Thursday, November 25, 2021

Tacky Hymns 90

Before continuing with the Christmas section of Christian Worship: Hymnal (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2021), I repeat:
Please understand the following three "types" of comments for which I'm interested in singling out hymns for special mention. "Type 1" means I wish the editors had shown better taste than to include such-and-such in the book, because it clashes with the decor (i.e. doctrine and spiritual culture) of an intentionally Lutheran church body. "Type 2" is just a point of trivia that I want to raise, like "what an interesting choice of a tune to go with this hymn," etc.; not necessarily an example of tackiness, as such. "Type 3" is the reverse of tackiness: a hymn so marvelous that its appearance in CWH shows up other hymnals that don't include it. (Also, let's assume references are "Type 3" unless otherwise specified, and "tacks" are awarded on a five-tack scale of tackiness.)
The hymns selected for the Christmas section (329-366) are quite diverse, ranging from ancient, pre-Reformation masterpieces, through treasured Lutheran chorales, to traditional carols, an African-American spiritual and modern-day lyrics. (I wanted to use the word contemporary, but it has baggage.) Most of them are excellent, essential repertoire or, at least, exactly what one would expect to see here and fairly unobjectionable. So I'm only gonna comment on items that particularly stick out. Generally, though, I would note that while it seems like you have to have this many Christmas hymns – because you'd get in trouble if many of them were left out, and yet you still have some new stuff to strut – it's going to be a challenge finding a use for all of them without holding carol-sings, "lessons and carols" services, youth Christmas programs and bouts of "stump the organist" throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. And then you have all those fine Advent hymns to consider, too. But anyway, here goes:

330 (Type 1) is "Peace came to earth" by the late Jaroslav Vajda († 2008), of whom I've previously mentioned that he and I were, unofficially, under the same pastor's care toward the end of Vajda's life. What that self-serving anecdote doesn't hint at is that we weren't actually members of the same congregation and I didn't personally meet him, but some brushes with fame are very light indeed. Anyway, I've given Vajda's hymns a bit of rough treatment in past installments, and I was ready to do the same to this one, especially after reading stanza 2 – which threatened to make the hymn one of those "let's all rush to the manger scene in either a time travel caper or a flight of pious imagination" type of ditties, which drive me bonkers. But I was careful to read stanzas 3 and 4, which more than corrected that tendency, and for that I give Vajda a measly half-tack. The tune, which absolutely sounds like a tune written for a Jaroslav Vajda hymn, is PEACE CAME TO EARTH by Richard Jeffrey.

331 is "From heaven above to earth I come," my all-time favorite Christmas hymn by no less than Martin Luther himself. Props to CWH for retaining all 15 stanzas, some of which have been cut from recent hymnals whether they needed to save page space or not.

334 (Type 2) is "I stand beside your manger here" by Paul Gerhardt, which ELHy (for one) set to its own tune (ICH STEH AN DEINER KRIPPEN) but which CWH sets to ES IST GEWISSLICH (the tune to "The day is surely drawing near"). Either tune is fine, I guess, but in my experience ES IST GEWISSLICH is stretched pretty thin over a lot of different hymns and J.S. Bach's gentle tune is really beautifully paired with Gerhardt's tender nativity hymn.

335 and 336 (no type) are Martin Luther's "To shepherds as they watched by night" and Nahum Tate's "While shepherds watched their flocks by night," on facing pages. I just mention this as a warning against confusing the two.

337 (Type 1) is "Silent night," with a Mandarin translation both in Chinese characters and romanized transliteration at the bottom of the second page. I guess if the editors just wanted to shade in the blank part of the page, there's no harm in it. But I'll always point out, in my parade of hymnal tackiness, gimmicks that smack of triumphalism, and I think furnishing one hymn out of 658 with a Chinese version smacks of such a tendency. "See how multicultural we are," "Behold our missionary outreach," etc. Meanwhile, does your Chinese-speaking mission congregation have its own Lutheran hymnal? 1 tack.

340 and 341 (Type 2) are both "Away in a manger," on facing pages, with the two tunes most widely associated with it so that congregations are prepared to pick up the pieces after the obligatory brawl over which tune they should sing it to. I think alternate tune choices are cool and I'm almost ambivalent on this one, but nah, I'd pick AWAY IN A MANGER (the tune on the left) over CRADLE SONG every time.

345 (Type 1) is "Where shepherds lately knelt" by Vajda, at which I've previously sniped. 4 tacks. For what it's worth, it's also only the third hymn so far (cf. 311, 325; the next example is 347 "Angels from the realms of glory") where only the melody appears in the pew book, forcing people who want to join in harmony or play through the book on the piano to invest in the accompanist's edition. Hey, that's the future of hymnody, says Fish, whose own two hymnbooks are entirely of the melody-and-text-only persuasion (albeit with the harmonized tunes in an appendix). It's an economy measure, and these books aren't getting any cheaper to produce.

