Monday, July 19, 2010

NST 9

As explained where this thread left off, NST="Norwegian Style Tackiness." And for the benefit of those tuning in late, this is a whimsical series of posts devoted to the "perfect storm" of doctrinally, poetically, and musically inferior, mushy, subjective hymns displayed in the 1994 Ambassador Hymnal. And there is still lots and lots of evidence yet to be viewed, evidence that pietism knows neither denominational nor ethnic boundaries. For although AH is the songbook of an alive-and-kicking, Minnesota-based, Scandinavian-derived Lutheran church body, its repertoire is primarily that of the English and American Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches of the 19th century. Go figure!

Hymn 477 is My Jesus, as Thou wilt! This hymn actually comes from a German Lutheran hymn-writer (Benjamin Schmolck, 1672-1737), albeit a pietistic one. His hymn of resignation to the will of Christ is very touching, and it would be just plain mean of me to pick on it, if it weren't for Carl Maria von Weber's tune "Jewett." Actually, I wonder whether Weber would have sanctioned its use as a hymn. The tune comes from his opera Der Freisch├╝tz ("The Sharpshooter"), the first great German Romantic opera. Both its musical character and its association with a secular opera raise questions as to whether this tune is properly used in church. On the one hand, I wouldn't wish the associations of a tacked-on hymn text on this fine opera music; and on the other hand, not everything that sounds beautiful in the concert hall is really suited to be sung as a hymn. This use of Weber's music could be the most striking illustration of these principles, though I would apply them equally to tunes by Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Pleyel, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Holst....

478 is Search me, O God, a paraphrase and elaboration upon the last two verses of Psalm 139, written by J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987), one of the founders of Campus Crusade for Christ. After the first stanza and its appeal for cleansing from sin, the text increasingly develops into another self-surrender ditty. Meanwhile, the tune "Maori," arranged by Norman Johnson (b. 1928) from an alleged Maori melody, sounds for all the world like a slow Barbershop song. Is that the kind of music the aboriginal people of New Zealand traditionally make? If so, the coincidence is amazing... yet tacky!

479 is God leads us along, words and music by G. A. Young (b. 1903). I used to wonder why so many tunes of this type were written in black-note keys like D-flat major (this hymn's key). Lately I've come to the conclusion that musicians faced with a book full of such tunes would soon grow bored without the gratuitous challenge of five flats. I've been playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier for over half of my life, so the key signature has no such effect on me. Young's music is gratingly, aggressively tedious. And the text is the worst of all possible paraphrases of Psalm 23, stripping the beloved "Good Shepherd" psalm of its most essential metaphor (shepherd/sheep), as well its most precious promises. How do I even know it's based on Psalm 23? Because it opens with "shady, green pastures" and "water's cool flow." Its refrain is true but banal: "God leads His dear children along, some thru the waters, some thru the flood, some thru the fire, but all thru the blood; some thru great sorrow, but God gives a song, in the night season and all the day long." Apart from this refrain, there are four brief stanzas that convey very little specific meaning.

481 is Take time to be holy, a hymn by William D. Longstaff (1822-94, not to be confused with the artist by the same name) set to George Stebbins' tune "Holiness." I wonder if this might be an artifact of the Holiness movement? It seems so likely that I wonder how it got into even a nominally Lutheran hymn-book. Stebbins' tune is a pleasant bit o' nothin' from the "lowest common denominator" school of music. Longstaff, for his part, penned lines such as: "Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone." Huh? How do you do that? And where does Jesus promise to bless that kind of spirituality? "By looking to Jesus, like Him though shalt be..." This is a recipe for holiness? Or is it the "Christ as moral example" theory of atonement? Every stanza begins with the line "Take time to be holy," and if it doesn't put it all on you to accomplish this, it asks Jesus only to be our "guide." And though it also mentions being "led by the Spirit," it doesn't say how we find Him either.

