Thursday, July 26, 2007

Congregational singing when printing was expensive

When printing was expensive, and there weren’t pews with hymnals, how did congregations sing hymns?

Consider, too, literacy - how many Christians through the centuries have been literate?

(I think this idea bears repeating - vernacular Scripture translations in the Renaissance could not have “opened the Scriptures to the masses” unless the masses were literate....which, as I recall learning, they generally weren’t.)

I think of Bach BWV78, where JSB uses four different verses of the hymn (in different places - mvts. 1, 3, 5, and 7). How well did how much of Bach’s largely illiterate (correct??) congregation know all of those verses? Were the quotations just for the composer’s own edification (not an entirely absurd idea, considering the didactic natures of the never-published Mass “in B Minor” and the Art of the Fugue), or did Bach really target a certain segment (however large) of his congregation that actually recognized the quotations?

I mean, these aren’t verse 1, 2, 3, and 4. This is, like, verse 1, half of verse 4, half of verse 9, and verse 12. Yes, *12*! Some of those hymns have 30+ verses!!

And, when did congregations begin to sing in parts? Was it new in the 19th century?


At Thursday, July 26, 2007 5:26:00 PM, Blogger HilbertAstronaut said...

It's hard to say, but from what I've read, verbal memory was much more practiced back then (and even today, in other traditions) than now. Furthermore, I think the literacy rate was reasonably high among even ordinary folks, after the rediscovery of printing in the West. For example, English parishes were mandated to keep their doors open 24/7 so that parishoners could have access to the Bible (back when printed books were still a luxury for individuals). This means that it was accepted and normal for a goodly number of ordinary lay folks to be literate.

At Friday, July 27, 2007 12:39:00 PM, Blogger Dad29 said...

I'll go with the memory thesis of Hilbert. In all likelihood, the 'hymn' repertory was maybe 100 or so, and like Chant Ordinaries, could be learned by rote over a period of years.

Remember, too, that people did spend more time in Church those days than they do now, so the chance for repetition was greater.

At Friday, July 27, 2007 2:24:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

In addition to the two comments above, one also has to remember that language was spoken before it was written. People may have been illiterate in the functional sense of not knowing how to interpret written symbols, but that does not mean they were incapable of using or understanding language.

At Friday, July 27, 2007 3:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I've heard from a prominent conservatory prof (I forget who presently) is that hymns were simply sung slow enough that one could keep up. The example he used was "Chriiiiiiist laaaag iiiin...." And Luther advocated hymn singing not only in the Divine Service but also in homes and such. Typically I can make my way through a lot of singing before needing words: "Praise the... WHAT, PRAISE THE WHAT??!" And likely for more important hymns they probably would actually teach them to the youth. One of the distinctives of Luther's reformation was an emphasis on the catechesis of the congregation, so it's very possible hymnody was learned then.



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