Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tacky Hymns 52

And now to the hymns in The Service Book: A Lutheran Homecoming (Voice of the Rockies, 2001), hereafter TSH (as in "Tsh! That is so tacky!")...

3 "We walked out of the world" is a sweet little love poem from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, addressed to Joseph as they prepared for the birth of Jesus. Set to a nice little tune by Regina Fryxell (1899-1993), with rolling piano figuration befitting a sentimental birthday gift to the poem's author Dr. Ann Boaden, it seems to bear no relevance to corporate worship in the Lutheran church.

9 "Silent night, holy night" is headed with a blurb indicating that its placement in this hymnal was "sponsored by Bernice M. Sucha in loving memory of her brother Roland Gerhardt Eklund." If this is indicative of things to come,1 the already tedious clutter of this book's layout will soon become all but unbearable. Meanwhile, somebody eventually has to say it, and since I'm already burning bridges behind me, ahead of me, and on all sides, it might as well be me: This hymn isn't really all that great. The layout in TSH actually perpetuates the legend of how the hymn was written, in a pinch, by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr and his organist Franz Gruber, when they needed a hymn that could be sung to the strumming of a guitar when their organ froze up on Christmas Eve. Or something like that. Frankly, they could have sung many historic Lutheran hymns, and even some by Luther himself, to the accompaniment of a guitar. The story does not really explain why this precious little ditty was at all needed, nor how it became such a hit that it must, underline must, be sung every Christmas Eve at every church, in preference to many other beautiful hymns that delve more deeply into the miracle of Christ's birth. If we're honest, I think most of us will admit that the music is a bit dull, in spite of its almost painfully wide melodic range; and the lyrics do not flow very deep, though the argument that they are simple enough for children falls down before the fact that even adults sometimes have a trouble understanding them. Also fun to note is the fact that there are two different German versions of this hymn; and the one that seems to correspond most literally to the English version, and which is therefore more likely to be a backward translation from English to German, is the one that German-Americans prefer to sing when they feel nostalgic enough to affect the language of the old country. All around there is an odor of urban myth about this hymn that does not sit comfortably with me. Sometimes, when I sing or play it at the tearfully heartfelt climax of the Christmas Candlelight Vigil, I can't help but wonder whether we haven't all been had.

10 "I heard the bells on Christmas day" is a poem by Henry W. Longfellow (1807-82) that I never thought I would see in a Lutheran hymnal; at least, not much sooner than "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas." Even tackier is the fact that the poem has been altered so that the sexist language at the end of each stanza, "Of peace on earth, good will to men," now culminates in the gender-inclusive word "all." Perhaps tackiest of all is Jean Baptiste Calkin's (1827-1905) tune WALTHAM, which combines music-hall smarminess with bush-league voice-leading to arrive at a total that causes musically cultured readers to wince. The historical blurb at the foot of the page states that Longfellow wrote this poem when he heard that his son had been killed in the U.S. Civil War. Whatever its message may hold for people going through "trying times during the holidays," it isn't the comfort of the Gospel. And editor(s), please note: "Good will to all" does not mean the same thing as "Good will to men," whatever your position on gender-neutral language may be.

15 "All praise to thee, eternal Lord" takes a Christmas hymn by Luther (translated in turn from 11th century Latin) and, instead of transmitting the tune Luther paired with it as many other hymnals do, pairs it with the tune CANONBURY by Clara and Robert Schumann. I'm not sure the blurb is correct when it states that the tune was used in one of Schumann's symphonies; actually, unless my recollection is in error, he published it as a piece for piano solo.

16 "The First Noel" is an English carol by a hallowed tradition that, by the historical blurb's admission, dates back to such an ancient date as 1833. It's such a Christologically rich Christmas hymn that, in six painfully hesitating stanzas, it manages only one brief, laconic reference to the birth of our Lord ("Right over the place where Jesus lay"). The rest of it is about external details like the star, featured in no fewer than three stanzas, including Stanza 2's erroneous mention of the shepherds seeing it. The "three" wise men (that numerical canard again) offer their gifts and worship, and the hymn concludes with a summons to worship the Lord who "with his blood mankind hath bought," which is the gospel, at least. Whether it's worth six stanzas of waffle about wise men and shepherds (?) following a star is a question for another pay-grade.

