Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tacky Hymns 56

I don't plan to do a hymn-by-hymn critique of the Wisconsin Ev. Luth. Synod's Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993). To be sure, there are some questionable selections in it from the standpoint of what best serves the purposes of congregational hymn singing in a Lutheran worship service. But what hymnal doesn't have any questionable selections? Even the best ones that I know of don't bat a thousand. My one-sentence review of CW hasn't really changed since it first came out – which is that its editors and publishers could have saved themselves the trouble of repristinating The Lutheran Hymnal (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941) since that book was, and is, still in print. The nits I would pick in the book are mostly occasions on which CW strays from the path blazed by TLH, and I could say the same about the high points of the book – but there are few enough of either that the project of taking out a "Tacky Hymns" hit on it just doesn't fire me up.

However, I'm willing to give it a try with the two WELS hymnal supplements that have come out since 1993: Let All the People Praise You: A Songbook (NPH, 1999) and Christian Worship: Supplement (NPH, 2008). I'll try not to be too sarcastic, since WELS is cooking a new hymnbook and I don't want to destroy the chances of the 200 or so hymns I submitted for the editors' consideration. Also, I'm going to try to avoid duplicating cutting comments I have previously made about hymns that shouldn't be in Lutheran pew books but frequently are. But to ensure that no temblors on the Richter Scale of tacky hymns go unobserved, I'll mention those previously lampooned ditties as they pass by.

Let's start with LAPPY (if you'll forgive the familiarity). Not exactly billed as a hymnal supplement, it begins with an introduction that briefly goes over the history of Lutheran hymnody, then recognizes that other cultures and denominations sing hymns as well, and finally celebrates the way CW "widened [WELS's] hymn experiences and delighted many who were eager to sing a song of Christ in different styles." The inevitable conclusion is that the church needed an appendix to CW that goes even father in welcoming hymns representing "the larger perspective and mainstream" of Christian worship, by offering additional hymns of the kind only thinly represented in CW but that worshipers and leaders in "specialized ministry" (youth, home missions, etc.) feel a need for. To be sure, they've all been doctrinally reviewed! So that's all right, right?

The introduction also notes that LAPPY is not a hymnal; it contains no orders of service. It doesn't even number its songs; the numbers at the top of the pages are just page numbers. Also, the songs seem to be in ABC order, so there is no topical or seasonal organization in this book. So, with that settled, let's brace ourselves for an onslaught of Tackiness on Holy Ground.

It starts with Alabaré (pp. 2-3), which I previously attacked here.

The next hymn (4), text only (unless, I suppose, you have the accompanist's edition), is the Spanish translation of "Onward, Christian soldiers," in case your church wants to pat itself on the back for doing Hispanic missions. I mean, honestly, if you need a book to do Hispanic ministry, it would be a Spanish-language songbook, which for the most part this isn't. Also, not to be Freddy Faultfinder or anything, the credit line at the bottom of the page mis-attributes the original English text to Arthur Sullivan, who actually wrote the tune popularly paired with it. The actual author is Sabine Baring-Gould and, I would like to note, this error persists into the songbook's fifth printing (2010).

(5) All night, all day (angels watchin' over me) is an African-American spiritual (with guitar chords) that actually contains the lines "Now I lay me down to sleep ... Pray the Lord my soul to keep." As a bedtime prayer, it's really not bad and could be a significant cultural artifact. The musical arrangement isn't anything to write home about, however, and as far as the use of the book as a home devotional aid goes, I have no complaint. But to the extent that this is a book for public worship, I'm not sure it's worth the space it takes up.

(6-7) All things bright and beautiful, which I've already done.

(8) is again text only, the Spanish translation of "What a Friend we have in Jesus." I'm already starting to detect a pattern of this kind of thing filling space opposite single-page hymns that are sandwiched between two-page hymns.

(9) is Jerry Sinclair's Alleluia (with guitar chords and an optional descant), a tune I remember singing in a Sunday school or Christian day school setting at some point in my misspent youth. It has four stanzas, but each stanza repeats the same four-syllable phrase over and over so that the entire text of the hymn reduces to "Alleluia, he's my Savior, I will praise him, he is worthy." I say this even though I've touched on this hymn before. because in All God's People Sing this song had six stanzas and one of them actually named Jesus – an improvement on this version.

(10-11) Alleluia to Jesus (first line: "As Jacob with travel was weary one day"), I've already done.

(12-13) The angel rolled the stone away is actually a decent Easter hymn, as African-American spirituals go. By sight, I like the setting by Don Hustad used in this book. Two problems: First, it wants to be sung in harmony, and between that and the rhythm, I think this song is going to be owned by a rehearsed group of singers. So, again, it's not so clear why this piece deserves space in a congregational songbook. Second, I'm a little concerned about the factual accuracy of the lyrics, including the "Brother Thomas, he came running" bit – which sounds more like Peter and John.

