Saturday, December 8, 2007

Arthur S. Sullivan

Yes, the same Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) who wrote such operettas as H. M. S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance together with W. S. Gilbert, also wrote a substantial body of church music without any help from Gilbert. Cyberhymnal credits Sullivan with 32 hymn tunes. Besides holding up the musical half of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan musical-comedy team, Sir Arthur was also a church organist, professor and principal of a music school, conductor of oratorio societies and proms concerts, and the composer of serious operas and oratorios. Does it surprise you that no fewer than 17 of his hymn tunes have found their way into Lutheran service books? The real surprise is that, knowingly or not, you have probably sung music by Sir Arthur Sullivan in your church. It remains to be seen whether this is a good thing.

Angel Voices
It is a small step from 19th-century comic opera to this tune which, coincidentally, appeared as Hymn 240 of two different American Lutheran hymnals - both times paired with Francis Pott's hymn, "Angel voices ever singing." This interesting text praises God for creating the very music with which we praise Him, thereby assuring us that our songs of praise please Him. It contains some very worthy lines, such as: "Can it be that Thou regardest / Songs of sinful man? / Can we know that Thou art near us, / And wilt hear us? / Yea, we can!" The tune, however - charming as it may be in its dated fashion - is simply not of a churchly character.

A couple of American Lutheran hymnals paired this tune with the Harvest & Thanksgiving hymn, "To Thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise" - the one whose first stanza ends with the memorable lines: "The valleys stand so thick with corn / That even they are singing." Another hymn that has gone to this tune is "Who trusts in God, a strong abode." Both hymns have seen better tunes than this stately but bland melody, which reminds me of an alma mater.

Coena Domini
John Mason Neale's translation of a 7th-century Latin Communion hymn, "Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord," is converted into two-line stanzas to fit this tune in no fewer than three American Lutheran hymnals. This operation is certainly less brutal than cutting the five-phrase tune Old 124th to fit the four-line version of Neale's hymn. My only concern about Coena Domini is that shorter stanzas mean more musical repetition which, with this tune, may soon have a stupefying effect on the congregation.

You may recall that Gauntlett also had a tune called Constance, which I really liked. I don't really like the Constance of Sullivan, which appeared beside Bishopgarth in the 1917/18 Common Service Book as an alternate tune to "Who trusts in God, a strong abode." As a serenade for Irish tenor and piano, this would be a fine piece. As a hymn tune it is less practical than Bishopgarth; and as a tune for this particular hymn, less to my taste than the chorale Was mein Gott will.

I keep referring to "two American Lutheran Hymnals." One of them is the aforenamed Common Service Book; the other, its 1958 successor Service Book and Hymnal. So far, the tunes I have discussed appear in no other Anglophone Lutheran hymnals, with one exception: Coena Domini was also in SBH's successor, the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978. I thought this might be worth noting as we assess the coincidence between the use of Sullivan's tunes and the pietistic, American-evangelicalism-tinged strain of Lutheranism represented by CSB, SBH, LBW, and now Evangelical Lutheran Worship. As I continue this post, I will point out further evidence of this, ahem, coincidence.

CSB and SBH both pair this tune with H. F. Lyte's hymn on Christian obedience, "Jesus, I my cross have taken." The latter hymnal offers as an alternate tune G. T. Alexis's Seraphim, which is practically impossible to distinguish from Falfield in a blind taste test. CSB further sets "Savior, sprinkle many nations" to this tune. The Sullivan one, I mean. This mission text by Arthur C. Coxe came under fire for false doctrine in the 1920s, with the result that several replacement-stanzas were published in Missouri Synod hymnals from that time on.

Falfield brings out the native character of both hymns with a clarity from which LCMS congregations are fortunately spared by such tunes as O du Liebe and Hyfrydol. Perhaps if the selection of hymns in Lutheran books was subjected to a more rigorous discipline, such hymns would be dropped altogether, and there would be no need to quibble over which tune(s) should go with them.

Since the 1970's, Carl Schalk's tune Fortunatus New has become "the" vehicle for Venantius Fortunatus's Passion hymn "Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle." I mention this only to put that tune's title in context as the successor to this tune by Arthur Sullivan. CSB, SBH, and LBW all paired this tune with the same medieval author's Easter hymn, "Welcome, happy morning, age to age shall say." There seem to be lots of tunes contending for this hymn, from Sei du mir gegruesset to Prince Rupert. I hate to admit it, non-Sullivan fan that I am, but his Fortunatus is as fortunate as any of them.

Golden Sheaves
The old Lutheran Hymnary - which is no more innocent of pietistic tendencies than was CSB or SBH - used this tune twice: for Nicholas von Zinzendorf's fine Reformation hymn, "We hail Thee, Lord, Thy Church's rock"; and for the aforementioned Harvest & Thanksgiving hymn, "To Thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise." Some hymns seem to gravitate toward Sullivan's music somehow. I think Dix's harvest hymn is the one that gives this tune its name. Perhaps this is as close to "chorale" as a light-opera composer can manage; it sounds vaguely like the national anthem of some high-altitude country. But as ear-pleasing and well-crafted as it is, it just doesn't sound churchly.

