Saturday, September 8, 2007

More Hymnal Bitchiness

Way back here, I promised to continue my bitchy critique of the ELCA's new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), starting with its musical settings of the Divine Service. Well, after a hiatus so long you probably thought (or hoped) that I had forgotten my promise, here goes:

SETTING ONE (pp. 94ff) sounds pleasant enough, though it is completely new and unfamiliar to me. The music begins with a nice, expressive setting of the "Ektene" Kyrie ("In peace let us pray to the Lord..."). The Gloria in excelsis ("Glory to God in the highest") has a churchly cadence to it, similar to the settings of the Lutheran Divine Service introduced in the 1970s, though it is rather uninspired. It gives little impression of being driven by a unifying idea, and sounds more like the first notes the composer could write down to fit the text. "This is the feast" is a little tricky: the last couple Alleluias in its refrain seem a bit rushed, for example. Again, the music somewhat lacks in inspiration and in the sense of confidence that marks any truly unforgettable hymn of praise. The unities are more evident in the smaller numbers. For example, the Gospel Acclamation for Lent reuses some melodic material from the Kyrie. The Great Thanksgiving draws on traditional chant tones for the Preface. The Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy") has a tune previously heard in the non-Lenten Gospel Acclamation; it comes back again for the "Christ has died" response and the "Amen" concluding the eucharistic prayer. The Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") is a pretty, prayerful little piece with a blended contemporary-classical feel that could be quite moving. The Nunc dimittis ("Now, Lord, you let your servant go") aims for the same feeling but comes off merely shmaltzy.

SETTING TWO (pp. 116ff): Another unfamiliar setting of the Divine Service, this one begins with a Kyrie that I personally find annoying, particularly in the congregation's responses which are all alike in their rhythmic and melodic triteness. Then comes a Gloria that, in the reality of the average or even slightly above-average congregation, is simply unsingable. With its tricky rhythms and wide intervals, it bespeaks a "Christian contemporary" composer trying to write something in a more "classical" style than customary, and perhaps unconsciously becoming an accessory to the murder of Lutheran congregational singing. "This is the feast" reinforces this impression, with a catchy holy-pop sound relying in part on hemiola (rhythmic effects created by tied notes). It sounds catchy, but would be very challenging for Bob and Edna Anderson. The Gospel Acclamations are so short that they should be easy, but they manage not to be somehow, particularly the one for Lent with its widish intervals and hemiolas. The Sanctus has more of the short-long-short rhythms that made the Gloria such a nightmare. The Agnus Dei has potential to start with, but ends up being mindlessly repetitive and irritating, like the Kyrie. The Nunc dimittis isn't bad, though it can't refrain from another demonstration of rhythmic alertness which pushes this entire setting more into "choir and soloist" territory than the repertoire of Vern and Elsie Mundinger.

SETTING THREE (p. 138ff), finally, is a setting I know. Missouri Synod Lutherans know this music well from Lutheran Worship (Divine Service II, Setting I) and Lutheran Service Book (Divine Service I). I was never very fond of this music, but I've grown used to it, and even the pain that its dated, 1970s sound once gave me has faded into the background. I have to admit that this version of "This is the feast" is a classic: catchy, energetic, joyful. As an organist, however, I find it a little frustrating. If there is a window of tempo in which this can be played without someone complaining, after the service, that it was either too fast or too slow, I haven't found it. When I try to accentuate its joyfulness, no matter how sensitively I articulate the phrasing, some people whine that it was too rushed; when I put the accent on its solemnity, no matter how crisply I articulate it, I get complaints that the tempo dragged. It's evidently one of those pieces about which everyone has his own idea how it should sound, and so I'll be wrong no matter what I do.