482 is Out of my bondage, sorrow and night by William T. Sleeper (1819-1904), with additional credit given to "Jeff Redd, alt."--whatever that means. The tune, titled "Jesus, I come" after a refrain that runs throughout this hymn, is again by Stebbins. Musically, it lies on a slightly higher plane of sophistication than "Holiness," but it's mainly the difference between a part-song ditty a beginner-level choir could sing and a number for solo quartet. Textually, whole hymn is a series of prepositional phrases building up to "Jesus I come to Thee." By the end of four stanzas, this gets pretty old. Still, it does have some good, complete thoughts in it, compared to, say, "Now the silence." But it remains an altar-call song, from the point of view of the convert warning Jesus: "Brace yourself, Lord! I'm coming!" [EDIT: In case you're not up on my sense of humor, that last line was not a direct quote.]

484 is Frances Havergal's I gave My life for thee, pretty much the same hymn as "Thy life was given for me" except with the persons switched around. And here I was ready to give ALH credit for omitting the "Jesus as a Jewish mother" version of this guide to being guilted by the Gospel. Philip Bliss's tune "Kenosis" requires us to repeat portions of each stanza, as if once through isn't already enough; and this becomes doubly ridiculous when you repeat the last line of each stanza to the same identical music. What can we deduce from the fact that both versions of Havergal's hymn made the cut? Perhaps the constituency of the AFLC hymnal committee was sharply divided over which version was better. If this hymn is so precious to them that a compromise was necessary... Uff da! That's just sad.

485 is All to Jesus I surrender by Judson Wheeler Van de Venter (1855-1939). The tune "I Surrender All" by Winfield S. Weeden (1847-1908) is a part-song with echo effects built into the harmony. The text is very light on content, with the same first line to all four stanzas and a refrain that repeats much the same sentiment three or (counting the echoes) five times per stanza. That leaves three lines of verse per stanza, lines whose highlights include "Take me, Jesus, take me now." Hey! I heard that thought! Wash your brain! And then there's "Let me feel the Holy Spirit, Truly know that Thou art mine." Hubba, hubba! And again: "Lord, I give myself to Thee; Fill me with Thy love and power, Let Thy blessing fall on me." Yikes! These words open up so many wrong paths to the mind, you have to wonder about the author's intentions. Is this straight-faced parody, or the type of mystical language that, accidentally or not, can be interpreted erotically? Meanwhile, if you wonder why your kids refuse to go to church with you, maybe it's because they're embarrassed to sing this stuff!

487 is Yield not to temptation, words and music by Horatio Richmond Palmer (1834-1917). Again, the tune is of negligible merit, appealing only to musicologists chronicling the mediocrities of that era and to devotees of a moralistic type of Christianity. In this religion, there are no mysteries or doctrines, no atoning blood applied through Word and Sacrament, not even a serious discussion of sin and forgiveness. It's all a matter of working hard, and Jesus' key contribution is that he is "willing to aid you" and "carry you through." You wouldn't have to believe much of anything to be able to sing this hymn.

494 is With God in grace I'm dwelling, translated from the Norwegian hymn by Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1829). Elevated to the equivalent of sainthood by the ELCA (which commemorates him as a "renewer of the church" on March 29), Hauge was a lay revivalist whose ministry, to say nothing of his measures, triggered a caustic controversy on the nature of the pastoral office. He left a profound imprint on both the church and the political structure of the "old country," and his followers formed at least three American church bodies that are now non-geographical synods of the ELCA. At the risk of exposing myself too much, I'll go on the record and say that I think Hauge's individualistic ideology and self-appointed ministry had a baleful influence on generations of Lutherans after him. His name still rises with the gorge in my throat whenever I hear someone say that he abandoned this or that vocation because he "felt called" to start a "ministry" in a place and form of his own choosing. In fairness to this hymn, it's got a good chorale tune and the lyrics aren't particularly subjective. Their five stanzas seem to be a pep talk by the leader of a persecuted and repressed sect, encouraging his followers not to be shaken by their trials. I just can't help thinking, as I read through these lines, that Hauge and his followers brought this repression on themselves by taking a dump on historic Lutheranism. The "persecution" they describe was, from a Lutheran point of view, an attempt by the faithful to correct error in their midst. What message do "Lutherans" send by adopting these sentiments as their own?

