Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Tacky Hymns 66

Here we're making a mad dash to complete a survey of the hymn selections in the Wisconsin Ev. Lutheran Synod's Christian Worship: Supplement of 2008. Let me re-emphasize that I'm only planning to draw attention to two things: (1) Hymns whose selection for American Lutheran congregations to sing in worship is an error in judgment, in my opinion (which, if I may say so, is pretty well informed) – whether this is due to musical difficulty, questionable doctrine, poetic or musical misfires, cultural miscues or strong associations with a faith tradition that breathes a different spirit than Lutheranism; and (2) Really good hymns, new to me, that I appreciate having brought to my attention.

So, being listed below (as opposed to skipped over without comment) is not necessarily an accusation of tackiness. I'm trying to mix some positive criticism with the negative, here. Also, being passed over without comment may sometimes mean that I previously panned a hymn only because of the tune paired with it, and I didn't feel it was worth going over every tiny quibble again. Feel free to leave a well-behaved comment, but please read what I actually said first and give me credit for sincerely believing that it bears saying. And now, on with the second half of the book!

(745) May the peace of God (our heavenly Father) is a CoWo setting by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend of 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Philippians 4:7, two biblical blessings that are customarily used during liturgical worship. The exact wording of the verses is altered and expanded a bit, and there's a refrain with all-purpose praise language ("from the depths of earth to the heights of heav'n, we declare the name of the Lamb once slain," etc.) Like other Getty-Townend pieces I have reviewed before, I think the lyrics are all right; but I don't think this song is necessary, given that the nut of it is spoken aloud by the minister, very briefly, at regular worship services, and because a move toward irregular worship is not something I want to encourage.

(746) You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd is a hymn by Sylvia Dunstan (d. 1993) focusing on the dualities and paradoxes surrounding Christ, and set to the haunting melody PICARDY (which you may know as the tune to "Let all mortal flesh keep silence"). I love this kind of hymn, contrasting Jesus' power with his meekness, his glory with his humility, his richness with his poverty, his defeat and his victory, etc. I bring this hymn up, first, because I want to remember to introduce it to some people I know, but secondly, because I find the varied refrain that concludes each stanza a little odd in a couple instances; at least, the wording raises questions and may require some discussion to arrive at a proper understanding of what it means, or what we want it to mean. The repeated phrase "You, the everlasting instant" is quite striking and stimulates thought. The follow-up, different for each stanza, includes "You, whom we both scorn and crave" (let's agree that we don't scorn him now) and "You, who are both gift and cost" (by which, I hope, Dunstan meant that in Christ, God offered what God's justice demanded – certainly a difficult idea to squeeze into one line).

(747) There is a Redeemer is by Melody Green, written in the 1980s but sounding like something written a century earlier. It's got a hushed, expressive, choir anthem quality to it, although singing it might be within the congregation's ability. I just think its message is a little lightweight and generalized – more broad than deep – and that the time expended on it could be devoted to something more richly edifying. I can see where some people's preference would swing the other way. But that's the streak of pious sentimentality in the church that I've been wired, since as far back as I can remember, to struggle against.

(748) Lamb of God (first line: "Your only son, no sin to hide") is one that I've criticized before.

(749) The love of Christ, who died for me is a fine hymn by Timothy Dudley-Smith that applies Christ's redeeming work to the individual, and doesn't hold back about the seriousness of sin. So, this is one to discuss with friends, with an eye toward introducing it in our circles.

(751) Word of God, when all was silent is another new-to-me hymn by Herman Stuempfle that pretty effectively covers the person and work of Christ, and I think it's lovely. I have to hand it to the editors of CWS, they keep choosing excellent, and in my experience unsung, hymns by this particular hymn writer, whose work I have often panned.

(752) In Christ alone (my hope is found) is one that I've already discussed.

(753) Father, God of grace, you knew us is by Paul Eickmann (d. 2006). It's a good "justification" hymn that shows signs, especially in stanzas 4-6, of having been used sometime as a WELS rallying cry. Not that I'd hold that against it. Again, I'd be willing to try to introduce this to Lutherans outside the Wisconsin Synod – especially in these days when the doctrine of objective justification is under attack.

(755) Your kingdom, O God (is my glorious treasure) is one that I've dinged before.

(757) Where your treasure is (there your heart shall be), based on Luke 12:22-34, is a song by Marty Haugen with an assist from Michael Schultz, from Haugen's patented corner of CoWo that straddles the line between pop music and art song. It spreads across three pages, with a five-bar piano intro, a refrain that occupies most of two pages, some tricky pop-music rhythms, and accompaniment that does not always double the melody (see particularly the last phrase of the verses). All of this will likely relegate it to a soloist or rehearsed group.

(758) Blest are they is one that I've already done.

(759) Do not let your hearts be troubled is, like 758, by David Haas and spreads across three pages. The lyrics are based on Jesus' preaching in John 14. It's another song whose refrain is scored for choir on two staves above the piano part, and whose verses are scored as a single melodic line on a separate staff above the piano part, which does not double the melody. The rhythm is tricky and metrically irregular (i.e. the rhythm changes from one verse to the next). So, again, lest I fail to make my point, it's a choir piece.

(760) When peace like a river (refrain: "It is well with my soul") is one that I've done before.