17 "Our day of joy is here again" has words and music by one Andrew Skoog (1856-1934), a sometime Minneapolis alderman who also served on the board of the Swedish Mission Covenant Church, "a distant cousin of the Swedish Lutheran Church." In other words, it's a piece of sectarian hymnody that can only be of interest to people of Swedish-American descent. Its third stanza invites us to go "to the worship and adore the tender babe upon the straw"—a transaction that evidently takes place in one's pious imagination. Its fourth stanza rejoices that God's Son "should so himself abase," then borrows Mary's Magnificat imagery to say, "He thrusts the mighty from their throne." This strange juxtaposition suggests that Jesus' state of humiliation = casting down the mighty from their thrones. Skoog's music, meanwhile, is wasted on the church organ; it would sound so much better with the accompaniment of an accordion band.

18 "I think of that star of long ago" is another Skoog hymn, dedicated to the memory of another Eklund family member who happened to be a Swedish Covenant Pastor. Another long paragraph of explanation at the bottom of the hymn furnishes space to explain that the present-day Evangelical Covenant Church of America (descended from the Swedish Mission etc. etc.) "resembles a church much like United Methodist and Lutheran combined in doctrine and worship styles." Such a church seems likely to produce exactly the sort of hymnody one would expect to be promoted by a hymnal editor who converted from Lutheranism to Methodism, then re-apostasized2 to Lutheranism, bringing with him strong convictions on how Lutherans should worship. Thus a faux-folk tune, wedded to a scrap of mediocre poetry barely a hundred years old, bids fair to become a piece of unassailable tradition in a church that can no longer tell the difference between Lutheranism and Methodism, between truth and sentiment, or between a hymn of earthshaking cosmic significance (like "From heaven above to earth I come") and a spray-starched ditty that attempts to personalize the significance of the Christmas Star. "In faith I look up," Skoog writes, "and o'er me I see that star in its beauty still shining for me"—which suggests that faith is more or less the capacity to imagine yourself into the book, like Bastian Balthasar Bux in The Neverending Story. Stanza 2's response to the tidings that "to sin-blighted earth comes high heaven's envoy" is an effusion about "that dear memory" about that star still shining for me—i.e. not present, but past (in history) and future (in a potential eternity that I cling to with all my faith). Stanza 3 is more of the "to Bethlehem's babe I hasten" rubbish that locates Christ, ever the babe in the manger, in a spiritual fantasy world to which I can penetrate by some psychological trick that I call "faith." It is religious literature like this that gives the ring of truth to the view that Christianity is a mental illness.

19 "What child is this?" has been, according to the editorial blurb, a favorite carol "for many generations throughout the centuries." It particularly mentions the fact that the tune "came from an English folk song, and has been set to many different texts over the last 500 years." What this description tries to obscure is the fact, made plain only a few lines previously, that this beloved carol was written in the mid-1800s by William C. Dix. The text, that is; the tune was originally set to a somewhat bawdy secular ballad. Now that most people can't think of one without the other, it is easy to forget that this piece of hallowed tradition is really a 19th century poem set to an Elizabethan lute-song. It's all quite nice and says some good things, but that business about "many generations throughout the centuries" is rather like an art authenticator saying of an impressively forged painting, "Now that's the thing!"