Sullivan shows an uncharacteristic economy of material in this tune. Nevertheless, it sounds less like a churchly hymn than a patriotic chorus from a satirical, Victorian operetta. Melodramatic and dull at the same time (a most ingenious paradox!), this tune paired up with two hymns in CSB: "My God and Father, while I stray" and "Through good report and evil, Lord."

Heaven Is My Home
The archpietistic Concordia Hymnal (Augsburg Publishing House, 1932) paired this tune with Philip Bliss's horrid, camp-meetingly, decisionistic anthem "Almost persuaded now to believe." Far more significant, however, is this tune's widespread use with Thomas Taylor's deathbed spiritual "I'm but a stranger here," whose stanzas all end in the words of the tune's title. (This tune is sometimes called St. Edmund; but then, so is Charles Steggall's tune St. Edward.) Smacking of spartan little Reformed churches and old-time evangelism crusades, this tune is thoroughly repellent to every Lutheran sensibility - and it is married to a text that carries every Pietistic stereotype to a nauseating extreme.

Though I am sure I will lose as many friends for what I have to say about "I'm but a stranger here" as I did when I trashed "There is a fountain filled with blood," I can't help saying it: Every appearance of this hymn in an Anglophone Lutheran hymnal is a blow by the Anglophone against whatever is Lutheran in that book and in the church that uses it. In its smarmy sentimentality, in its unconsciousness of personal sin, and in its anti-incarnational renunciation of the world, it has much that should ingratiate it to quietists, anabaptists, sectarians, and people who are too depressed to live an active Christian life; but it says nothing to help people who struggle to live each day with one foot in this world and the other in the kingdom of God. It does not recognize that God's work is good, in this world too; or that my own sin is part of the evil that fills this world with so much misery.

The hymn conjures impossible, unreal imagery of an altogether worthless present world, through which the individual Christian floats like a soap bubble, disengaged, unaffected, and contributing nothing to the way the world is. Perhaps worst of all, it depicts the Christian hope as a kind of ascension or translation to a spiritual plane of existence, rather than a resurrection and restoration of all things, body and spirit made perfect together. It is dualistic and perhaps even docetistic, with a vaguely impersonal Savior and a Christian self that only seems to be here, but really isn't. In the final analysis, it is simply a brimming vat of self-indulgent shmaltz with no spiritually redeeming value. And it deserves the tune named after its too-oft-repeated refrain. I hope, however, that Anglophone Lutheranism does not yet deserve this hymn.

SBH paired this tune with "For thee, O dear, dear country" - a cento from St. Bernard of Clairvaux's hymn "Of Contempt for the World," for which other hymnals favored tunes such as Ewing and Bona Patria. Two other hymnals used it for H. R. Haweis's hymn "The Homeland! O the Homeland!" Take two guesses as to where the tune got its title. The tune is quite consistent with Sullivan's signature style; in fact, one finds in his hymn tunes a remarkable, perhaps even disturbing homogeneity. It is no more inspired than his average work, and possibly slightly less; and the textual similarity between "The Homeland" and "I'm but a stranger here" suggests that this consistency is no accident. It really seems Sullivan's spirituality leaned toward hymns like this, in which we gaze continually on "the Homeland" (heaven) with eyes "wet with tears." I strongly believe that keeping such hymns around in today's church can only harm service attendance, when readily available drugs can achieve the same result.

Lux eoi
One minor pietistic hymnal of the early 20th century set the hymn "When upon the raging waters" to this tune, whose title means "Light of Dawn." The more potent combination of CSB and SBH, however, pairs this hymn with Christopher Wordsworth's Easter hymn, "Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise." This hymn brings at least two other tunes to mind, each ahead of Lux eoi in priority: In Babilone, and Beethoven's Hymn to Joy. It's not that Sullivan's tune lacks interest or originality; only, most of it is concentrated in the last two phrases, by which time you, too, will have been reminded of one or two better tunes.

Saints of God
The next-to-last phrase of this tune demonstrates a rhetorical device that pervades Sullivan's works: the same pattern of notes repeated twice in one phrase. Look up and down this list of Sullivan's hymn tunes and you will see the same effect in quite a few second-last or third-last phrases. I mention this mainly to stall before admitting that the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book, the Anglophone hymnal that preceded The Lutheran Hymnal in the Missouri Synod, features this tune along with the Pentecost hymn, "Awake, Thou Spirit who didst fire." I don't have an opinion on the editorial position of ELHB, but I seem to recall one of my LCMS colleagues discussing a potential paper on whether or not a pietistic Trojan horse entered the Missouri Synod with that book. ELHB does have several of Sullivan's tunes in it, including Homeland as well as this mediocre bit of Romantic blandness.

