One of the most ignored factors in the culture of song is voice. When lyrical content is considered by the average listener (or singer, or critic), the significance of just who is understood to be speaking, and to whom, is often ignored.
An anthem entitled something like “Oppression shall be overcome” might have helped in the 1960s struggle for civil rights, but would it have been the same rallying cry as the self-implicating “WE shall overcome”? Or would a hymn entitled “Jesus loves us, this we know,” have represented the same comfort and security to millions as one sung in their personal voice (1st person singular), “Jesus loves me, this I know?”
Let’s consider a medieval Germanic carol melody prominent in today’s service, whose original Latin text “In dulci jubilo” has in English long given way to a different text, “Good Christians all, rejoice,” (BOP #141) composed in the imperative voice, that is, an autonomous voice giving to someone else an exhortation or command.
“Now give heed to what WE say:”
“Now YOU hear of endless bliss:”
“Calls YOU one and calls YOU all,
To gain His everlasting hall.”
For whom are we proxy in our singing of these words, and to whom are we addressing them? Is it us, the ‘Good’ Christians, addressing others we hope are, or wish were, likewise?
Now look back at the original Latin text (shown here in a common macaronic English translation), written entirely in the first person, both singular and plural:
In dulci jubilo [‘in sweetest joy’], let US OUR homage show:
OUR heart’s joy reclineth in praesepio [‘in a cradle’].
MY prayer, let it reach Thee,
O princeps gloriae! [‘Prince of glory’]
Trahe me post te! [‘draw ME unto thee’]
The purpose here is not to judge or critique choices in authorship, translation and ecclesiology – but rather to draw attention to the role of voice in the words we sing and to engage with their meaning, for those who hear, AND for we who sing. In a sense we grant words an awesome responsibility when we choose to enliven and empower them by the addition of music in our own singing – so such questions are not trivial.