Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tacky Hymns 69

We continue our run-through of the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) with emphasis on three types of hymns: (1) instances of bad judgment by the folks who selected hymns for the book, judged on the basis of historic, confessional and liturgical Lutheranism; (2) noteworthy quirks of hymn-tune pairing; and (3) wonderful hymns that I think should receive more play time (by which I mean singing time) in confessional Lutheran congregations, even if it means undertaking a challenging process of getting acquainted, because of their precious spiritual and artistic value.

(102) Oh, come, all ye faithful is an interesting variant of the familiar Christmas carol, in part because the entire melody (ADESTE FIDELES) is set to hymnal-style, four-part harmony instead of the usual choral texture which has the refrain coming in one voice at a time, and in part because the translation has a refrain that says "To Bethlehem hasten with joyful accord," right before the "Oh, come let us adore Him" bit. At home, my family privately kidded each other that the last word of that line was "accordion."

(103) To shepherds as they watched by night is, I think, an underappreciated Christmas hymn by Martin Luther (1543). Making allowances for the fact that maybe I'm the one who hasn't properly appreciated it, and a few convoluted lines in Richard Massie's translation (1854, "alt."), I don't really understand how or why this could be, since it is such a comforting and encouraging hymn that begins with the incarnation of our Lord as one of us and concludes that sin, death and the devil can no more prevail over us. "The True God now abides with you," it says. "Christ is your Brother – you are safe," it says. "Ye shall and must at last prevail," it says. Amen.

(104) Now praise we Christ, the Holy One is another Luther hymn (1524), or rather his version of a fifth century Latin hymn by Coelius Sedulius, set to the beautiful chorale CHRISTUM WIR SOLLEN LOBEN SCHON that gets a good deal of its solemn strength and ancient atmosphere from a family-line relationship with a medieval plainsong melody. This is a fine example of a hymn that explores the doctrine at the bottom of the Christian faith – how God became a man for us – and its wondrous, even paradoxical implications, like "With milk was fed the Lord of all, who feeds the ravens when they call."

(107) We Christians may rejoice today is another 16th century Christmas hymn (the original German words by Caspar Fueger, 1592) which TLH pairs with Johann Crueger's tender, beautiful tune O JESU CHRIST, DEIN KRIPPLEIN (cf. Hymn 81). I bring it up here for "Type 2" reasons, because there is actually a tune originally meant for this hymn, titled WIR CHRISTENLEUT, which is really good. It's a shame not to see it in American Lutheran hymnals. In fact, at the moment I'm at a loss to think of even one that uses it, as such. However, the tune ECCE AGNUS, used in TLH 165 ("Behold the Lamb of God!") seems to be adapted from it, which may give you an idea of how it goes.

(128) Brightest and best of the sons of the morning is a hymn whose tackiness I have previously discussed. So far, only my third "Type 1" note on this hymnal!

(137) In peace and joy I now depart is Martin Luther's 1524 paraphrase of the Nunc dimittis, or the song of Simeon in Luke 2:29-32, and is set to its own tune, MIT FRIED UND FREUD. I have a deep love of this hymn, but it seems that everywhere I move, the local Lutheran congregation needs to be introduced to it as if for the first time. I'd like to see them learn Luther's paraphrases (which run deeper than word-for-word correspondence) rather than some of the cute, modern style hymn-tune paraphrases of the liturgy that have fallen into vogue. For example, take this line: "Death is but a slumber." And this: "'Tis Christ that wrought this work for me." And this: "Now I know He is my Life, My Help in need and dying." And there's more, equally strong in comfort and edification, where those lines came from.

(139) In His Temple now behold Him is set in TLH to the tune SIEH, HIER BIN ICH, which I think is an awesome tune. In the spirit of "Type 2," I'd just like to note that users of more recent hymnals are probably now associating this text with Henry Purcell's tune WESTMINSTER ABBEY, which is also very good and perhaps more suited to the hymn's English origins.