ELHB again pairs this tune with "There is a land of pure delight," Isaac Watts's hymn about facing eternal life without fear. Watts, that master of metrical Psalm paraphrases and moralistic rhymes, may have been showing faithful adherence to a single (in this case, Old Testament) point of view; but I can't help feeling provoked by this hymn's lack of mention of Christ. Death and the life everlasting are presented as abstract doctrine, clothed in landscape imagery and an analogy to Moses viewing the promised land from across the Jordan, but with no reference to their context in Christ and the cross. How appropriate to pair that pale, spiritually useless text with this tritely theatrical little tune! And then, with one quick motion, to throw them as far from your hymnal as possible! By the way, William B. Bradbury's tune Bradbury is also sometimes called Shepherd. I will have uncivil things to say about that tune in due course.

St. Francis
The contemporary composer Giuseppe Moschetti is also responsible for a horrid tune by this name, but we don't speak of that. We speak, instead, of one of Sir Arthur's more attractive creations, which CSB set to "Father of heaven, who hast created all." Other tunes associated with this hymn, including John Dahle's St. Olaf and C. P. E. Bach's Apolutrosis, provide ample evidence that this hymn does not easily lend itself to musical setting, thanks to its unusual metre: All three tunes have their weakness, Sullivan's no more than the others. None of them are as familiar as they should be, considering that this hymn - a fine infant-baptism text by Alfred Knapp - should be printed in every Lutheran hymnal and sung in every Lutheran church.

St. Gertrude
Here is the tune that keeps Arthur Sullivan's foot in the door of every Anglophone Protestant church, Lutheran included. One hymnal paired it with the text "Christian Leaguers, rally!" But most likely you know it as the tune to "Onward, Christian soldiers." It really marches along, aided in some hymnals by an "oom-pah, oom-pah" bass line. Author Sabine Baring-Gould originally intended it as a children's processional hymn, but whole congregations have appropriated it in the service of a militaristic vision of the church. Its "Christian warfare" rhetoric musters the troops against unnamed foes in a manner that many parishioners find exciting, while an impartial observer is more apt to find it funny - like a theatrical sounding, musical game, tinged with a hint of polka. To be sure, there is some merit in Baring-Gould's text, which repeats many of God's brightest promises and most urgent admonitions to the church; and it probably owes much of its popularity to the highly crafted and inspired work of Sullivan. I just wish I didn't feel such a childish fool while singing it!

St. Kevin
Of the numerous tunes paired with the John of Damacus/J. M. Neale Easter classic "Come, ye faithful, raise the strain," the chief contender these days seems to be Gaudeamus pariter, followed by this tune and the embarrassingly-titled Schwing dich auf. "Tied for second" isn't bad if there is room for an alternate tune or two. Favored by three hymnals, including CSB and SBH (the latter offering a Ludwig Lindeman tune called Soerg, o kjaere Fader as an alternate), St. Kevin is surely one of Sullivan's more successful efforts. Unusually churchly, well-written, catchy, and as joyful as this hymn needs to be, it would be welcome in my church any time.

Another of Sullivan's finest contributions to hymnody, this tune was paired with "Arm these Thy soldiers, mighty Lord" in ELHB. Wordsworth's confirmation hymn begs comparison to "Onward, Christian soldiers," another hymn for youth full of military rhetoric. This is a far better hymn, however, with specific and beneficial prayers addressed to each Person of the Trinity, and such spiritually mature sentiments as: "O grant us so to use Thy grace / That we may see Thy glorious face." I like both the text and the tune, and I wish that, together or separately, they might become more widely familiar.

Conclusion: Sullivan was, at bottom, a theatrical composer whose working habits demanded a certain proficiency in composing, rapidly and continuously, music of a consistent style and quality within a limited range of rhetorical effect. The impact on his church music is a tendency toward tedious and even mechanical sameness, combined with a type of sentimentality that seems more at home on the stage than in the pew. Now and then he proves me wrong with a work of hymn-tune art that deserves to be studied, enjoyed, and used to the glory of God. Also, Sullivan's spirituality, or theology, were apparently of a type that only occasionally or accidentally overlaps with Lutheran piety. He seems to have leaned toward pietistic renunciation texts and those with an affinity for pomp and circumstance. Even some of his best and most popular work is tainted by association with infantile and triumphalistic material (e.g. "Onward, Christian soldiers"). But a study of hymns touched by Sullivan's music also leads to the discovery of some excellent hymns whose words and music are unjustly neglected.

To put it crassly: Down with "Onward, Christian soldiers" and "I'm but a stranger here"; and up with "Arm these Thy soldiers" and "Father of heaven, who hast created all." Down with Heaven Is My Home; up with St. Francis, St. Kevin, and Valete!

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