(761) Christ is with me (first line: "We were buried with him into death") is by the same Gerald Patrick Coleman who wrote "The Lamb." First off, I want to pick a nit with the layout of the refrain, which drops an optional harmony part on a separate staff above the melody line – even though the harmony line runs under the melody, savvy? This is just poor scoring practice and makes the piece tricky to read. Coleman's text is good content-wise, and what it lacks in high-toned poetic style ("One who loved me so – gave himself for me") it makes up in uncluttered directness. I also like Coleman's tune in this piece (better than "The Lamb," anyway) and appreciate its rhythmic daring, but I think it may require a rehearsed group to do it justice. I might introduce this to my church choir, though.

(765) Day by day (your mercies, Lord, attend me) is one that I've touched on before.

(771) I want to walk as a child of the light is one that I've covered before.

(773) How good it is and how pleasant is a three-pager by James Chepponis, with a refrain based on Psalm 133:1 and three stanzas paraphrased from Paul's epistles, exhorting the church to unity and peace. Hearing it sung at them might be good therapy for contentious parishioners. But with a four-bar piano intro, a descant (added to the chorus after verses 2 and 3) and some metrical irregularity, it will have to be sung at them for sure. Either that or you'll have to teach it to the congregation and make them sing it on a regular basis, like some of the through-composed canticles in our most recent hymnals.

(775) For builders bold whose vision pure is a Herman Stuempfle hymn set to the Irish traditional tune FLIGHT OF THE EARLS, which I've never heard before and that I find perfectly lovely. At the same time, however, I think it's a strong example of the case Thomas Day made in his book Why Catholics Can't Sing, which cited the difficulty of Irish melodies as one reason certain congregations do not sing very strongly. Stuempfle's text gives thanks for the faithful saints before us who built the church founded on Christ, prays that we would contribute to its future growth, and honors God for generating all that growth through word and sacrament. My only fear is that certain churchmen will glom onto phrases like "brick or stone" and "soaring spire" to hijack this hymn into the service of a building program.

(777) Now let us all in hymns of praise is a Fred Pratt Green hymn set to a tune called OPEN DOOR by Roy Hopp, who makes a virtue of parallel perfect fifths by putting in so many of them that they can't be an accident. I have a very slight concern with this hymn – toward the end of stanza 2, where the message the church must proclaim (FPG says) is that "God's house (is) an open house, and Christ the open door." That wasn't how I expected the burden of the church's message throughout time to be described, and the suspicious streak in me (which you'll have heard about by now) wonders exactly what axe FPG is grinding here.

(779) I sing as I arise today is an excerpt from the hymn popularly known as St. Patrick's Breastplate, here attributed to "Anon." and joined to a couple of stanzas by Michael Schultz (cf. Hymn 757), and set to the fine tune ROCKINGHAM OLD. I notice that the lines Schultz adds to the hymn (particularly in stanza 3) subtly shift focus away from God's power and what He is doing for me and toward my worship and works. With the right understanding of worship in response to God's gifts I can let this pass. I just thought it was an interesting shift and wonder how many other people will notice it.

(780) Stay with us (till night has come), a Herbert Brokering hymn, is another one that I've discussed before.

(783) Stay with us, Lord, the sun descends is, by contrast, a nice Herman Stuempfle piece that (as the blurb the editors added below the hymn points out) echoes the Emmaus disciples' plea to the risen Jesus. This might be a good one to pass around outside WELS circles, too.

(784) O gracious Lord, with love draw near is one of several Stephen Starke hymns in this book, and I mention this confirmation hymn chiefly because it's new to me. We could use more good confirmation hymns! Worth noting, the music's two-page layout includes a descant for verses 4 and 6.

(785) O Lord of nations is a hymn of thanksgiving and prayer for the nation by Laurie Gauger, set to Joseph Herl's tune KIRKWOOD. If only I could persuade my church's musical leadership to introduce this hymn instead of "God bless America" on the next occasion in which patriotism is wedded to worship.

(786) The Song of Moses (first line: "The Lord is our strength") is Keith Wessel's paraphrase of Exodus 15, set to music by Lynn Petersen. Rather unusually for this book, the pew edition only displays the melody and a melodic cue for the two-bar intro; I guess you have to buy the accompanist's edition to hear how it sounds all put together. Unlike the Jeffrey Blersch version that I discussed here, this is a through-composed canticle-type setting, as are (787) A Canticle to the Lamb ("To the One who sits on the throne," lyrics based on Revelation 4 and 5, music by Ronald Shilling) and (788) Thanks be to God! (refrain from 1 Corinthians 15:57, verses from Revelation 7 and music by Kermit Moldenhauer). So, as this book's hymn selection comes to a close, we've kind of strayed back into liturgical canticles about which all I can say is that teaching them to the congregation is a noble (and challenging) undertaking for which I hope you can count on the choir's cooperation. It would be nice to be able to assume that you can (count on them, that is), and it seems only reasonable to expect, but experience unfortunately teaches otherwise.

So that's it for the WELS's second hymnal supplement since their 1993 hymnal Christian Worship. I'm itching all over to see what's in store for us in their upcoming new hymnal. When I do, you can be certain I'll let you know what I think of it.

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