21 "Lully, thou little tiny child," a.k.a. the Coventry Carol, is a smoothed-out arrangement of the 15th century folk-lullaby to the baby Jesus that one often finds in albums of choral and instrumental music for Christmas; but, again, it's strange to see it actually used in a hymnal. Stanza 1 coos and makes baby-talk at the holy infant, by way of worship and praise: "Lully lullay" here, "Bye Bye" there. Stanza 2 calls upon "sisters" to "preserve this day." Stanza 3 finally reveals that these "sisters" represent the mothers of the innocents in Bethlehem whose deaths Herod ordered. Stanza 4 takes the part of one of these babish victims: "Woe to me, poor child for thee." But much of it is practically unintelligible, such as "For thy parting do say nor wing"(???). Verily, one gets more out of the single line of explanation at the foot of the page than from the text itself. It's a piece of pious tradition that has, over time, become almost opaque to interpretation; and yet we're supposed to sing it instead of some other, more meaningful hymn.

22 "Carol of the Bells" (first line: "Ring Christmas bells, merrily ring") is that "ding, dong" song that, after the last few selections, you were probably expecting to see by now. Its tune originates in 19th century Ukraine (though the author of the credit line seems confused as to which country and which century; the composer, in fact, was Mykola Leontovych, 1877-1921), the text arises from no more venerable antiquity than the pen of Minna Louise Hohman, 1947; an additional stanza by editor James Sucha makes it possible to prolong the rapid-fire tongue-twister even more. Give the congregation a break; only a well-rehearsed choir is going to make it through this machine-gun barrage of syllables without misfire; and Sucha's stanza only increases the difficulty with such syllabification as "wi-ld-ly ringing," and such rhythmic tricks as singing "the birthday of" (set off by grammatically incorrect commas) to a fast long-short-short-long pattern. Then the editorial blurb "stresses the importance of the tolling of the bells" in a culture where the Christian symbolism of bells is rapidly disappearing.

24 "Still, still, still" is an Austrian carol that, again, has more to do with sentimental cultural traditions than with the church's message at Christmas. Stanza 1 paints a word-picture of the world slumbering under the Holy Star and falling snow. Stanza 2 murmurs a lullaby, urging someone (presumably a wakeful child) to "sleep, sleep, sleep" on Christmas Eve. Stanza 3 concludes with an exhortation to "dream, dream, dream of the joyous day to come," while angels watch over you in your sleep. It's a nice, heartwarming, pious way of saying, "Shut up, kids! Santa knows if you are sleeping!"

26 "Love came down at Christmas" is the hymn by Christina Rossetti (1830-94) that gives the wrong answer to the question, "Wherewith for sacred sign?" At midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, one would hope to have one's attention drawn to the "sign" of Jesus' body and blood, confirming to us the promise implied by His birth and fulfilled by His death and resurrection. But Rossetti blathers on: "Love shall be our token." Lady, I've seen so much among Christians that is neither loving nor lovely; if you can't point me to a better sign than that, I'm going to ask elsewhere.

28 "Hark! the herald angels sing" isn't a tacky hymn, as such; I'm even pleased that TSH restores some good lines that TLH and many subsequent hymnals cut. I'm also not prejudiced against this hymn just because Charles Wesley, one of the fathers of Methodism, wrote it; of his "over 6,000 hymns," some are rather good, this one included. Even on my particularly uncharitable days, I have to admit that a broken clock is right twice a day. But giving credit where due, I am inclined to think that Wesley was often an excellent hymn-writer, though perhaps uneven (as one so prolific is almost bound to be) and weakened by certain doctrinal peccadilloes. Felix Mendelssohn's tune, however, has often struck me as being ill-suited for this hymn. The editor's blurb, by admitting that it originated in "a cantata honoring printer Johann Gutenberg," only strengthens that opinion. But is transferring the hymn to a melody that actually fits the meter of the text worth getting lynched by the guardians of all sacred tradition in the church? Though, to be sure, this tradition is somewhat less ancient than 1840, the date of the aforementioned cantata. This is far from being the only example of a hymn being mangled out of semblance to its author's intent by editorial alterations, only to become hardened in that form in the popular mind.

29 "Go tell it on the mountain" is a "been there, done that" moment, as is 30 "'Twas in the moon of wintertime" (misprinted in the lyrics as "T'was").

