Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Tacky Hymns 91

Before continuing with the New Year, Epiphany and Transfiguration sections 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.)
368 (Type 2) is "Now greet the swiftly changing year," a Slovak New Year hymn that in other books appears as "Greet, man, the swiftly changing year" or "Greet now the swiftly changing year." Sometimes (cf. LBW, LW) it is set to the 17th century tune ROK NOVÝ but here, as in LSB, it is paired with Alfred Fedak's SIXTH NIGHT.

369 (Type 2) is "Now let us come before him" by Paul Gerhardt, set to The New English Hymnal's setting of the 16th century tune NUN LASST UNS that actually makes it sound more interesting than it usually does. Never a particularly striking melody, this arrangement trades out the rhythmic hemiolas (alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4) that traditionally characterize the tune, in favor of a flowing 6/8 arrangement with some attractive passing notes added.

371 is "A child is born in Bethlehem," another selection of stanzas from the same Latin hymn that figured in the Christmas section as hymn 348. I guess the editors just separated the Epiphany-specific parts of it out to avoid confusing the two distinct holidays.

373 (Type 2) is "Brightest and best of the stars of the morning" by Reginald Heber, set in this case to the 17th century French tune O QUANTA QUALIA. Many of us know it best as "Brightest and best of the sons of the morning" and as set to John P. Harding's tune MORNING STAR, which is a tour-de-force of 19th century shmaltz. O QUANTA preserves the same rhythmic cadence but conveys a more churchly and dignified character that I think brings out the better qualities of Heber's text.

376 is "Rise up and shine" by Carl P. Daw, Jr., set to the Christmassy tune FOREST GREEN. The text is a nice paraphrase of the Isaiah 60 prophecy traditionally associated with Epiphany, hinting at an application to today's believers watching for the return of Christ.

377 is "To Jordan's river came our Lord" by former Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary professor James Tiefel, a Baptism of Jesus hymn laid out on the same two-page spread as 378, Martin Luther's "To Jordan came the Christ, our Lord." I regard the latter as a very important Lutheran hymn, and CWH sets it to the right tune (CHRIST UNSER HERR ZUM JORDAN KAM from Johann Walter's 1524 Wittenberg hymnal). This isn't to be taken for granted, since the hymn has been completely omitted from certain significant Lutheran hymnals within the past century (cough TLH cough) and others (like LSB) have made efforts to alienate it from its historic tune – which, I would argue, only creates divisions among those Lutherans who do make the effort to learn it and use it regularly. I approve of using either hymn, but I strongly recommend at least learning Luther's for the spiritual growth of the church.

379 is "Christ, your footprints through the desert" by Herman Stuempfle, another Baptism of our Lord hymn set to Amanda Husberg's tune LOVE'S LIGHT (which LSB paired with "Swiftly pass the clouds of glory"). If the general tone of my remarks on Stumpfle's hymns has, until now, been a little hostile, let there be peace now; I think this is an excellent hymn.

382 (Type 1) is "The people who walked in darkness," an Isaiah 9 paraphrase by Mary Louis Bringle, set to an original tune by Sally Ann Morris titled, like, ISAIAH 9. This is one instance where I'd like to award CWH a tack for publishing only the melody in the pew book, with no accompaniment, since it's a new hymn and those of us with the wherewithal to play it and an interest in hearing how it goes must now invest in a copy of the accompanist's edition or go home unsatisfied. My vague impression, based on the melody alone, is that it's kind of a Church Music Publisher House Style-style choir piece that finagled its way into the hymnal, and if a congregation ever successfully pulls it off, it'll probably be a big, town-gown outfit with superlative musical leadership.

