Sunday, January 2, 2011

NST 15

A reader recently responded very negatively to my series of posts ridiculing "Norwegian-Style Tackiness," which had all but slipped my mind. Thank you, Robert, for inspiring me to complete my painstaking critique of the hymn selection of the Ambassador Hymnal (Association of Free Lutheran Congreagations, 1994). I would hate to let this labor of (ahem) love linger much longer in unfinished form.

Hymn 577 is Does Jesus Care? (First line: "Does Jesus care when my heart is pained?" Refrain: "O yes, He cares; I know He cares..."). The words are by Methodist minister, prolific hymn writer and sometime novelist Frank E. Graeff (1860-1919), who is now chiefly remembered for this hymn. The tune is by J. Lincoln Hall (1866-1930), an Episcopal choir leader, hymnal editor, and composer who considered this piece to be his "most inspired piece of music." I daresay its vogue is just about over and I doubt it will have another. The bland, part-songy music evokes nostalgia for a time nobody now living remembers. And though the text is nice and touching in its faded-daguerrotype way, the stanzas (expressing doubt whether Jesus cares for me) make a more detailed and compelling case than the refrain (which affirms that He does, indeed, care). Maybe if it had something more specific or meaningful to say than "He cares," it might furnish a deeper and more lasting comfort.

578 is Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, a hymn whose origins in the British abolitionist movement were dramatized in a 2006 film titled, er, Amazing Grace. I probably risk being excommunicated from every Protestant denomination in the world for criticizing this musical sacred cow. Its text is by noted Anglican hymn-writer and hymnal-editor John Newton (1725-1807), author of "Glorious things of thee are spoken", "How Sweet the name of Jesus sounds", "Come, my soul, thy suit prepare", and "Approach, my soul, the Mercy-seat", all of which are known and dear to anglophone Lutherans. Unfortunately, "Amazing grace" has become so universally popular that no one will hear a candid and objective discussion of whether it belongs in Lutheran worship. I once had my beard pulled, in public, when I unconsciously winced upon hearing plans to use "Amazing grace" in a church service where I was to be the organist. "Don't give me that look," the beard-puller snarled. "It's a good, solid, Lutheran hymn." I confined my disagreement to writing an arrangement of the music that had non-stop parallel fifths running from beginning to end, and enjoyed my little joke which nobody else noticed.

It was really the words that I should have rewritten--though, if it comes to that, maybe one should ask whether the hymn is worth it. I have no quarrel with the music, other than that it has become such a hackeneyed symbol of funerals (especially where men in uniform, and/or bagpipes, are present) that it even accompanies the scene in the Star Trek films where Spock's dead body gets shot into space. Other than being overplayed, however, the tune "New Britain" from William Walker's Southern Harmony (1835) is really a nice little piece of early Americana. I officially disapprove of the joke of singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club Song, or the theme of Gilligan's Island, or (worst of all) "The House of the Rising Sun," not because I don't appreciate the humor but because I have recently heard of churches doing the "Rising Sun" version in dead earnest. Now that is bad taste!

But at bottom, my quarrel with the appropriateness of this hymn in Lutheran worship has to do with the words. Stanza 2: "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved..." This is not particularly helpful when you're trying to teach people the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, such a crucial and distinctive article of Lutheran doctrine. Nor does it serve the purposes of Lutheran teaching to equivocate on the meaning of the word "grace," as Newton seems to do. From a Lutheran persepective, it is not his best work. Its acceptance into a Lutheran church body's hymnal is a sign-post on the road from "holding fast to the peculiarity of the truth" as we confess it to "caving into the pressure to conform to our Protestant culture."

580 is In heavenly love abiding, with words by Anna L. Waring (1823-1910), a Welsh poet who published two volumes of hymns after her conversion from Quakerism to Anglicanism. Her hymn is a lovely confession of trust in Jesus, adorned with allusions to Psalm 23. The tune "Heavenly Love" is ripped off from, I guess, one of Felix Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words. Why do I include this hymn in my catalogue of errors? Because I continue to crusade against the practice of baptizing pieces of non-sacred music, regardless of their high artistic quality or their nearness to chorale style. I don't think Mendelssohn meant for this music to accompany a hymn. I think its romantic warmth might be a bit too much for such a delicately trusting text. And I think its chromatic harmony (obliging Grandma Wurlitzer to negotiate fistfuls of sharps, including B# and E#) might put it tantalizingly out of the reach of a congregation whose combined level of musical ability rates as "nothing special."

