Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Tacky Hymns 65

It took me a lot of posts to get through the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod's 1999 hymnal supplement Let All the People Praise You: A Songbook (LAPPY), partly because I decided early on that book was of a nature and character that cried out to be analyzed in detail. Its apparent and stated mission, crudely paraphrased, was to open WELS worship to a wider range of musical styles – mainly of the Contemporary Worship persuasion – which, I contend, is a poor replacement for historic Lutheranism's rich heritage of teaching, encouraging, edifying hymnody. CoWo doesn't provide the same nourishment, doesn't uphold and defend the same doctrine, doesn't promote the same spirituality and, in my opinion, has the potential to dilute Lutheran identity out of all semblance. Argue with me in the comments if you will, but please give me credit for backing up my snarky witticisms with a sincere belief that somebody needs to say this and, since I have nothing in particular to lose by saying it, why not I?

Now, however, we turn to the Wisconsin Synod's second hymnal supplement since their 1993 Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal (CW): namely, Christian Worship: Supplement, 2008. This book is more like a miniature hymnal than LAPPY, with orders of public worship and private meditation, chant settings of several psalms, a three-year lectionary and 88 hymns, numbered 701 to 788. This time, my intent is to skip over lots of the hymns without any comment (because I'm guessing that relatively good ones predominate) and just focus on the songs that really disgust me.

But remember, my nausea isn't triggered by a mere personal preference for some musical styles over others. I'm looking at what makes sense in the context of hymns intended for an American Lutheran congregation to sing – in terms of difficulty level, artistic quality, the meaning and doctrinal content of the words, the cultural associations of the tunes, and the point where my experiences as a pastor, an organist, a choir director and accompanist, a composer and a hymn writer lead me to draw a broad, semi-permeable line between a legit desire to stretch the laity's range or repertoire and an exercise in the absurd. Also, now and then I'll award a "zero tacks" mention to something I want to introduce to my church choir. So, here goes:

(702) Prepare the royal highway gets zero tacks. I'm just interested in sharing the descant from this setting with my church's choir.

(703) My soul in stillness waits – Marty Haugen's setting of the Advent season "O Antiphons" – requires either a choir, or a congregation whose pastoral and musical leadership have agreed to expend considerable effort teaching this style of psalmody (or, in this case, liturgical texts) to the laypeople. I've been involved in such congregations in the past, but not always.

(707) Peace came to earth is one that I've done before, though this book pairs the text with a different tune than Evangelical Lutheran Worship does.

(709) Christ, your footprints through the desert is a baptism (first of Jesus, then generally) hymn by Herman Stuempfle, to whose works I have sometimes taken exception. I take none in this instance (zero tacks!) and welcome this addition to the lately flourishing literature of hymns for the Baptism of our Lord.

(712) Jesus, take us to the mountain is one on which I commented in a lukewarm manner during my tour of LAPPY. The only additional thing to note, here, is that a fifth-stanza descant has been added, which might put a little of that Transfiguration sparkle back into it that I previously felt Carl Schalk's tune SILVER SPRING lacked.

(714) The Lamb is a beast I have already wrestled with.

(715) What grace is this! (My Lord and King) is a beautiful Passion hymn by Laurie Gauger, set to a gentle tune written for it by G.A. Henning. I'm affected by the tenderness of Henning's music, but I don't think it's strong enough to lead the congregation's singing effectively. There's a reason chorales are written the way they are; sometimes you have to see the alternative to understand it. With an alternate tune, I think this could be a more successful Lenten hymn. As it is, it's going to be a solo or maybe choir-in-unison piece, and even that could be improved by a pianist who can improvise. Now that I've thought of it, I might sing this as a solo next Lent, with extra piano riffs volunteered by yours truly.

(716) No tramp of soldiers' marching feet (zero tacks) deserves comment because, instead of the English traditional tune KINGSFOLD that comes to mind with this hymn, CWS pairs it with a tune written for it by one David W. Music. (Great name!) For what it's worth, Music's tune is a little more conventional sounding to the modern ear, so it might be a bit easier to learn; but I don't want to discourage anyone from joining the multitude of souls who know and love KINGSFOLD!

(717) When you woke that Thursday morning (zero tacks) also replaces the tune to which I first came to know the hymn (taken from Marty Haugen's Holden Evening Prayer) with one apparently written for it by David Schack. When I previously commented on it, I opined that a change of tune might improve it. Personally, I think the difference Schack's tune makes is "six of one, half dozen of the other."