(150) Lord Jesus, Thou art going forth is a Passion of Christ hymn in which, stanza by alternating stanza, a dialogue goes back and forth between "The Soul" and "Jesus." Based on texts by late 17th century German writers Kaspar Nachtenhoefer and Magnus Omeis and set to its own tune (the very solemn but lovely SO GEHST DU NUN), it's really quite tacky, unfortunately. Allegorical poems, depicting an imaginary conversation between Christ and an abstract stand-in for each individual Christian, may have their place in Christians' devotional life, but I don't think the pew songbook is that place. I have misgivings about stuffing such words into our mouths and, in a way, into Jesus' mouth. Even if the sentiments they express are backed up by the biblical record, the piece ends up being an exercise of the pious imagination rather than of faith in the sure word of God.

(151) Christ, the Life of all the living is one that I suppose doesn't trigger any of the three tripwires listed above, but I just wanted to say that it's also my favorite hymn of all time. (I know, I've said that before about a different hymn. I'll say it again, too.) However, to justify this mention under "Type 2," I could add that the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy) includes two different translations of E.C. Homburg's hymn – Winkworth's, given here, with the refrain "Thousand, thousand thanks shall be, Dearest Jesus, unto Thee"; and Massie's, which begins "Of my life the life, O Jesus," and has the refrain "Thousand, thousand thanks to Thee, Blessed Jesus, ever be." Also, the Massie version is set to the alternate tune DU, O SCHOENES WELTGEBAEUDE by Johann Crueger, which – although I wouldn't swap the marvelous JESU, MEINES LEBENS LEBEN for it, is a handsome and expressive addition to my repertoire of hymn tunes that I'd like to see used somewhere. That may mean writing a new text to go with it!

(152) When o'er my sins I sorrow, a Lenten hymn based on a 1646 poem by Justus Gesenius and set to a 1609 tune anachronistically named after it (WENN MEINE SUEND by Michael Praetorius), is another fine example of orthodox Lutheran hymnody that deserves to be sung more often than it probably is, perhaps because Praetorius's musical style isn't to the popular taste these days. Also, in fairness, there are some rhythmic twists in it that take some work to master. But it's a powerful piece of music, well matched to a text that emphasizes the penitential idea of Lent and a rich confession of the substitutionary atonement: "Yea, Lord, Thy precious blood was spilt For me, O most unworthy, To take away my guilt." In the four stanzas TLH selects for use, it ponders the "marvelous offering" of the Master for his servants, of God for His creature; and, again, it expresses the confidence that since Jesus has paid my debts, "Of hell and all its torments I am no more afraid." But if the tune is too much of an impediment, be advised that there's an easier-to-sing German tune by the same name, dated 1790, that can be used instead. See the old Lutheran Hymnary, Hymn 281.

I feel a score of 1 or 2 tack(s) each is fair play for the hymns (154) Alas! and did my Savior bleed (Isaac Watts, 1707) and (155) Sweet the moments, rich in blessing (Walter Shirley, 1770) for putting a moralizing, me-centered, emotional-experience emphasis on Jesus' Passion and, particularly in the Shirley piece, indulging in a flight of the pious imagination in which we spend time "before the cross," "viewing" our sins being laid on Jesus, "seeing" redemption and forgiveness underway and "finding" the dawn of heaven while "gazing" upon his cross. Apparently (per stanza 6) all this happens "in loving contemplation" wherein we "fix our hearts and eyes" on Jesus. I think this is pretty shaky ground to stand on. It hardly seems I need to suggest a more solid place to stand, considering the other Passion hymns in this book.

(157) There is a fountain filled with blood (William Cowper, 1771) is, to start with, a "Type 2" hymn because TLH pairs it with two tunes: HORSLEY (William Horsley, 1844), better known as the melody to "There is a green hill far away," and COWPER (elsewhere known as CLEANSING FOUNTAIN and here, but not universally, ascribed to Lowell Mason, 1880), a piece that Grandma Smurf plays in such a slurpy, smeary way on the old Wurlitzer at Shepherd of the Cornfield Lutheran Church that no one would guess that it's in 3/2 time. Now, regarding "Type 1," I think this is one of the most unfortunate hymn selections in TLH – and so far from being deterred, I'm even more compelled to say so by its immense popularity among the crowd that holds TLH close to their heart. I've touched on the reasons briefly here and in more detail here (under a critique of E.J. Hopkins' tune ST. HUGH, to which Australian Lutherans sing this hymn). I haven't held back in the past from calling it a stupid, embarrassing and ridiculous hymn, so on this occasion I'll forsake all restraint and award it the full 5 tacks.