31 "O come, little children" is translated from an 18th-century German hymn by Christian Schmid (1768-1854), set to its own childishly naive tune by J. A. P. Schulz (1747-1800), and well known to veterans of many a Sunday School Christmas Program. Its precious depiction of the manger scene culminates in an invitation to "lift up little hands" and "kneel down and adore him with shepherds today"—more of that "faith as pious imagination" stuff that has sustained my nausea throughout this section of the book.

35 "I wonder as I wander" is the marriage of a "USA folk hymn" (text) with a "traditional American carol" (tune). Since there is no such thing as a preliterate culture in the USA (unless you count the pre-colonial natives), this lack of specificity smacks of evasion, a disinclination to assign responsibility for this piece of artful insipidity. Stanza 1 requires us to pretend that we're wandering under the sky, even if we happen to be sheltered under the church's roof. Stanza 2 offers the biblically dubious information that Jesus was born "in a cow's stall" with loads of people present who, according to Scripture, only arrived later. Stanza 3 then pointlessly speculates about how Jesus could have had anything he wished for, "cause he was the King!" I gag as I goggle.

36 "See, amid the winter's snow" is a piece of touchy-feely poetry by Edward Caswall (1814-78), misspelled in the credit line as "Caswell," set to the famous prayer theme from Engelbert Humperdinck's (1854-1921; also misspelled) operetta Hansel and Gretel. And you thought, when I mentioned Engelbert Humperdinck, that I was going to say "Feliz Navidad"—different guy. The musical arrangement, nigh unto impracticable by the average congregation, exponentially increases the sentimentality of the hymn.

37 "It came upon the midnight clear" is, technically, not a Christian hymn, in the sense that its author confessed the Triune God. Written by a Unitarian minister, it "emphasiz[es] the social implications of the Gospel," as the editor's blurb admits, before adding that TSH has restored all five stanzas of Edmund Sears' (1810-76) text. So, if you're looking for a reflection on the birth of God the Son, from a perspective that bears any relevance to the Gospel, this is not the hymn to choose.

38 "O holy night!" is a French carol by wine merchant and politician Placide Clappeau (words, 1847) and ballet composer Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), which spreads out over four pages, partly because of the length of its through-composed melody (which makes its three stanzas seem almost interminable), but mainly because of the rolling triplet figuration of the left-hand part. As tricky as this will be for Grandma Smurf to play on the Wurlitzer parlor organ at the back of your church—especially because the pedal part is obbligato, though the score marking to that effect is cut off by the edge of the page and the Wurlitzer only has six pedals—trust me when I say, from experience, that performing this without that triplet pulse in the background is a recipe for a train-wreck. I've been there when the organist, unable to obtain an arrangement that could be played on the instrument available, had to make do with a chordal accompaniment that did not lay down a clear pulse for the long-held notes that run throughout this tune. Together with the extra-loud singing of one particularly deaf parishioner, the result was a hymn that ran right out of the organist's control and could not be rounded up again. I, dear reader, was that organist, and it was one of the three most distressing failures in my career as a church musician. Since then I have developed an aversion to the merest suggestion of letting the congregation try to sing this hymn. Take my word for it, it's a solo number, or perhaps an ensemble piece. It must be well rehearsed, and it's probably best to leave it at one stanza.

39 "Sing we now of Christmas" (Noel Nouvelet) is a French carol that one is accustomed to hearing sung by a choir. Editor Sucha's alterations do violence to the charm of the tune, presumably in order to make it more singable by the congregation. I would rather hear it done by the choir as it originally was. And by the way, the text is another one of those carols that perpetuates the biblical misconception that the magi were "kings." Why it's important to know that this carol was sung at Paris' Notre Dame cathedral can be known only to the author of the explanatory blurb. And whether "sheep and camels" necessarily belong in the picture is apparently a question for suppliers of ecclesiastical art.

