Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Tradition and Modern Hymnody

In T.S. Eliot's critical essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the author touches upon some ideas I think would be beneficial if applied to contemporary church music. Those who take it upon themselves to write new "songs, hymns, and spiritual songs," I think, should be traditionalists according to Eliot's definition.

In this, he encouages any new artist to realize their place among the entire literary (or, perhaps, musical) canon. And I think that too many songwriters have fogotten this notion. Being a traditional artist does not mean mindlessly repeating what has gone before, nor does it mean merely passing down work from the previous generation. (The whole of creative Christian music and song did not begin in the late nineteenth century.) According to Eliot, his view of writing encompasses all of history. And, I would add for hymnody, that it would include works created in all places at all times, so that the church of the entire world would be included, not just our Western sensibilities.

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, "tradition" should positively be discouraged. ...Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of ├Žsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

(emphasis mine)

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