(14-15) As the deer (pants for the water) by Martin Nystrom (with guitar chords), is familiar to some of us as that one piece a certain type of youngster knows how to play on the piano, and does so every time he sits down at one whether requested or not, like "Heart and Soul" only CoWo. The impression that it's a paraphrase of Psalm 42 is based on a superficial similarity between their first couple of phrases. The impression that the music is well written is similarly superficial.

(16-17) The Battle Belongs to the Lord (first line: "In heavenly armor we'll enter the land") is a spiritual battle song by Jamie Owens-Collins whose text has some merit. Stanza 2 hints about the power of the Lord's blood against the power of darkness; Stanza 3 encourages the hard-pressed faithful with the biblical news that "your redemption is near" (Luke 21:28), etc. If only there was more to it! If only, for example, it directed the struggling believer to a real source of strength and comfort (you know, like the sacramental presence of Christ) rather than skipping to a "glory, honor, power and strength" refrain that, I think, might ring hollow in some people's ears.

(18-19) Be thou my vision is set to the tune SLANE, about which I have spoken before. Don't worry, I was just bitching about it being hard for people of average musical ability to sing.

(20-21) Before the marvel of this night is a Christmas hymn by Jaroslav Vajda set to an original tune (MARVEL) by Carl Schalk, a words-and-music team I have gently ribbed on a few occasions but (mostly) with the deepest respect. I'm not altogether in Schalk's musical camp, however. I think his hymn tunes, like this one, sound like they're halfway trying to be something else, something of the "easy listening pop music" persuasion. At the same time, they're sophisticated pieces of musical art that sometimes, like this tune for example, exceed the musical abilities of Grandma Smurf's home church. This is a very nice piece for a rehearsed group or maybe a soloist. In fact, now that I know it exists, I'm going to suggest it to my church choir. As a two-page spread in the congregation's songbook? Meh.

(22-23) Behold what manner of love is Patricia Van Tine's CoWo styled arrangement of 1 John 3:1 (with guitar chords). I have no basis for dissing it, other than not liking CoWo music, and the fact that this piece is either over in under a minute or outstays its welcome by being repeated to the point of mass self-hypnosis. If we're just talking about what kind of music people should expect to hear in church, that's an argument that'll remain open till the end of time. When it comes to how much (or exactly what) you're getting out of the time spent singing songs out of a book, then I think I really have a leg to stand on. 1 John 3:1 is a good Bible verse and I'm all for singing or hearing a musical setting of it. But if the trend in worship time management is really moving toward minute after minute spent in meditation over exactly one Bible verse and away from texts that delve into their interpretation, I can only pray, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus."

(24-25) Beside your manger here I stand is actually a Klug hymn set to a Bach chorale! Zero tacks!

(26-27) Blessed assurance (Jesus is mine), words by Fanny Crosby with an added stanza by Marie Post, tune by Phoebe Knapp, I have already done.

(28) Blessing (first line: "Oh, may the peace of God") is a single-stanza benediction based on a Natalie Sleeth number. It's a nice little chorale-style attempt to save the youth choir the cost of sheet music. Really, it's not bad. It could, however, have been great if it had gone all the way (and not just 2/3) in naming the persons of the Trinity.

(29) is the alternate tune to CW hymn 494, "Blest be the tie that binds." My imagination runs wild, supposing that enough people in the WELS were unhappy about being forced to sing the TLH tune to the hymn (BOYLSTON) and demanded the opportunity to use the SBH tune (DENNIS) instead, that they had to include it in this book. So, this page really adds nothing that an enterprising organist couldn't have accomplished just by not throwing away their old hymnal.

(30-33) Blood Will Never Lose Its Power (first line: "The blood that Jesus shed for me") is a whopping four pages of AndrĂ© Crouch words and music, the kind of thing ideally performmed by a rehearsed ensemble or soloist and not by a congregation, least of all a Lutheran one. I'm going to avoid breaking the 8th Commandment here by not indulging in speculation about how Crouch does or doesn't intend for us to understand how we receive the power of Jesus' blood. But while avoiding that sin, I must leave the question open – which is not kosher in a faith tradition that has fought for 500 years to confess the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament.

(34-35) (I was there to hear your) Borning Cry, words and music (with guitar chords) by the late John Ylvisaker, is one about which I have commented multiple times before, most extensively here. All I want to add right now is that I was gobsmacked recently to hear a member of a hymn writing group I contribute to admitting that this is their favorite hymn.

(36-37) Breath of the living God is Jaroslav Vajda's translation alongside Osvaldo Catena's original Spanish, set to a Norwegian tune (with guitar chords), and I've already discussed a different version of it. ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006) claims that the tune is of Swedish origin. It's mysterious. In some ways, it may be better than the average hymn about the rebirth of baptism. I just can't help chuckling at what looks like a token gesture toward Hispanics – including the Spanish lyrics to a hymn here and there.