(718) Rest, O Christ, from all your labor (zero tacks) is another Stuempfle hymn, new to me, set to a magnificent chorale (O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN). Not the hymn's fault, but I think the book misfiles it under Good Friday when it's more of a Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil hymn, focusing on Jesus' rest in the tomb. I'm very impressed. In fact, I want to hear somebody (congregation? choir?) sing this at my church's next Easter Vigil.

(720) Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands is Luther's easter hymn, set to a new tune by Kermit Moldenhauer instead of the chorale that has always been paired with it, across Lutheran time and space. I stand behind CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN and encourage every Lutheran congregation's musical leadership to take their lumps for it and undertake any effort necessary to install it in the laypeople's firmware. This is no time to be creating a new division among Lutherans (and I've witnessed plenty of situations, thank you, where a preference between alternate tunes for the same hymn did so). The note at the bottom of this hymn, indicating that the new tune has been brought forth in hope of reviving the hymn for modern-day use in the church, betrays an attitude of giving up on something that, in my opinion, belongs to the richness of Lutheranism's hymnal heritage.

(723) Holy Spirit, the dove sent from heaven is one about which I've already had my say out.

(725) The God of love is a nice Kenneth Kosche hymn about angels to which I'm awarding zero tacks. I'm just mentioning it because it's new to me and might be worth discussing with the choir, the Sunday School teachers, the pastor, etc., when next we're planning a St. Michael and All Angels service.

(727) There is a higher throne is a long, easy-listening Christian pop song by Keith and Kristyn Getty that weirdly depicts Judgment Day in blandly sentimental hues. It's about as far from the Dies irae of Verdi's Requiem as you can get. Not that I'm advocating for performing the Verdi in church. But Verdi, I think, did a better job of dramatizing the thunder of the "thund'rous anthem" to which this song's refrain alludes. As a prayer of hope looking toward the end times, I think the lyrics are fine. But I believe the hymn would be improved (and more likely to play as a congregational hymn rather than a choir or soloist number) if the tune were replaced with something more traditionally hymnlike.

(728) Jerusalem the golden, words by the 12th century abbot Bernard of Cluny, is set in this book to Gustav Holst's THAXTED – against the churchly use of which (the tune, mind you) I argued here. It's an issue on which my opinion is decidedly (albeit passionately) in the minority. But I'd better move on before I get warmed up on it again.

(729) There is a blessed home is a hymn by Henry W. Baker about which I've commented somewhat favorably in the past. I think John Stainer's tune BLESSED HOME, written for it in the 19th century, is better than John Reim's ARIC (copyright 2002) used here to a more old-timey, sentimental effect. The fact that this effect is achieved with a relatively recent composition suggests that the hymnal editors were reaching for it, which is a mark against them in my books.

(730) Blessed are they (which are called) is a setting of Luke 23:42 and texts from Revelation, adapted and set to music by Larry Fleming (d. 2003). The refrain includes the words "Blessed are they which are called" repeated three times, concluding with "to the marriage feast of the lamb" – a delayed resolution that, at least the first time, makes me want to stamp my foot with impatience and demand to know, "Called what?" The refrain also has a descant that repeats, once in full and then in part, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The five stanzas go into more depth about the benefits of attending the Lamb's marriage feast. The word "thund'rous" makes a repeat appearance, this time with an -ly adverb ending. I make no objection to its contents, except that it keeps going back to a refrain (well, only after verses 2, 4 and 5; following the score's road map might be a little tricky for parishioners). And the refrain, I'm sorry, kind of bores me. Also, the music kind of bores me. If something could be done to unboring it, it might be OK.

(731) We are singing (for the Lord is our light) is a Hal Hopson choir piece, spread out over three whole pages, with words and music based in part (!) on the South African Freedom Song mingled with a paraphrase of Psalm 27. I had to turn a page to see this credit line, which explained (I felt) why all those parallel perfect fifths made it into print – they're there by design to support the impression that we're singing a Zulu hymn. But with a nearly two-page-long refrain, a musical arrangement that depends heavily on the piano accompaniment (including two bars of introduction) and some tricky rhythms, I think this will only be a choir piece in U.S. Lutheranism.

