I have long considered the manner in which our singing is conducted as equally contrary to Scripture and reason. The intent of singing is by a musical pronunciation of affecting truth to render it still more affecting. To accomplish this end, the music ought, at all events, to be adapted to the sentiments. As in common speaking there is a sound or modulation of the voice adapted to convey every sentiment or passion of which the human soul is at any time possessed, so I conceive it is in a considerable degree with regard to singing; there are certain airs or tones which are naturally expressive of joy, sorrow, pity, indignation, &c., and the grand art of psalmody seems to consist in applying these to the sentiments required to be sung. When David had composed a divine song, it was delivered to “the chief musician,” who set it to sacred music; and the Levites and the people would probably learn both the song and the tune, and sing them on the days appointed for public worship.
Our method of singing is the reverse of this. Some person who has a taste for music composes a tune, a mere tune, without any sentiments to be expressed. He divides and subdivides his empty sounds into lines and bars, &c. The poet, instead of going before the musician, comes after him; and a hymn is conformed to the tune, instead of a tune to the hymn. The tune being composed to four, six, or eight lines, is applied to any song that is written in these respective measures, and repeated over, without any regard to the meaning, as many times as there are stanzas to be sung!
I do not mean to object to the division of music into parts or breaks, so as to afford proper places for pausing; but this division ought not to be uniform, but governed entirely by the matter to be sung. There ought, I conceive, to be no pauses in music, any more than in speaking, but at the conclusion of a sentence, or of some lesser break in the division of it; and the length of the pause ought to be governed by the meaning in some proportion as it is in reading. Those notes also which belong to words of but little meaning, the mere particles of speech, should be short; and those which belong to words of full meaning should be long and full of sound. Nothing can be more unnatural than for a congregation to dwell in a long-swelling sound upon such words as that, in, and, from, to, &c., while they skip over words expressing the very burden of the song, as if they were of no account: yet this will frequently and almost constantly be the case while we make hymns to tunes, instead of tunes to hymns.
Our anthems appear to me to approach the nearest to the scriptural way of singing; only they possess too much levity for worship, and abound with a number of unnecessary, because unmeaning, repeats.
I have long wished to see introduced into the churches (and I almost believe it will be at some future time) a selection of divine hymns or songs, taking place of all human compositions. By divine hymns or songs, I mean the pure word of God translated without any respect to rhyme or number, after the manner of Lowth’s Isaiah, and set to plain, serious, and solemn music, adapted to the sentiments.
It has been observed by some of the ablest critics, that the spirit of David’s Psalms (and the same would hold true of the other poetic parts of Scripture) can never be preserved in a translation of them into modern verse; but in a translation like our common Bibles, or that of Lowth’s Isaiah, it is generally allowed, I believe, that the spirit of them is well preserved. Why then do we not set them as they are to sacred music? It is of a thousand times more importance to preserve the spirit of a psalm or Scripture song than to have it in numbers, even supposing a uniformity in numbers were of advantage.
What is the reason that Handel’s Messiah has had so great an effect? It is in part owing to the Scriptures appearing in their native majesty, without being tortured into rhyme and number, and set to music adapted to the sentiments. I do not mean to say that Handel’s music is in general adapted to Divine worship: it was not designed for it, but rather for a company of musicians who should display their skill. But the same words might be set to plain music without any of those trappings which recommend it to the attention of a merely musical audience. Such a sweetness and majesty is there in the poetic language of Scripture, that if there were nothing offensive in the music, it must needs recommend itself to a serious mind. Without disparaging the labours of any one, there is as great a disproportion between our best compositions and those of the Scriptures, as between the speeches of Job and his friends and the voice of the Almighty.
I am persuaded there are but few, if any, Divine subjects upon which a hymn or song might not be collected from the poetic parts of Scripture. In many instances the whole song might be furnished from a single psalm or chapter: and in others it might be collected from different passages associated together and properly arranged.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 521–522). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.