348 is "A child is born in Bethlehem," a 13th century Latin hymn (Puer nobis nascitur) set to a Michael Praetorius setting of its own 13th century tune, which I think is marvelous. It revives warm memories of the "Mass for Christmas Morning" CD that my vicarage bishop gave me as a Christmas present, maybe the best album I ever owned (and that's saying a lot; I had loads of them). It's a simple but terrific carol that would be great to teach to kids. It has alleluias and an echo effect after the first line of each stanza, also conducive to combining the congregation with a choir or kids' group in alternatim.

351 is "He whose praise the shepherds sounded," based on the first section of each stanza of a much larger Latin carol (Quem pastores) also found in CWALH. I would appreciate it even more if, like LW and LBW, the entire carol had been included – another favorite track from that Praetorius CD and a marvelous vehicle for combining the forces of children, choir and congregation in a huge musical celebration. And I'm not too loyal to the LCMS to say that of its book (LW) and the ELCA's (LBW), the better arrangement is in LBW.

352 (a grudging Type 3) is "Joy has dawned" by contemporary Christian music mavens Keith Getty and Stuart Townend (not a typo, and not the actor who played L'Estat in Queen of the Damned). I say "grudging" because I've never been thrilled with their contributions to Lutheran hymnbooks, but I have to admit that this is a reasonably good Christmas hymn if you overlook the very loose rhyme scheme – which I have to, based on my own versifying record – and the risk that the pianistic arrangement, with lots of extra notes jammed into the chords and rapid changes of left-hand position, could render Mrs. Schmeckpepper, the $20-a-week operator of your church's 40-year-old Allen organ, a nervous wreck.

356 is "God rest you merry, gentlemen," the 18th century English carol set to its own traditional tune, which most folks know by memory but only as far as the first stanza. The full four-stanza version expands into the angel's announcement to the shepherds and, in its quirky, 18th-century-carol manner of speaking, does a reasonably good job of getting across the gospel where the birth of Christ is concerned. Keep this in mind when you're planning a youth Christmas program.

357 is "A glory fills the midnight sky" by Timothy Dudley-Smith, set to the tune (FOREST GREEN) that some hymnals propose instead of ST. LOUIS with "O little town of Bethlehem." It also, in contrastingly up-to-date and current language, does exactly what 356 does. And it's only two stanzas! So, again, it might be a smash at the youth Christmas program.

364 is "Love has come," an original hymn by Ken Bible set to the tune of the French carol "Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella" – which, I just learned now, is titled UN FLAMBEAU. Whoever this Bible guy is, he seems to have corrected the traditional carol's tendency to over-focus on "good folk of the village" and all the tackle carried by fictional characters rushing to view the manger scene, with solid gospel content like (stanza 2) "Love is God now aleep in the hay" and especially stanza 3, which proclaims that this Love "never will leave us ... is life everlasting and free ... is Jesus within and among us ... is the peace our hearts are seeking" and "the gift of Christmas." This could be really catchy.

365 is "Lord, you were rich beyond all splendor" by Frank Houghton († 1972), also set to a French carol melody (Quelle est cette odeur agréable/Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing) for which, I must add, Martin Shaw's harmonized setting is really beautiful. This is a type of hymn that I particularly admire, but mostly see in older numbers like from before the Reformation to a century or so after. It delves into the paradoxes and reversals of the gospel, like God who is rich becoming poor for us, humbling Himself to become a man to raise sinners up, etc. It does so with remarkable brevity and directness. My only knock agaisnt it (I'll give it 1 tack for this) is the line "leaving your throne," which on its face is just a Christological heresy, that's all. To say the Son descended from heaven is not to say He left His throne at any time; an aspect of the mystery of the incarnation that hymn writers have to watch out for, and I'd be lying if I said I've never had my feet entangled in its cords.

366 is "O rejoice, all Christians, loudly" by Christian Keimann (words) and Andreas Hammerschmidt (music), a cut-down version of a cantata that I sang in its full version in my college choir days. I think this is a wonderful hymn, and it's the ideal one to close out the Christmas section because of its parting greeting "holy peace, a glad new year" (just before the final refrain). This makes it a great choice for a Sunday after Christmas, whether before or after New Year. It's been in a lot of hymnals, including all the ones used at all the churches I've ever attended, so I don't have the excuse of novelty for mentioning it. Just two little things: that "glad new year" line has been scrubbed from some hymnals' translation of the piece, so props to CWH for retaining it; and though LW reinstated the 12-fold Hallelujah that bookended the original Hammerschmidt piece, CWH joins most other books in continuing to omit it. I kind of like the 12-fold Hallelujah, especially for involving the choir in this hymn. But I guess I understand the motives for dropping it (or rather, not picking it back up) – precious space, expense and the likelihood that most congregations would skip it anyway. They should get to know this hymn, however.

I reckon this section added another 6-1/2 tacks to my evaluation of this book's overall level of tackiness, bringing the total for the first 66 hymns to 10 tacks. That's an average of about 0.15 tacks, or 3/20 of a tack, per hymn. So far, not too shabby. I've never kept a running total or attempted to keep track of the tackiness quotient of an entire book, which just adds intrigue to this project as a potential fingerpost to the future. Next time, I hope to cover hymns 367-392, or New Year through Transfiguration in the church year section of CWH. Till then, think about buying a copy of CWH so you can follow along and check out the hymns I'm skipping over.

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