582 is 'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, a hymn whose rendition by Amy Grant played on Christian radio about 20 years ago. The hymn itself dates back even farther, with words written in 1882 by Louisa Stead (1850-1917), and music by William Kirkpatrick (1838-1921). Kirkpatrick's tune "Trust in Jesus" is a bland and inoffensive part-song toward which I can raise no substantive objection. It's the text that irritates me. One reason it does so is the word "Just." I may be over-sensitive to the word "just," which my 10th grade ethics teacher banned from his classroom as the worst "dirty word" in the English language (because it nearly always heralded the beginning of a whiny, self-serving excuse), and which has lately become the fashionable word to drop into ex corde prayer: "Lord, we just want to ask you..." While this use of "just" may essentially be an alternative to saying "duh..." while the worship leader wracks his brains for the next thing to pray for, it unintentionally smacks of bargaining with God: "Just give us this and we won't ask for another thing." And then as the prayers stretch on and on, it contributes the appearance of insincerity: "We just ask for this, AND we just ask for that; but ALSO we just ask for the other thing..."

Is Louisa Stead guilty of using "just" in a self-excusing, bargaining, or less-than-truthful way? No. Actually, she puts it to lovely use, in the sense of "simply," and thereby arranges several nice little pictures of what "trust in Jesus" means into a memorable framework. But while I writhe in irritation at having a word my experience has taught me to hate ground into my nerves, I feel less inclined to grant the benefit of the doubt to a line such as "How I've proved Him o'er and o'er!" Though I can see what Ms. Stead was getting at in this line (part of the refrain), I can also see how easily someone could take away a strange and even spiritually harmful understanding. And in spite of the final line, "O for grace to trust Him more," the hymn may also leave many singers and listeners with the impression that "just" to trust in Jesus, as described in this hymn, is not too much for us to do if we set our minds on it. Stanza 4: "I'm so glad I learned to trust Thee." How? By my experience? By understanding (by my reason) and accepting (by my will) the information I found in my study of the Bible? Or by having the Holy Spirit as my teacher and being given a new heart through the means of grace? It could go either way. And while I'm still twitching from overexposure to the word "just," I can't help but nurture uncharitable suspicions about the way the author meant for it to go. Something a bit clearer, a bit less susceptible to an interpretation that militates against the spirit of Lutheranism, would be more welcome in my book.

585 is From every stormy wind that blows is a hymn by Anglican clergyman Hugh Stowell (1799-1865), an interesting and controversial character in the annals of British religion, and one who exerted a powerful influence in his time. I wish his influence could be brought to bear on the interpretation of this hymn, which spends five stanzas describing "the mercy seat" without coming to a clear and unequivocal explanation of how one gets to it. Perhaps the genius of the hymn is that you can read into it whatever prescription you would agree with, from a flight of pious imagination to participation in the Lord's Supper, from worship and prayer in general to the old cop-out, "wait until you die and you'll make it there for sure." Stowell couches his purple-tinted portrait in clouds of impersonal, timeless abstractions, such as "There is a calm... There is a place... There is a scene..." Nevertheless, I think Thomas Hastings's (1784-1872) tune "Retreat" is pretty and well-conceived, and John W. Peterson's arrangement of it includes a rare (for this hymnal) harmonic surprise.

The above hymn is a masterpiece compared to No. 586, There is a place of quiet rest, with words and music by Rev. Cleland Boyd McAfee (1866-1944), an American Presbyterian minister. The first half of his tune "McAfee," dressed up in chromatic D-flat-major harmony, reminds me of the kind of march your high school band played at halftime of the homecoming football game. The latter half resembles a sentimental folk song. With alternating phrases of the first half and all of the second half being set to a refrain that constantly points "near to the heart of God," it has a monotony hardly relieved by the total of six lines of unique lyrics that one finds spread between the three stanzas. All three stanzas begin with "There is a place of..." This gives the present hymn an even higher concentration of vague abstractions than the previous number--and the remaining lines all begin with "A place where..." The content this hymn delivers is precious thin, three stanzas of boredom enlivened only by a soft, sentimental, hard-to-visualize vision of heaven. It's like being hugged by a plush, soft football mascot whose padding envelops you until you can't feel anything but fuzz. Conceptually speaking.