495 is Only one life to offer, with words by Avis B. Christiansen (1895-1985) and the tune "Only One Life" by Merrill Dunlop (b. 1905). The tune is solid barbershop with a veneer of blues, and one phrase per stanza where the alto and tenor parts have extra text, such as "Thy will I now obey (my Jesus)..." This hymn's theology of worship flows strictly in one direction: upward from us to Jesus, with at least a suggestion that our efforts "count for eternity." All right, there is one line in stanza 2 that mentions "the message of Calv'ry's redemption," and stanza 3 says in part: "Thou who hast freely given Thine all in all for me..." But this is a historical fact removed from the hour of worship with its upward-tending form of worship. And yes, it really says: "Only this hour is mine, Lord--May it be used for Thee." Not quite the stewardship theology which sees the hour of worship as giving back to God what really belongs to Him (including time), and what He has entrusted to us; this speaks of worship as what we willingly offer. Is it a fine distinction? Perhaps. But the bluesy barbershop music doesn't make the hymn less tacky.

498 is I must tell Jesus, with words and music by Elisha A. Hoffman (1839-1929). The tune attempts to be gag-me sentimental and only succeeds in being bore-me-to-death bland, apart from one really weird chord progression (repeated in the Refrain) which functions like an augmented-sixth chord, but lacks the crucial interval of the augmented sixth. With 5 flats in the D-flat key signature and some of the few double-flat signs in the hymnal repertoire, this hymn is consistent with the warm, mushy, boring subjectivity of a certain subgenre of navel-gazing non-hymn. Again, its small musical challenges give the musician something to divert his mind from a growing desire to bang his head on the keyboard. Or somebody's head, at least. Text-wise, the hymn repeats "I must tell Jesus!" ad nauseam: "Jesus can help me, Jesus alone."

I pity people who live under this blighted religion. They might not feel so lonely if they realized they were part of a church whose members bear one another's burdens; when one mourns all mourn, etc. But at least they have prayer, for whatever it's worth in an anti-sacramental religious movement whose Jesus is separated from you by cosmic distances, and to whom any nearness is, at best, a trick of your fevered imagination. As for me, if I didn't believe Jesus' promises regarding His powerful presence and activity in Word and Sacrament, I'm not sure I could rely on Him to hear my prayers either. I suppose it can't be an awfully exacting religion if that distant, sympathizing friend-type Jesus is sufficient to help me bear my sorrows and resist the temptation to sin. But I wonder what Hoffman means when he says, "If I but ask Him, He will deliver" when it's evident that the entire spiritual culture represented in these first 500 hymns rejects the very things Jesus promises to deliver.

And finally (for now), Hymn 500 is I'll go where You want me to go, stanza 1 by Mary Brown (1856-1918), stanzas 2-3 by Charles E. Prior (1856-1927), and tune by Carrie E. Rounsefell (1861-1930). The two poets are united in putting forth a song of upward-directed worship and obedience fueled by the individual's heroic devotion. Miss Carrie's music merges into the great, nondescript mass of virtually indistinguishable tunes, full of smarm and not much besides, and written inevitably in a key with multiple flats (3). Someone should write a dissertation on the reason sentimental hymns gravitate toward the flat side of the Circle of Fifths, and what role their influence has played in developing the tendency among self-taught organists to be allergic to keys on the sharp side. I have personally known church pianists who habitually sight-transposed tunes in A major (3 sharps) into A-flat (4 flats) because they felt it was easier to play that way. There are exceptions, of course. (I shudder to remember the organist who, on her own initiative, switched the middle verse of the Te Deum from B-flat minor (5 flats) to B minor (2 sharps), a switch no one would have noticed if it hadn't played Harry with their key-relationship to the surrounding B-flat major verses.)

Anyway, I only bring up this esoteric idea because I sense a wild, irresponsible analogy to the way people brought up on the spirituality of hymns like this are hard to transpose into the keynote of Lutheran hymnody, with its objective (and thereby all the more comforting) promises of forgiveness, daily renewal, and bodily and spiritual healing throughout this life and into eternity. It may be easier to convert a complete pagan to faith in the full, free promises of Christ than to correct the jarring dissonances and sever the elastic religious habits of those whose minds have been tuned to the key of these hymns. Like all true tragedy, it has irony loaded into it. And the irony, in this case, is that this particular "perfect storm" of Arminian-Holiness-Pentecostal hymnody has stalled over a church body that sincerely identifies itself as a bastion of conservative Lutheranism.

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