(733) Rejoice in God (Let trumpets sound) is a Timothy Dudley-Smith hymn set to a lovely modern-art hymn tune called MT. GRETNA by K. Lee Scott. Like a lot of beautiful modern tunes, however, I have some doubts about how successfully it will be introduced to a musically average, conservative congregation. Perhaps with a more conservatively styled tune, it might lift off. Maybe I'll think about writing one – though I hasten to remind myself that the last time I wrote an original hymn tune, the hymn writer found it too modern-sounding for his taste. Maybe somebody will write one. It's a good hymn text, though. Maybe somebody will be me, after all.

(734) When in our music God is glorified is a poem by Fred Pratt Green, which I am loath to call a hymn. It's an argument about church music, with which I would agree point for point – except that I don't think this is a text that should be sung in church. Only the fifth and last stanza really addresses God in praise, as such. Also, of several tunes I have heard put to this text, the one printed here – ROBINSON by Nancy RenĂ© – strikes me as the least melodically inspired and the most dependent on a clunky piano part. Culturally, artistically, this music clashes with the message F.P.G. is trying to sell here. So, it's not a song I would recommend or try to teach to my congregation or its choir.

(735) Speak, O Lord (as we come to you) is a CoWo number by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, who brought us "In Christ alone my hope is found." Like that song, I don't think this one will succeed as a congregational hymn, but only as a piece for solo or rehearsed group, thanks to tricky rhythms, obligatory piano tags and the general effect of being something folks want to sit back and listen to rather than actively try to sing. Also like "In Christ alone," it's a song whose lyrics I'm embarrassed to admit are on the high end of CoWo quality. If I thought I could get away with writing an honest-to-gosh hymn tune for this text, I'd try it. But I'm not even going to suggest this piece to my church choir, for fear that it will foster a taste for this style of sittin' back and listenin' music.

(736) In hopelessness and near despair is a "recasting" of Luther's penitential masterpiece, "From depths of woe I cry to you," with words by Jaroslav Vajda and music by G.A. Hennig. I think I'd be happier with it if the book had omitted that blurb about recasting Luther's hymn, which is, just as it is, such a powerful musical symbol that even secular musicologists recognize it. I do not agree with the implied project of replacing that stodgy old dinosaur with this nice up-to-date novelty. I think it loses something, or rather several things, ranging from the original tune's text-painting melodic shape at the words "from depths" to Luther's reverently direct language. Vajda's version takes it down a notch, rhyming "am" with "sham" in stanza 1, for example. Simply as a new penitential hymn, however, it's fine.

(740) Draw near is the well-known communion hymn "Draw near and take the body of your Lord," souped up with a completely unnecessary CoWo refrain and music by Steven Janco. Starting with a hymn that used to fit on one page, it now sprawls across three. Plus, its refrain is scored for four-part choir on two staves, supported by two additional staves of piano accompaniment; the verses are scored for unison singing, with a piano part under it that doesn't double the melody. What I'm telling you is: this one-time popular, easy-to-sing congregational hymn is now a choir piece. CoWo guys these days, fixing what ain't broke!

(741) Take and eat is a communion hymn, again sprawling across three pages, with a refrain and music written by no less a CoWo pioneer than "On Eagle's Wings" author Fr. Michael Joncas, combined with six stanzas by Jesuit author James Quinn. The lyrics are all first-person statements in the voice of Jesus (though not in quotes and without attribution or supporting narrative). Many of them are, in fact, Jesus' "I AM" statements from the gospel according to John. In spite of that, and everything it says being true, I'm uncomfortable with this song for several reasons – one being that, in spite of a blurb added by the editors at the end of the hymn connecting it to the Sacrament, and apart from the refrain, this hymn is not really about the Lord's Supper. Adding to my discomfort is the recollection of other modern Roman Catholic hymns about the eucharist that pointedly avoid talking about what it really is. Musically, and I say this almost with relief, it's not something I can see the average congregation being able to handle. It'll be a solo, or maybe a duet, accompanied by piano. (EDIT: I meant to mention that I was also a little suspicious about Joncas' phrasing "given up for you" about Jesus' body and blood. To be clear, Jesus gave them (sacrificially); he didn't abandon them.)

(744) You satisfy the hungry heart is one that I've previously commented on.

Now, what do you know! We're at the halfway mark already! With the blessing, and if CWS minds its Ps and Qs, we might get through this supplement in just one more post!

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