591 is Under His wings (first line: "Under His wings I am safely abiding"), with words by William O. Cushing (1823-1902), is set to the tune "Hingham" by Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908), a composer associated with Dwight L. Moody. Which, you know, reminds me of another point that needs to be made before Lutherans chuck their own rich heritage of hymnody in exchange for middle-of-the-road Protestant ditties, as the AFLC seems to have done. At one time, Moody Broadcasting carried the Lutheran Hour on its radio network. That stopped when one of the Lutheran Hour speakers (now the president of the LCMS seminary in St. Louis) preached a series of on-air sermons explaining the power of Baptism. In removing this offensive doctrine from their airwaves, the American Evangelicals showed that they have more integrity than American Lutherans, in that they are vigilant to spot doctrines they don't agree with, and when such doctrine is spotted, they cut themselves off from the ministries and materials that promote it. If only the sons of light were as wise concerning their treasures as the sons of this age!

But enough digressing! Sankey's tune "Hingham" is a sentimental part-song that relies on cheap effects (such as surface chromaticism against a background of static harmony) to sell its mediocre melodic wares. Cushing's text--and I beg Robert's pardon for daring to criticize the brother--squeezes three whole stanzas and a refrain out of the biblical imagery of God sheltering us under his wings. And, to be frank, it isn't very skillfully done. I was tempted to pick on Hymn 590 because of a split infinitive ("to never stray"), but I chose instead to pick on this song--though there isn't one line of it that I would single out for abuse. It is simply that there is nothing interesting or especially striking about this hymn. After a book filled with its kindred, it fades into a haze of unexceptional sameness. Which, you may be surprised to know, kind of ticks me off. Why? Because this hymn, although there is absolutely nothing special about it, made the cut at the expense of dozens of magnificent Lutheran hymns. I truly, sadly question the priorities of the folks behind this book.

599 is I think, when I read that sweet story of old, with words by Jemima Luke (1813-1906) and William Bradbury's tune "Sweet Story," allegedly transcribed from some Greek melody and, more recently, harmonized by Winfred Douglas (1867-1944). The music is childlike and pretty, while Luke's words are just plain childish. The burden of the first stanza is that, when hearing the story of Jesus receiving the little children, "I should like to have been with them then." Stanza two continues this contrary-to-fact condition, wishing that Jesus might place his hand on my head, etc. Supposing that one must be disappointed to learn that these wishes are impractical, stanza 3 responds with the following consolation: "Yet still to His footstool in prayer I may go, And ask for a share in His love; And, if I now earnestly seek Him below, I shall see Him and hear Him above." Our nausea has now progressed beyond a response to unbearable sweetness to the truly sickening stench of a decision theology that makes salvation conditioned upon what you do. After stanza 4's kindergarten depiction of heaven, stanza 5 adds that thousands of children don't know about this heavenly home: "I should like them to know there is room for them all," etc. And it concludes with another sweet image of children gathering around Jesus in heaven. If it wasn't for Stanza 3, I could probably get this hymn past my gag reflex. As it is, I want to spew it out of my mouth.

605 is Still, still with Thee by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), set to the gushy tune "Willingham" by Franz Abt (1819-1885), though the book misprints his first name as "Erantz." I like what Wiki says about him: "Abt's compositional style betrays an easy fluency of invention, couched in pleasing popular forms, but without pretence to depth or individuality." This particular tune is all but a twin to James Harding's "Morning Star," known to many as a tune for Reginald Heber's "Brightest and best of the stars of the morning." Mrs. Stowe's lyrics follow a pattern similar to Heber's, though her thoughts seem more prone to meander amid the beauties of nature. The almost erotic mysticism of her text is such that after two stanzas, it could still be mistaken for a secular love poem, purple phrases such as "amid the mystic shadows" and "breathless adoration" notwithstanding. Only in stanza 3 does the soul's "closing eye look up to Thee in prayer" (which at last resolves who "Thee" is supposed to be), but it ends with a strange description of waking to "find Thee there." What, sitting in the chair by the bed? All this passionate excitement about being with "Thee" really does smack of a bride-to-be's anticipation of consummating her marriage. But as lovely as the poetry is, it doesn't have the character of corporate worship; and it is woefully shallow in terms of clear, substantive teaching.