(162) Ride on, ride on, in majesty, a tour-de-force of "Type 2"-ishness, is a Palm Sunday hymn by Henry Hart Milman (1827) that TLH pairs with WINCHESTER NEW, a majestic but oddly-named German tune that bears an apparent family relationship to DIR, DIR, JEHOVA ("Jehovah, let me now adore Thee," TLH 21, and "Awake, Thou Spirit of the watchmen," Lutheran Worship [LW] 315) and ALL SAINTS, a.k.a. ZEUCH MICH ("Long before the world is waking," Lutheran Service Book [LSB] 485, and "Since our great High Priest, Christ Jesus," LSB 529). So, on the one hand, the connection between these tunes (all found in different publications within a decade to either side of the turn of the 18th century) is an interesting question unto itself. But besides that, the hymn text has promiscuously wedded itself to an inordinate number of tunes, including (in LW 205) Graham George's rich, beautiful, 20th century melody THE KING'S MAJESTY – which nobody remembering TLH and WINCHESTER NEW liked, more's the pity. Meanwhile, Service Book and Hymnal [SBH] 73 assigned two tunes to this hymn, including THE KING'S MAJESTY and John B. Dykes' ST. DROSTANE – which I reckon may be the tune most widely paired with Milman's text. By an odd coincidence, the first three notes of ST. DROSTANE and WINCHESTER NEW are the same, which can really throw someone used to singing one when the melody in hand proves to be the other.

(166) Savior, when in dust to Thee is a litany hymn by Robert Grant (1815) – that is, it's a verse paraphrase of a certain long, highly structured prayer with many petitions, found in prose form at the front of this book (p. 110), in chant form at the back (Hymn 661), and customarily prayed on Good Friday or occasions of similar solemnity. Later hymnals, such as LW and LSB, pair Grant's hymn with Joseph Parry's beautiful, somber tune ABERYSTWYTH – also known as TENBURY – which I think is a much more striking and appropriate tune for the purpose of this hymn than the comparatively plain but cheerful SPANISH CHANT, used here. Even more than this, however, the reason I want to mention this hymn has to do with its refrain, "Hear our solemn litany," which for some reason, LW 93 and LSB 419 change to "Hear our pentitential cry." I don't know why they did this. I think it's a poor decision, obscuring what this hymn is and also, subtly, blurring out repeated "hear our prayer" that is characteristic of the litany in favor of a general theme of Lenten penitence. Is it because someone's allergic to slant rhyme (high/eye/cry vs. litany) and they felt compelled to correct the fault in Grant's poetic diction? Do they think "litany" is too archaic, too technical, too unfamiliar, too difficult a word? Are they just averse to hearing a hymn mention a liturgical text? All these possible reasons, to my mind, pale beside the reasons the "litany" line would have been better left as it was.

(167) O darkest woe, definitely a "Type 3," is one of the deepest, darkest, most powerful Passion hymns, taking up its argument at the burial of Jesus. More of an Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday, before-we-start-saying-Christ-is-risen hymn than a Good Friday one as TLH sections it, Johann Rist's 1641 text goes to its own slow (except, in TLH's arrangement, for some faster notes toward the end), anguished tune O TRAURIGKEIT. I remember a college prof lamenting that the translation in TLH didn't do justice to the line "Gott selbst ist tot" (God Himself is dead), a controversial statement in more recent times, rendering it instead "God's Son is dead." Get these paradoxical/ironic applications of the atoning death of Christ: Stanza 2, God's (Son's) death has gained salvation for us; Stanza 3, the ban of death on our sin brought Him down to suffer for us; Stanza 4, the Lamb of God poured out His life to restore us to life; Stanza 5, His lips stilled in death compel us to weep and mourn; Stanza 6, Eternal blessing is in store because the Lord of Life was buried; Stanza 7, Jesus is our Help and Rest. Why, I say, why isn't this hymn sung by every Lutheran church, every year?