(38-39) Change my heart, O God is a CoWo ditty (with guitar chords) by Eddie Espinosa, has only a few lines of text and a musical setting that requires skill or rehearsal to perform well. Maybe I'm chronically underestimating the willingness or ability of worshipers who like this kind of music to belt out pop songs that have off-the-beat accents, triplet rhythms and long notes or rests requiring you to (more or less) count beats until your next entrance, while the same people might slam their books shut and pout if asked to try the rhythmic version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." It's behavior that shouldn't be encouraged, especially when the cost is giving up dense, rich content like the lyrics to "A Mighty Fortress" (for example) in favor of four OK lines repeated over and over.

(40-41) Christ is risen is a CoWo Easter hymn (with guitar chords) by Chris Rolinson, featuring the refrain "Christ is risen! Hallelujah, hallelujah! Christ is risen, risen indeed! Hallelujah!" and three stanzas that are all right, but perhaps not all-right enough to cancel one of the church's abundant treasure of traditional Easter hymns. Overlooking an interesting harmonic modulation in the stanza section of the tune, it's relatively banal music that, nevertheless, strikes me as more the choir's speed than the congregation's.

(42-43) Christ, mighty Savior is a Mozarabic Rite text set to a modern tune (MIGHTY SAVIOR) by David Hurd. Why do I consider it tacky? I don't, actually. After playing through Hurd's tune, I like it, personally. But I'm not sure Grandma Smurf will be up to playing it on her church's Wurlitzer, and I regretfully suspect that few members of her church will like it. I say this knowing that I myself tend to write modern hymn tunes and arrangements that most people probably won't like. I'm with you on this, David. I really am. I feel like doing what I did with Martin Franzmann's "O Kingly Love" – writing the kind of tune I think people would actually sing it to, rather than the tune in the hymnal that I personally like but know (in that case, from experience) will be a train wreck at Shepherd of the Cornfield Lutheran Church. It will probably sound like a piece by Lowell Mason, and all God's people sing Amen while the organist shakes his head.

(44) Christ is the King is an All Saints hymn by George Baell, set to the tune BEVERLY by Charles Anders, which I've heard, sung and played with pleasure. I think, however, that its popularity will be effectively limited to campus chapels and town-gown parishes with a high level of musical ability. Grandma Smurf's congregation will stumble.

(45) Clap your hands (all you people) is a little praise hymn by Jimmy Owens that could probably be mastered by children and, apparently, is intended to be sung as a round. I don't really see the round thing catching on, though; the music sounds more impressive with the harmony. Also, as a relatively brief, one-stanza hymn that's light on content (text-wise) and conjures the hilarious imagery of Lutherans clapping their hands, its usefulness during worship may be pretty limited.

(46-47) The Coloring Song (first line: "Red is the color of the blood that flowed") is a song by David Eden (with guitar chords), and from the title it sounds like it's meant to encourage the little ones to do unto their kiddie bulletins what comes naturally when crayons are at hand. What throws me off, then, is the length of the text – four long stanzas that, for once, aren't full of repetition or the sweet nothings that populate a lot of children's hymns. I don't want to discourage anyone from trying to teach this to kids. In fact, I think it's the kind of challenge that shows them some respect and faith in their intelligence, and the quality of the content will reward their effort. I mention it here mostly because it could be part of a cure to the insipid tackiness of most of the Jesus songs adults want their kids to learn, and because it's just juvenile enough that it might feel awkward if the whole congregation tries to sing it. But also, I'm not quite sure the music is up to the same level as the words. Four of the six lines are musically almost identical and they have a kind of Mixolydian feel that might leave little Timmy and Judy scratching their adorable heads. Also, the piano writing is kind of choppy. (It's definitely written with a piano, not an organ, in mind.) A better arrangement might help.

(48-49) Come and Praise the Lord (first line: "Give thanks to the Lord for his goodness") is a Steffi Rubin text with music (and guitar chords) by Stuart Dauermann that requires the refrain to be repeated twice (with a first and second ending) after each stanza. It's a strangely written little piece – here I'm speaking of the music – with such a low tessitura that the melody goes two ledger lines below the treble clef (that's a low A, for those of you who don't read notes) and barely makes it up to the middle line of the staff. So, definitely written by someone with a deeper-than-average voice. It's hard to produce a clear tone that low unless you do. Altogether, it's a strangely dark and spare sounding piece. Text-wise, it seems to be paraphrase of Psalm 118. I love Psalm 118. I wish there was more of it in this hymn. It does a decent job with the bits that it uses – but like a lot of CoWo psalm paraphrases, it leaves a vast amount of great material on the cutting room floor.

(50-51) Come, let us eat (for now the feast is spread) – been there, done that.

That's as far as I feel like going today. I can already see, however, that this book would be a great investment for churches that (1) want to move a little farther away from singing Lutheran hymns as a congregation and (2) are having a hard time finding an organist, or keeping an organ in good working condition, and would like to explore more options like piano, guitar or praise ensemble. There are exceptions, as noted, but they themselves become a problem for the church just described. I don't know how to write my way out of this dilemma except, with tongue firmly in cheek, to keep going straight through. Till later, then.

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