SETTING FOUR (pp. 147ff) is the setting known to LCMS worshipers as Divine Service II, Setting II (in LW) or simply Divine Service II (in LSB). I also like this setting a great deal, though I have not heard it used as much. I hear tell this setting is the one that predominates in the Saltwater Districts of the Lutheran Church, while the heartland focuses more on what ELW styles "Setting Three." The music of Four is perhaps a little more challenging to Edgar and Bertha Lund than Setting Three, but it is also very beautiful, warm, and lyrical. The form of "This is the feast" is more condensed (i.e. it has the virtue of being over with sooner). It requires the "assisting minister" (liturgist, or cantor, or whatever) to sing a few phrases solo; for example, at the beginning of the Gloria and "This is the Feast." The Sanctus setting comes from an historic setting of the Mass that was known, in a less simplified form, to J. S. Bach. I find it interesting that both Setting Three and Setting Four end, musically speaking, after the Agnus Dei, omitting the post-Communion canticles that were originally part of each setting. Perhaps the hymnal editors were concerned about saving space.

SETTING FIVE (pp. 156ff) immediately steps out into rarified, Gregorian-chantlike territory with a Kyrie that lies outside the skills of most congregations. Attractives as it is, it is too sophisticated. Scholars and serious musicians may use it, but Frank and Sue Soderblom won't be attending that service. For the Gloria there are two options: a Gregorian-chant setting (sans note stems) and a metrical paraphrase in the form of the hymn "All glory be to God on high." The service continues in full-blown chant mode, which I find interesting and attractive - I actually wished they had notated the Nicene Creed, in fact - though I was irritated by their decision to notate only the "updated language" version of the Lord's Prayer. The part of me that enjoyed the monastic discipline of daily worship at the seminary covets the opportunity to lead a pastors' retreat in prayers using musical settings like this. The larger part of me that serves a congregation is convinced that Setting Five would fly like an airplane with one wing.

SETTING SIX (pp. 165ff) may be the most "congregation-friendly" new setting so far in this book. The Kyrie, though perhaps a little tricky at first, has a certain poppy appeal. The Gloria is souped up with a repeated refrain and a catchy, repetitive melody. "This is the feast" dips decidedly into Contemporary-Christian territory, which I have said and will continue to say is more difficult to sing than the simple old hymnal style, unless you're a musician with experience in that area; it has off-the-beat rhythms like a piece of pop music. Somewhere in the world there is a congregation that claps its hands to this piece. The Gospel Acclamations and Sanctus are similar. The Agnus Dei carries this to such an extreme that, in my opinion, a church musician like Lois Paulsen doesn't stand a chance with this piece; it is like a musical Shibboleth for finding out who got rhythm.

SETTING SEVEN (pp. 175ff) is the Hispanic setting, in the style of Latin American traditional music, and with a line of Spanish lyrics above the English ones. The melody line is sometimes doubled in parallel thirds and includes cues from the instrumental parts during bars where the singers rest. I'm not qualified to discuss whether this musical characterization of Hispanic culture is a demeaning cliche. I do wonder, however, how a church with the resources to produce a hymnal with ten settings of the Divine Service cannot afford to give Israel and Marisol Uribe a full-size worship book of their own. Maybe they aren't important enough?

SETTING EIGHT (pp. 184ff) plunges again into the world of "Christian Contemporary" music, particularly in its first two numbers (Kyrie and Gloria). The music really isn't particularly inspired, but with its refrains the Gloria seems to go on forever! The other pieces are not unattractive, and probably more singable than some of the previous settings, though some of the rhythmic quirks could be off-putting to folks like Carl and Norma Sperlich (e.g., the Lenten Gospel Acclamation). This setting's Sanctus is rather boring, but there is a kind of grave beauty in the Agnus Dei.

SETTING NINE (pp. 193ff) is another unfamiliar setting, but the melodies are more interesting than in Setting Eight. The nicely-structured Gloria has a refrain heard three times, setting off the musical contrasts among the "stanzas," expressing each part of the canticle in an individual way. "This is the feast" opens with a very striking musical phrase (a stack of fourths) that communicates to me a certain brassy strength. Sanctus and Agnus Dei are further sophisticated, high-quality pieces of modern art music that I admire very much, but I would estimate that Ernie and Darlene Bittner would have a tough time wrapping their heads around them.

