Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tacky Hymns 31

If you're tuning in late, flip back through this thread for the background of this ongoing sneer at the hymn selection of a recent major addition to anglophone Lutheran hymnals: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg, 2006), recommended for use in the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America and Canada.

Hymn 400 "God of tempest, God of whirlwind" is a Pentecost hymn by Herman Stuempfle (b. 1923), set to the tune CWM RHONDDA by John Hughes (1873-1932). It is by no means a bad hymn. But it may serve as a typical specimen of a trend in the "modern classical" school of hymnody. It heavily stresses an idea of Christian discipleship centered on missionary outreach and social justice—as though one's regular vocation at home and at work does not go far enough in serving God and one's neighbor. In fact, such intentionally "ministry" oriented activities seem to be regarded as so superior in their holiness that in this hymn, for example, we are directed to pray that God would "drive us out from sheltered comfort" and "into costly service" (Stanza 1); "shake us loose from lethargy" so that we may work "for earth's healing" (Stanza 3); "stir in us love's restlessness" and "claim us for your kingdom's work" (Stanza 4). If it meant to despise the humble role played by all Christians' faithful performance of their everyday duties, it wouldn't need to express itself much more strongly. Nor does it suggest that it is a God-pleasing work to receive His gifts regularly in the Divine Service, much less the acme of God-pleasing works. The only hint that the Holy Spirit uses means to reach the Church is in Stanza 2, which offers the interesting prayer: "All that blocks your purpose, purge! Through your church, Christ's living Body, let your flaming Spirit surge! Where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth!" This stanza immediately struck me as an excellent prayer for the good confession to overcome the error and abuse of power that now run unchecked throughout the church's hierarchy. Ironically, such an interpretation must be far from the mind of the church bodies responsible for this hymnal. To my mind, it's a prayer that God would frustrate the ends the church leadership is pursuing, and would raise up prophetic voices to expose them as false shepherds. To their minds, no doubt, God's purpose is identical with their own, and the injustice they would address lies in the politico-economic realm. The context bears that out, alas.

401 "Gracious Spirit, heed our pleading" (Njoo kwetu, Roho mwema) is translated from a Swahili text by Wilson Niwagila, and set to his own tune. It's really not a bad text, as hymns to the Holy Spirit go. Nevertheless Howard Olson's English translation fails to avoid the snare of banality, with lines like: "It's your leading that we're needing." Another line whose intended meaning I just can't figure out is: "Motivate all in their seeking." Even in the context of Stanza 3, its meaning isn't clear. But while the lyrics are mostly sound, the hymn trips the bad-taste alarm on two counts: first, packaging Egil Hovland's Taizé-simple arrangement as a congregational hymn, when (outside of a few congregations whose leadership may passionately champion it) it will most likely be used mainly as a choir piece, perhaps for children; and second, including a single stanza of the original Swahili version, in case somebody feels brave enough to attempt it as a musical diversion on Multiculturalism Sunday.

403 "Like the murmur of the dove's song" is Carl Daw's original text, set to the modern hymn-tune BRIDEGROOM by Peter Cutts (b. 1937). Its three four-line stanzas all end with the refrain "Come, Holy Spirit, come." The first iteration of this follows a string of similes describing the manner of the Spirit's coming (the dove's song, the dove's flight, the wind, the flame). Stanza 2 is mostly devoted to specifying the destination the Spirit is to aim for ("To the members of Christ's body, to the branches of the vine, to the church in faith assembled"). Then it adds the odd touch, "to our midst as gift and sign." Sign! Sign? Of what is the Spirit a sign?! Finally in Stanza 3, Daw gets around to stating what the Spirit is desired to do: healing division, prompting prayer, enabling us to "love and witness," giving us peace. What ever happened to the emphasis, so typical of classic Christian Pentecost hymns and especially of the Lutheran Reformation's doctrine of the Holy Spirit? Where is Luther's own emphasis on the Spirit's gift of faith in Christ, on His giving life to the spiritually dead, on His shining the light of blessing on all our daily pursuits, on His operating on us through Word and Sacrament and, finally, on His leading us through the valley of the shadow of death to life eternal? Eh? Where??? In a stanza, maybe, that got squeezed off the bottom of the page below a 2.75-stanza-long simile and metaphor extravaganza?