40 "Come, all ye shepherds" is a Bohemian (i.e., Czech) carol from the 17th century, whose tune will, and I stress will, take the congregation by surprise. Again, only a well-rehearsed choir is going to get through this without stumbling; and that's without asking whether the hymn's spirituality of "come all ye people and children of the earth, come to the manger" is something to stumble over in itself. Aside from that, and sung at the tempo at which my mind's ear hears it, it would make a good musical obstacle course to try the agility of young singers. I'm not so convinced that it's a great choice for public worship in the Lutheran church.

41 "O gathering clouds and wintry earth" is allegedly a one-stanza American carol from the 1800s, to which editor Sucha added four new stanzas of his own. I have never heard it, or of it, before now. I do not judge it to be remarkable enough to preserve for the ages. I'm not even quite sure the lyrics make sense, unless read carelessly and with an ear for sentimental suggestions rather than clearly expressed meaning. The tune is uninspired and rhythmically awkward. The lyrics seem to be addressing created things, such as clouds, earth, and snows, only later to say things to them like, "creation ponders thee and sings," etc. If you know this hymn (which would be remarkable), you'll remember it by the climactic cry of "Bring joy! Bring joy!"—which becomes, in the added stanzas, "Bring peace! Bring light! Bring rest! Bring love!—O Lord to all this Christmastide!"

43 "I am so glad on Christmas Eve" is more of a folk-song for the pious home (especially where children are involved) than a hymn for the worshiping congregation. It includes two stanzas about the mother trimming the Christmas tree and explaining the symbolism of the lights and the star on it. It's a very quaint little bit of Norwegian home piety (even including a stanza in the original Norsk), but I don't see it edifying the congregation very much.

44 "When Christmas morn is breaking" does a similar service to Swedish culture, albeit with a tune of German origin. I believe the credit line attributing the text to "10th century Swedish" must be a misprint, as there was no Swedish language as such until the 13th century. I'm guessing a 9 got turned into a 0 there, and this is a piece of 19th century romanticism, desiring to seek the manger and view the Christ child (again, in pious imagination, or what have you).

45 "God rest ye merry gentlemen" is missing a comma from its first line, I think. This traditional English text, explains the blurb, originated in the 17th century and became wedded to the tune of a 15th-century folk song. That's all right, and in fact it's less tacky than many other examples I have seen. But again, its inclusion in the congregation's pew book suggests that the editor had trouble distinguishing between hymns for public worship and religious songs for private use, or for performance outside of regular worship.

46 "O little town of Bethlehem" is by Philip Brooks (1835-93). It is set here, as in the vast majority of hymnals since the early 20th century, to Lewis Redner's 1867 tune ST. LOUIS, with all its melodramatic smarm. The editor's blurb offers the interesting insight that FOREST GREEN—the tune that, when re-introduced in the 1970s, was received by many as an offensive innovation—was actually the tune originally set to this text. That public sentiment favored ST. LOUIS, the vastly inferior of the two pieces of music, just goes to show something or other. I guess it's not worth fretting over, as this isn't exactly the most excellent of hymn texts, either. Maybe its tendency to veer toward emotional effect, rather than objective clarity, fits it for a tune like ST. LOUIS after all.

47 "Away in a manger" is another hymn to which several different tunes have been set. Here it is set to the one that everyone (including the hymnal editor) mentally classifies as "Luther's Cradle Hymn," though the explanatory blurb explains that its attribution to Martin Luther is spurious. In fact, there is no evidence that this hymn wasn't written by an American named James Murray, while editing a Lutheran school hymnal in the 1800s.

The Christmas section of the hymnal, and this installment of Tacky Hymns, closes with a full-page layout of the Christmas story from Luke 2, omitting only the verse mentioning Quirinius of Syria, etc. This is a strange way to use a whole page of a hymnal, to say nothing of a hymn number (48), but it makes a nice break before the Epiphany section and, as we shall see, tons of tackiness to come.

1And it is. It is.
2Ha, ha.

1 comment:

Cuda said...

And no mention of the history that Silent Night originally had 6 verses? Nice hammer job, though.