SETTING TEN (pp. 203ff) is ELW's nod to the old Lutheran tradition of having a "chorale service," with metrical paraphases of the sung portions of the liturgy, set to hymn tunes. The Kyrie is kneaded into a three-stanza hymn to the tune SOUTHWELL ("Lord Jesus, think on me"). Among the sentiments this hymn-version expresses: "We come to hear your living word; it saves us from despair..." That's all right. For the Gloria you have a choice of two settings: the hymn "Come, let us join our cheerful songs" (set to the tune NUN DANKET ALL), or "Glory be to God in heaven" (to the hymn tune based on Beethoven's ODE TO JOY). Some other day I'll blog about what I think of hymns based on classical pieces like this. The Gospel Acclamations include a general one ("Alleluia! Lord and Savior: open now your laving word") set to UNSER HERRSCHER ("Open now thy gates of beauty"), and a Lenten one sung to a Latvian folk tune called KAS DZIEZAJA that also appears at hymn 701. The Sanctus is sung to an adapted version of LAND OF REST ("Jerusalem, my happy home"), and the responses and Amen to the eucharistic prayer are based on fragments of the same. And finally, the Agnus Dei is sung to the tune TWENTY-FOURTH ("Where charity and love prevail").

After the ten settings of Holy Communion, there is also a SERVICE OF THE WORD (Communion without Communion, that is). I shouldn't ridicule this, because it has been part of every strand of American Lutheran tradition, including the LCMS. Nevertheless, I can't help wishing we could just get rid of this chimera, this cockatrice, this liturgical hippogriff, which is neither one thing nor the other and that leaves me with a gaping feeling of unfulfillment. If people are worried about taking the Lord's Supper too often, they don't have to take it - but should they deny it, should they fail to offer it, to those who seek it with all their heart? Okay, digression over.

The Service of the Word (pp. 210ff) begins, musically, with a setting of the good old Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy), not seen in this hymnal before this point. The congregation has the option of singing it all in English or partly in Latin and partly in English (the word for that is "macaronically," which reminds me that I'm hungry so I'd better finish this soon). Another good move is that this service includes the Gloria but no "This is the Feast"; no one says "We're thoughtless clods" quite like the congregation that sings "This is the Feast" in a non-Communion service. The Gospel Acclamations include the texts, familiar since the 1970s, "Lord, to whom shall we go" and "Return to the Lord your God." After the offering is an entirely new Canticle of Thanksgiving, "Salvation belongs to our God." The settings are new and unfamiliar, and though they are well structured (with refrains wherever possible, etc.), at times I think this music may push Ted and Lydia Novotny to the limit of their abilities.

The art work throughout this part of the hymnal is hideous in a 1970s kind of way. There ought to be a law. I am particularly struck by the inappropriateness of the baptism drawing on p. 223, which depicts a small, candle-bearing group pulling a naked dude out of a dunk tank. The art on the first page of HOLY BAPTISM (p. 227) is more of the ostentatiously ugly, and sometimes disturbing, red-white-and-black iconography one finds throughout this hymnal, and which sets up (I think) ridiculous expectations in the worshipers' minds. For a sample, see the Maundy Thursday icon at the right. Much the same can be said for the first page of each of the services I found in the table of contents back in this post. I am tired of tearing apart the tacky liturgical texts of this book, however, so I have no more to critique until we get to MORNING PRAYER (Matins) on pp. 298ff. That is where I will pick up another time.

NOTE: The names of fictitious Lutherans have been dropped throughout this article, simply by way of reminding us all who the hymnal editors should be thinking about. Any resemblance to actual people, Lutheran or non-Lutheran, is a meaningless coincidence.

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