406 "Veni Sancte Spiritus" (Holy Spirit, come to us) is Jacques Berthier's setting of the Taizé Community's Pentecost sequence. It provides the option of singing it in English, but (here's the unusual touch) the Latin version is presented as the main event, and the vernacular translation as the sop to cultural diversity. While it's actually fun to see this book's theme of multiculturalism flipped upside-down, one has to marvel at the efficiency of a monastic community that can generate an entire sequence hymn out of one line (in either language), repeated twice to the same monotonous alternation between two chords. Moreover, the song's willingness to end on an unresolved dissonance (in music-theory terms, a last-inversion ii7 chord) will hit your organist, and anyone else who suffers from a bit of musical OCD, right where it hurts. Maybe the idea is to sing it over and over while everyone is leaving the church, so everyone can enjoy the fade-out effect. This seems to be the intention behind the performance note "Ostinato (repeated continuously)," the first confirmation I have seen of a theory about Taizé hymns that I have been toying with. They're not short; in fact, they're long—but their length is not like the length of a medieval sequence hymn, whose text leads you ever deeper into the meaning of (for example) Pentecost, but like the purring of a machine that becomes a sort of white-noise canvas against which some other content (an improvised solo, a melodramatic piece of oratory, an altered state of consciousness, etc.) can be projected. If that seems like a weird concept, even among all the weird developments in Christian worship since the 1950s, it may be simply because it goes against everything the liturgy is for.

407 "O living Breath of God" (Soplo de Dios viviente) is a Pentecost hymn by Osvaldo Catena (1920-86), with all three stanzas presented both in their original Spanish and in Gerhard Cartford's English translation. The tune is a Swedish folk melody I feel certain I have seen before, though I can't remember where. It's not a bad little hymn. But, again, I think there is something tacky about this hymnal's conceit of including the lyrics of some entire hymns in Spanish, while most other languages only rate one stanza at most. It's evident that the hymn-selection committee knew which side of the Cultural Diversity Sunday cake is frosted. And though no non-anglophone culture is equal to English in this book (to the extent that it would be a worthwhile book to have in, say, a Hispanic congregation), some cultures are clearly more equal than others.

412 "Come, join the dance of Trinity" is a Holy Trinity hymn by Richard Leach (b. 1953)1 where I started to groan already in the first line. Not another hymn that mangles the entire Christian faith through the metaphor of dance! (See my remarks on AGPS #170). Stanza 1 admits that "the universe of space and time did not arise by chance," though in terms that leave the door open to the preposterous theory of theistic evolution; it also describes the Trinity as "Three" (but never "One") interweaving in the steps of "their" dance (never "His")—so it could be interpreted as teaching tritheism, three gods. Stanza 2 describes Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection with such economy of words that it has room for the bizarre observation that "the dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone"—though the catholic faith stresses that only the Son, not the Father or the Spirit, was made man. Stanza 3, which depicts the evangelistic outreach made possible by the Holy Spirit since Pentecost, is really the high point of the hymn in faithful novelty of expression. But with two opportunities to rhyme with the phrase "Father, Spirit, Son," this originality (as exampled by avoiding the obvious rhyme with "One") has the side-effect that after four stanzas, the hymn still hasn't specifically confessed the Unity of God. This Unity (in paradox with His Trinity) is essential to the catholic faith to which we Lutherans re-pledge ourselves each Trinity Sunday. And though some preachers and writers today err on the side of confessing God's Unity without Trinity, it is no more correct to err in the other direction.

418 "Rejoice in God's saints" (today of all days) is Fred Pratt Green's (1903-2000) hymn for All Saints' Day, or for saints' days in general.2 I like much of what Green says in this hymn, including the oft-quoted line: "A world without saints forgets how to praise." While he makes a memorable and effective argument in favor of remembering past heroes of the faith, he overlooks a key reason, really the key reason, their example is worth following: namely, that they too received salvation by God's free grace, for Christ's sake, through the same holy means that even today pour God's gift on us. Everything this hymn says about saints is positive, true, and well-said if perhaps a bit prosy; but it is not complete, because without Christ (who is hardly mentioned in this hymn's four middling-long stanzas) there would be no saints.

