns anymore - a development that has now been ongoing for about two generations, Frey told DW.

"It's not the kind of music that is close to their hearts, the music they would choose to express emotions with," he says. "Unlike pop music, which is the music we grew up with and fell in love to, and that helps us create beautiful moments in life."

And this discrepancy between what is actually sung in church and what people would like to sing won't likely fade away.

A rich cultural heritage

Paul Gerhardt

A gifted hymn writer: Paul Gerhardt

Christian lyrics began to crop up in Germany in a big way about 500 years ago, as the Middle Ages came to an end and the modern era first began. Hundreds of hymns were written in particular within the then-young Protestant Church, especially in the wake of the 1517 Reformation.

Little by little, a cultural treasure evolved out of this, which includes masterpieces written by the likes of Martin Luther and 17th century Lutheran minister Paul Gerhardt. Thereafter, each era produced its own special songs.

Consolation during hard times

Oftentimes, lyrics were written in times of war and hardship. Paul Gerhardt, considered to be Germany's greatest hymn writer, wrote many of his brilliant lyrics during the Thirty Years War, the terror of which he got to experience firsthand.

In fact, the songs written by Protestant lyricists had such an impact on all of society that the Catholic Church added quite a few of them to its own hymnals. As the third millennium drew closer, the hymnals of both Christian confessions - printed by the millions by now - were still for the most part a collection of tsuch raditional chorales.

Organ or electric guitar?

church service

Many people find that contemporary music enhances church services, while others disagree

All of that changed in the 1960s, a development that began slowly and then picked up speed dramatically. Lyricists increasingly started to express their faith using contemporary everyday language. US composers were the spearheads behind the movement.

Over the past five decades, a variety of different musical styles eventually found its way into spiritual music: sacro-pop, rock, gospel, singer-songwriter tunes and songs of praise.

These modern-day hymns led to bitter infighting in many German parishes, which lasted well into the 1990s, at times turning into skirmishes between the "organ and the electric guitar."

Today, pop music is no longer regarded a nightmare - to the contrary, people are now growing worried that traditional hymns might disappear to make place for contemporary sounds, says Protestant theologian and musician Klaus Göttler.

The challenge these days is to balance old and new music, he told DW, adding that he welcomed the fact that church musicians also play pop music nowadays.

Artistic differences

However, traditional hymns still tend to dominate regular Sunday morning Protestant Church services in Germany, says Albert Frey.

"The new songs are usually only sung in special services for teenagers, young adults, families or non-traditional church-goers." Unlike non-conformist churches, he adds, where modern spiritual music is much more commonplace.

According to Klaus Göttler, it takes years to put together a hymnal, so they can't constantly be updated in any case. He also argues that "hymnals contain the songs that have survived over the years."

Gospel choir

Hallelujah! Gospel choirs rejoice across the country

Songbooks instead of hymnals

That's why songbooks are an important addition to traditional hymnals. And songbooks seem to abound in Germany, often accompanied by a CD.

A surprising number of those songs belong to the "praise and worship" variety, a genre that developed in the US about 40 years ago: emotional prayer songs with catchy but still pious lyrics presented in the form of modern pop music.

Old treasures and timeless tunes

As much as Göttler and Frey propagate modern Christian musical heritage, that is the centuries-old traditional songs that are still close to their hearts, they try to come up with new productions to build bridges between the old and the new nonetheless.

The two musicians admit there's no telling what songs German Christians will be singing in the next decades. Some songs were only written for specific situations and times, Klaus Göttler argues, adding that is how it's always been.

"Even church songs aren't necessarily made for eternity," he says.

"It's just like the music charts. Only the real gems remain."

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