385 (Type 1) is titled "Christ Begins," first line "We stand and we watch," by Luke Thompson (b. 1981), who also co-wrote the tune (CHRIST BEGINS) with Kent Reeder. This time, CWH included the piano part, and it's really a piano part, written to accompany a contemporary Christian pop song. Mrs. Hasenpfeffer may have trouble playing dotted-eighth chords in the right hand against eighth-notes in the left (2-against-3 rhythms), and a whole bar of piano figuration again shows that this is more of a Church Music Publisher thing than a pew hymnal-appropriate piece. But enough about the music; the lyrics dwell in that fantasy land where the singers imagine themselves as characters in the story (i.e. Jesus' baptism, stanza 1; the wedding at Cana, 2; His transfiguration, 3; and if I'm reading stanza 4 correctly, His ascension). Finally, I'm not exactly sure how the phrase "Christ begins" applies. So, 3 tacks.

386 (Type 2) is "Songs of thankfulness and praise" by Christopher Wordsworth, which, interesting to note, CWH sets to Jacob Hintze's tune SALZBURG – perhaps a different tune than the one you're used to singing it to.

387 is "Arise, your light is come" by Ruth Duck, set to William Walter's († 1893) tune FESTAL SONG. It's a pretty little fanfare-like piece, with a unison broken triad in the first phrase. The text's four brief stanzas do borrow biblical imagery appropriate for the Epiphany season, but at the same time it seems to be all exhortation toward Christ-like service and proclamation, albeit without ever specifically mentioning Christ. So, while it may have its uses, I would limit them to after a thorough exposition of the gospel.

388 is "Down from the mount of glory," a Transfiguration hymn by Werner Franzmann, set to the Bartholomäus Helder chorale ICH FREU MICH IN DEM HERREN. It's a tune I like so well that I paired it with one of my own hymns in Useful Hymns. Franzmann's text beautifully depicts Jesus' transfiguration (especially in stanza 2), putting it in the context of his journey to the cross. The parallelism between the "mount of glory" and the "hill of shame" (stanza 4) is especially poignant. Truly, a superb hymn.

389 is "How good, Lord, to be here," a language update of "'Tis good, Lord, to be here," the well-known Transfiguration hymn by Joseph Robinson, with a new stanza inserted toward the end to underscore Jesus' choice to "leave this glorious hill to die." This may be a case of a book having to tart up a hymn whose popularity outstrips its merits. While the additional stanza helps, I'm not sure it really fits – cue an analogy to using new skin to patch old wineskins.

390 is "Jesus, take us to the mountain" by Jaroslav Vajda, set to Carl Schalk's tune SILVER SPRING. The text suffers from a mild case of that Vajda tendency to invite the singer to imagine himself into the story, ameliorated perhaps by the language praying Christ to reveal what he wants us to see there. It does score some palpable hits, like stanza 2's "Clothed in flesh like ours you go, matched to meet our deadliest foe." It also asks him to "take us to that other mountain," etc., like 388. It's basically a lighter version of Franzmann's poem, which some people (taste being what it is) may even prefer.

391 is "This brightness, Lord! What shall I say" by Michael D. Schultz (director of the WELS hymnal project), set to the Southern Harmony tune PROSPECT. In "I" language addressed to Christ, it professes not to want to leave the mountaintop, but after receiving the witness of Moses, Elijah and the Father's voice, it acquiesces (stanza 3) in coming down and following Jesus to the cross. Stanza 4 is an interesting profession of "the truth behind the bloody tree" – namely, that Christ "made my sin no longer mine." Stanza 5 professes faith that Christ will help "me" bear the trials and troubles of "the plains below," and stanza 6 looks forward to the vision of everlasting light in heaven. So, it's a surprisingly complete Transfiguration devotion, despite the discouraging first glance of its me-centered language; my tack dispenser was cocked to fire, but I stood down.

The prevalence of new(ish) hymns in CWH's Transfiguration section bears witness that this is not a very well-stocked topic in Lutheran hymnody, though it also shows that it may be on its way to being one. Meanwhile, excepting only a couple hymns, it continues to average out as quite a good collection. With (I believe) 4 new tacks, this segment brings our running total to 14 tacks out of 91 hymns so far – still an average of 0.15 tacks per hymn.

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