419 "For all the Faithful Women" by Herman Stuempfle3 is a nice addition to the body of hymnody commemorating specific saints—in this case, specifically female ones. Between two unvarying stanzas, the hymnal allows you to insert one or more of nine alternate stanzas honoring (respectively) Miriam, Hannah, Ruth, Mary (mother of our Lord), Mary and Martha (of Bethany), the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Dorcas (an early Christian lady mentioned in Acts 9), and Eunice and Lois (mother and grandmother of Timothy). There is also a "general" stanza that can be used instead of these. All this is very praiseworthy and whatnot, but one cannot help but ask when these commemorations are supposed to take place. The very hint that the church might expect to sing all these stanzas, sometime over a year or a handful of years, suggests in turn that the church's liturgical calendar is about to fill up with exceedingly fiddly little commemorations (which does seem likely based on this hymnal's already-remarked-on calendar, pp. 14ff). Or, alternatively, it may suggest that a long series of sermons and special services is in planning, perhaps for the summer months. Either of these possibilities could spell doom for catechetical preaching based on the liturgical cycle of Bible texts, and in my opinion, that's a serious reason to reconsider whether this hymn really serves any good purpose. If the commemmoration can be squeezed into a few minutes out of a Divine Service otherwise following the pericopal cycle, well. If not, then say goodbye to the Nth Sunday after Trinity; you may never meet again.

420 and 421 "By all your saints still striving" is Horatio Nelson's4 hymn that does for the apostles and a few other male saints what 419 does for the female ones. Though it takes two whole two-page spreads (and hence, two hymn numbers) to get through them all, the saints' days it represents are mostly ones that have been more traditionally observed in Lutheran circles. Each stanza helpfully identifies not only which saint it honors, but also his role in the story of the church and the date of his commemoration (and they are listed in the order they occur during the Church Year). The hymnal committee tampered about with Nelson's text, altering some lines (including the first line, formerly "By all your saints in warfare") and inserting some entirely new stanzas (Stephen and Joseph in 420; Barnabas, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of our Lord in 421). Interestingly, Mary Magdalene is listed as "Apostle," a rise in her status of which I don't remember being informed. The reason I reckon this hymn belongs on the "bad taste" list—though "poor judgment" may be more apt in this case—is pretty much the same as what I pointed out about 419—only, proportional to 20 stanzas, not counting the unvarying Stanza 1, Stanza Last, and general-purposes Stanza 2. Arguably, if we're serious about having these commemorations on our Church Year calendar, we really should have at least a hymn stanza appointed for each of them. On the other hand, if you seriously mean to go through all of them, at least when they fall on a Sunday, besides the effects discussed above, these three hymns (and the two tunes shared between them) could become monotonously familiar to your parishioners. You might call that effective catechesis; but I would reply that your catechetical priorities leave something to be desired. Better idea: pick a different hymn to be the appointed "chief hymn" for each saint's day on the calendar, a hymn thematically connected to the readings even if it doesn't specifically allude to the saint in question.

423 "Shall we gather at the river" is, words and music, altogether the work of Robert Lowry (1826-99), an arch-sentimentalist whose works include several that I have previously remarked on5. This is his magnum opus, the piece for which he is best known today. It's one of those old-style part-songs that brings one's imagination alive with images of women in frilly bonnets and petticoats all sitting on one side of the church, opposite the men. In my mind's ear, they have an inclination to slide between pitches and to sing the American r at the end of the word river in a tightly closed manner. I don't know where this strong imagery comes from. Maybe it's a racial memory born of the Jungian collective-unconscious shared by all American (cough) Protestants, or maybe it was planted there by a scene in a spaghetti western that I've forgotten I watched. Whatever the explanation may be, it gets on my nerves. On its own merits, the text delivers four stanzas of rosy riverside views of heaven (based, I guess, on Revelation 22:1), taking consolation from the fact that we will someday gather there. It doesn't specify why, or how, or when, or what we must endure until then, or who (other than a general reference to "God") is responsible for bringing us there. It doesn't, in fact, proclaim the gospel. But that's just nitpicking. The real sin of this hymn is Lowry's tune HANSON PLACE, which apart from a few passing-notes and smarmy chromatic neighbor-tones, consists entirely of four chords (IV, V, and I), always in root position, in a part-song texture that apportions nearly all of the gratification to the female singers. Is there a commandment against being boring, you ask? I answer, Yes: "Thou shalt not kill."

1Tune: the English folk tune KINGSFOLD, lately heard in the Missouri Synod to the text "No tramp of soldiers' marching feet."
2Tune: LAUDATE DOMINUM by C. H. H. Parry (1848-1918), a very respectable high-Anglican melody.
3Tune: the Finnish folk tune KUORTANE.
4Not the one you're thinking of. The other one. Tunes: English folk tune KING'S LYNN (420) and KUORTANE again (421).
5Cf. The Ambassador Hymnal Nos. 111, 449, 464, 469, and 557.

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