It seems I was overly optimistic when I thought that I could get through the remainder of this hymnal in one sitting. Till next time... flee spiritual tackiness!


TWZRD said...

Hi, Robbie.
Glad to see you posting away over here -- we miss you at the Quill! May we assume you are well and otherwise busy?
So, re the hymns; if you object to "baptizing secular music" for sacred use, do you also object to Bach's use of "My face is pale" in the St. Matt? I think it's a rather lovely transformation myself, though I suppose I can see your point. It's a bit naughty for those in the know. However, there's rather a long history of such musical games in liturgical music -- which almost got polyphony banned from Roman Catholic use.
Perhaps past practice is not justification, but it seems we could cut a little slack, esp. in the case of reused Mendelsohn. (Would you rather have reused Country-pop?) After all, the best art is almost always stolen.
Happy New Year!

RobbieFish said...

One grows tired of the "baptized masterpieces" method of generating hymn tunes after seeing an entire book full of them (well, maybe about 40% full). Such is a metrical Psalter I have in my collection. And having been through so many hymnals, I've run across MANY sacredized secular classics.

I myself had the impulse to do adaptations like that at one time, but I grew out of it when I realized three things:

(1) These pieces were likely to be too hard for the average congregation to sing & would end-up being a showcase for the choir, etc. Example: the Haydn tune "Brownell," which is lovely but unsingable unless you're a choir nerd.

(2) The practice tampers with the composer's original intentions and often ignores the non-Christian associations of the tune. Example: "Thaxted," based on Jupiter from Holst's Planets, which was directed toward the spirit of pagan astrology.

(3) If you really love the piece you borrowed the tune from, you're not going to be in a hurry to hear an oblivious, musically average congregation & an indifferent organist perform a watered down version of it.

Plus, it's not as if the church is hard up for hymn tunes. I have collected thousands of them, many more are out there, and still more are being written, in all styles & degrees of tastefulness, and intended from the start for the purpose of hymn singing. So why not use them?

PS - Sorry I'm so far behind on TMQ. I'm currently weaning myself away from another pursuit that has put a crimp in my blogging activities for the last 3-4 months. It's been hard to put together enough "quality time" to write a post w/o having something else that needed to be done first. But I still have it in mind. Be thankful you're not the lone follower of my "Prince Winter" blog. Just a couple days ago I posted my first new chapter of it in over a year.

TWZRD said...

I see your point, but you never actually answered me about what you think of Bach's use of a love song as the Passion choral.
(BTW I visited a Lutheran congregation recently that has a regular "Bach" service. They were singing congregational words to the little g minor organ fugue. That was a stretch for me, though it was surprising how well they did. They must have practiced it lots.)
Anyway, it's good to touch base. I'll have to visit your WP fic now. I admire that sort of perseverance.
Meanwhile, we'll eagerly await our "Quill puppies".

RobbieFish said...

I think we have to make allowances for what the great composers do in their works. What Bach did in the Matthew Passion has to be judged differently than what the hymn selection in that the church regularly uses for worship.

I get a kick out of musical symbols as much as the next man. I giggle when I remember how Haydn's set of canons on the 10 Commandments included a "stolen" tune for "Thou shalt not steal" and the theme of a racy song for "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Things like this work (at least on a facetious level) because the musical symbol is tied into the meaning of the words. But singing "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" to "Deutschland über alles" (actually the Austrian Imperial hymn, but today best remembered worldwide as the anthem of the Third Reich)... or even Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (which LvB very specifically tailored to suit that effusion of humanistic idealism)... not only clouds the meaning of the words with ideological static, but is also (I feel) disrespectful of the music's cultural significance.

Luther famously said, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" But he also repented of using a secular ballad as the tune of his Christmas hymn "Vom himmel hoch" because he saw that some tunes are better left to the devil. (I mean that in the nicest, most non-judgmental way.)

RobbieFish said...

PS - This weekend finally looks good for some quality time with The Magic Quill!

TWZRD said...

Last comment from me:
I would presume Bach used "My Face is Pale' for the Passion choral precisely because the congregation does sing on that tune, and they would know it. At least, every hymn book I know has it in.

Re Quill: Yippee!