Interpretation of Gospel Songs

MUSIC: Interpretation of Gospel Songs

"Song is a dual art that of poetry and of music."

Professor of Music, Southern Missionary College

To interpret is both to unfold the thought of the composer in his music setting and to make clear the meaning of the words. Song is a dual art that of poetry and of music.

There is a reason for thus pointing out the gospel song, because it is more difficult to interpret than the ordinary sacred sheet music. In the gospel song there are few, if any, marks of expression, and one is thrown upon his own resources. The simplicity of the accompaniment (usually written in the four parts) reduces the support to a minimum and increases the singer's need of greater confidence.

As religion "involves something beyond the intellectual, so music presents, in addition to its intellectual content, something that is more than intellectual." The student, in the emphasis upon intellectual things, is apt to halt at that point and miss the glories of song that lie be yond. Difficult music to him is worship, mainly because he worships the difficult. The greater the demands on the technical, the less there is of worship. Joseph S. Daltry in his Religious Perspectives of College Teaching in Music says:

"One final difficulty with sacred music is that those who perform it are largely debarred from making it an act of worship, if the dictum be accepted that the first requisite for worship is spiritual concentration. The singer or player who takes part in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion cannot, during that performance, give his attention primarily to worship, any more than he can do so while driving a car at high speed on a busy highway. In both cases the mos.t engrossing attention is required for the technical task."

Very much depends upon the accompanist. Those ten fingers may contribute much to the successful rendering of a song, or they may nullify every effort of the singer. Singer and accompanist should act as one.

To obtain the most from a song, one does not necessarily need a beautiful voice. Frequently the more glorious the voice, the less we get of the thought in the words. We hear the music melody, harmony, voice, and all but are carried away on a meaningless display of beauty, not having received the heart of the message. Happy the congregation that listens to a beautiful voice and is able to hear the message through this medium of beauty.

Study the Text

It is well worth the effort if the singer will sit down alone and prayerfully study the words, for the stanzas are not all cast in the same mold. Take, for example, "America." (No. 510 Church Hymnal.) The first three stanzas are exultant, but the last stanza is a prayer. It is very effective when large audiences change the exultant spirit to one of prayer. Yet how many times congregations go bolting through the prayer without a thought of what the words mean! When the soloist is guilty of similar neglect, his musical sins are great. These evidences of carelessness need not be. Only those of considerable music experience dare to sing songs- impromptu, and it would be better for them if some private thought were given to the song before it is sung.

Sometimes the spirit of the whole song may be compressed into one word, which, when kept in mind, will give the voice a color appropriate to the song. A tenor of lovely voice quality once said to me, "Why is it I can never put across the song 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'?" I asked him to sing a snatch of it, and found that he was using a dark tone, when the song calls for smile and brightness in the voice. Likewise gospel songs are not all sad and serious.


Some singers feel that all their songs should be slow they think that slow singing is sacred. Far from it! I have been pained to hear "I've Found a Friend" sung in half and whole notes with a dragging pace, that might almost cause one to seek his handkerchief to catch the tears. because he had found a friend! This particular song is written in the key of A major a bright, cheerful key. There needs to be more than a cheerful pace, but the pace does help materially.

Each gospel song has a pace, tempo, or rate of movement that best fits its own particular mood. For instance, the Glory Song needs a tempo of about 130 to the quarter note, because there is joyful anticipation in both words and music; whereas "What a Friend We" Have in Jesus" should move at about 75 to a quarter note. This is quietly meditative, and it should not lose this mood through exaggerated tempo one way or the other. "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" is one of the loveliest prayers in the Church Hymnal, and if recognized as a prayer, the proper tempo will suggest itself. If the one who establishes the pace (usually the accompanist) will examine the words and let them be his guide, he will be better able to catch the mood. This will settle the question of the rate of speed. Young people are more apt than others to sing too rapidly, and older folks do just the opposite.

How shall a soloist treat these note values that are written in equal length? Likely there are three or four stanzas to the same music. Should the composer try to write in the note values as the melody actually sounds in his inner ear, the notation would be so complicated that few, if any, could read it provided the composer himself could perform the task of writing it.

The soloist takes some freedom, suggested by the words, in "rubberizing" the tonal line to match the poem more closely. There is danger on both sides of this license too much and too little. One's artistic temperament and musical sensitivity should be the guide. Music notation, like the printed word, is only the bones of the music the pegs upon which hangs the pulsating line of beauty that appeals so much to us. One's imagination must be vivid, his insight keen, his emotions tuned to the thought in the words, before the music lives for it can live only as the musician lives it. "Let the words be your guide" is worth more than passing consideration.


Not only may some songs be compressed into one governing word or thought, but stanzas differ in mood and thought, and they frequently suggest different words that have a controlling influence. Let us look at "He Died of a Broken Heart" (Rodeheaver's Solos and Duets, Book I, No. 87). Stanza one, the voice may sing with a pace and tone of inquiry; stanza two, with tenderness—much less casual than stanza one more personal; stanza three calls for pity in the voice, and stanza four should bring out the quality of gratitude. The voice, unlike other instruments, is capable of changing its quality and color, yet singers continue to use the same voice quality, color, and intensity for all songs. When you hear them sing one song you have heard all they sing, for the rest are all treated the same.

One must live his song messages. Experience in Christian living, with a deep, abiding presence of the One altogether lovely, does much to make a common voice rise above the average, and makes of it a vehicle of spiritual power.

Another important factor in properly interpreting a simple song is found in points of emphasis. In speech the low points of intensity, and those that stand out for their normal emphasis, seem to find expression quite naturally; but in song the difficulty seems to be greater in finding the proper balance of these two. In song the change from one to the other is smoother and less abrupt, yet it is of noticeable difference. The composer studies the words, and the success of his music depends in no small degree upon choosing the proper tempo and placing the stress on the right word or syllable.

Song is glorified speech, and until the proper balance is attained between the two, their use will be ineffective. Song is emotionalized speech. When speech rises to its most expressive stage, it most closely approaches song. Song is speech in its highest and most convincing form.

It behooves the singer to spend more time in the preparation of the songs he sings, for without the appropriate interpretation the song message is crippled and made less impressive. His phrasing, tone volume, diction, climax, earnestness, and sincerity all need careful treatment. If as much prayer were offered .for the music as for the sermon, greater effective ness would be experienced.



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Professor of Music, Southern Missionary College

April 1952

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