(168) The royal banners forward go is another "Type 2," a lovely ancient Passion hymn (a Neale translation from Fortunatus's sixth century Latin) that I don't think needs much boosting from me, although it changes tunes so often that it may never sound the way anyone remembers it. TLH, pretty much alone, uses the melody VEXILLA REGIS by John Hampton (1875), a tune title that suggests it was custom-made for this hymn. There are two other tunes by the same name, however, and both are used solely with this hymn, as far as I know. One by Harold Lewars (1913) was in Common Service Book [CSB]. The other, a plainsong melody, is in SBH, Lutheran Book of Worship [LBW], LW and ELHy. Plus, SBH offers an alternate tune (something that SBH does all too often); titled PARKER (after its composer, Horatio Parker), it's about equally attractive to the Hampton tune. However, LW also offers an alternate tune, HERR JESU CHRIST, WAHR MENSCH UND GOTT, which I like better than all these alternatives. Leave it to a German chorale to beat all comers.

(169) Jesus Christ, our Lord most holy is, I think, a Polish hymn that came down to TLH via the Slovak Lutheran tradition, tune and all. The editors of TLH even gave the tune its name, TESHINIENS, in honor of the birthplace of Slovak hymnal editor Juraj Tranovsky. Like some of the Christmas hymns that I shouted out in a previous installment, this hymn's ethnic origins give it an unusual flair while, with very serious words and music, it laments Jesus' "blameless, blameless" sacrifice on the cross and his "sinless, sinless" suffering for our sins. Stanza 2 calls on all nature to weep and sigh as Jesus dies. Stanza 3 observes his last word, his death, his weeping mother and watching loved ones. Stanza 4 dramatizes the tearing of the veil, the earthquake, boulders broken, dead saints waking; stanza 5, the spear into his side, the water and blood, concluding, "Jesus, Jesus, sinners' only Savior, Mercy, mercy grant to us forever." It's very simple, but it compresses the whole crucifixion story into five brief stanzas with striking effect. I would enlist, perhaps, the youth to learn and sing this song in church on Good Friday or at any time during Passion week.

(171) Upon the cross extended is a 12-stanza Passion hymn taken from an even longer work by Paul Gerhardt (1648). I definitely want to give it a "Type 3" plug and say that it deserves to be sung more often, and perhaps isn't (even in TLH congregations) only because there are so many great Lenten hymns to choose between. But really, this is more of a "Type 2" post, to register my opinion that Heinrich Friese's 1763 tune O WELT, SIEH HIER – its very name welding it to this hymn – is the perfect tune for Gerhardt's text, and to urge congregations and their ministers and musical leaders not to wimp out and choose the second tune, O WELT, ICH MUSS DICH LASSEN (a.k.a. INNSBRUCK, by Heinrich Isaac, 1490) just because it's more familiar. INNSBRUCK may actually be familiar because it's overused, paired with too many different hymns, and (despite its great beauty) is in danger of fading away into something we can't even properly hear or appreciate. Also, while INNSBRUCK has a deep history of being paired with sad and wistful lyrics, in spite of its major key, it just doesn't have the gravity that Gerhardt's text demands – while the Friese tune most definitely does.

(173) Lord Jesus, we give thanks to Thee is a "Type 2" Passion hymn by Christoph Fischer (1597), set to a tune whose name, WIR DANKEN DIR, again suggests that it belongs paired to this hymn although its origins go back three decades earlier. The old Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook (ELHb) had another tune by the same name and in the same meter (LM, or, dated a century later. I like both tunes and have published them both with original hymns of my own.

(175) When I survey the wondrous cross is another "Type 2" Passion hymn, words by Isaac Watts (1707), for which the editors of TLH provided two tunes. The first, HAMBURG (arranged by Lowell Mason from the Gregorian First Tone) is nice, easy to sing, and in my experience, the more popular of the two among congregations that are given the choice. However, outside this book the hymn is mostly set to the second tune, ROCKINGHAM OLD (Edward Miller, 1790), which is also very nice and (where it doesn't have HAMBURG to run interference on it) is actually growing in popularity. LSB uses this tune twice, both with this hymn (no alternate tune) and Chad Bird's "The infant Priest was holy borne." I'm happy for it.

I really thought I'd make it to TLH 200 this time, but I just don't see it happening today. So, rather than leave this in "draft" mode until, most likely, next week, here it is – again, with very few examples of "Type 1" tackiness and only one that I colored in solid. For the rest, it's a journey of learning some, just some, of what a hymn enthusiast can profitably learn from a read-through of The Lutheran Hymnal.


David S. said...

Unrelated to the post itself, but it would be interesting to go through ELHy after this!

RobbieFish said...

Maybe I will. Thanks!