Monday, August 11, 2008

Norwegian-Style Tackiness 3

More pietistic tackiness from the "Lutheran" Ambassador Hymnal...

Hymn 203: "Dear Lord and Father of mankind," with words by John Greenleaf Whittier and music by Frederick C. Maker. Those of us who read too much fantasy will already be picturing these two guys as a wood-elf and a sand-worm. These reflections are more interesting than any stirred by this hymn, which asks Jesus to cool the heat of our desires and "reclothe us in our rightful mind." Put another way: "Anaesthetized by Jesus, I fain, fain, fain would swoon..." (My lyrics, not Whittier's). The music is like the dreck left at the bottom of the cauldron from which a Fanny Crosby hymn was born.

Hymn 209 offers some really Norwegian tackiness: "O can you sing the new song of salvation," with a Norwegian traditional tune arranged by Oscar R. Overby in the style of a C-minus assignment in first-year music theory. The tune has some merit, and the text more still; but unless I am deeply prejudiced against Overby (and I never met the man; he died 8 years before I was born), he seems to have a touch for adding a dollop of tackiness to an otherwise fine hymn.

Hymn 210 is an oddity. "Christ, we do all adore Thee" appears to be a refrain in search of its stanzas. The words and music by Theodore Dubois seem to belong to something called "The Seven Last Words of Christ," but there is no sign of the seven words here. It is simply two lines of text, one of them repeated three and a half times, with too little musical interest to make it worth the reach (or screech; it goes up to a high F), and too little text to fit all the music, judging by the instrument-only half-phrase near the end.

Hymn 214 begins with the words "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." Don't be fooled, though; it isn't Thomas Ken's Long-Meter Doxology. Rather, it is a hymn from the Tamil-speaking region of South India. I don't want to be culturally insensitive (ha!) so I'll confine my remarks to saying that this hymn must sound better in its original Tamil. I refuse to be a judge of the music, but I find the text (as translated by the late Daniel Niles) a bit awkward in places, such as "He is bringing with Him for your marriage its true adorning." Am I saying I could do better? No. But a hymnal is a serious matter. Why should we make room in them for one- or two-time experiments in cultural diversity, at the expense of enduring treasures of church song? And please, before you fire back an answer containing the word "catholicity," read what I say about it here.

Hymn 248, "On Our Way Rejoicing," with words by J. S. B. Monsell and music by Frances R. Havergal, gets an "honorable mention" simply because it is arranged as a choir piece, with a vocal staff supported by a piano accompaniment that often strays from the melody line. Again, there are places for this kind of music: for instance, the choir portfolio. Why does it need to be in the congregation's face? They'll never sing it.

Hymn 251, "God be with you till we meet again," is a sentimental cliché with words by Jeremiah Eames Rankin and music by William Gould Tomer. Written with all the fulsome dullness of an Arthur Sullivan tune, its refrain includes cute little echo effects that can only be pulled off by a group singing in four-part harmony. I hope, if my congregation ever chooses to learn to sing in parts, they don't start with this.

Hymn 257, "Break Thou the Bread of Life," has words by Mary A. Lathbury, but surprisingly it is the music of William F. Sherman that gives it the suffocatingly feminine touch. This kind of hymn might help one understand why fewer and fewer men and boys go to church. They suffer emasculation at home, at school, at work, and in the entertainment media. Must they be spiritually castrated in church? As to whether Lathbury's text has such an effect, I can't say; but then, I also can't say whether or not it suggests a source of revelation outside God's Word ("Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee Lord..."). Its language is just too fuzzy for my analytical mind to pin down.

Hymn 284, "Sent forth by God's blessing," isn't so much tacky as jaw-gnashingly horrid. I'm not personally bothered by the Welsh folk tune "Ash Grove," though I have heard it criticized by at least one person who said it made her think of Girl Scout meetings and campfire sing-alongs. It's the text that gets up my nose. Omer Westendorf misapplies the Parable of the Sower: "The seed of His teaching, receptive souls reaching..." (So, it ultimately depends on how receptive you are!)

Hymn 285, "Let us break bread together on our knees," invites the casual visitor to enjoy the spectacle of a bunch of Norwegian-Americans putting on an African-American spiritual. As a communion hymn, it makes a pretty slipshod confession of what we're about: breaking bread and drinking wine together. At least it does say "wine." The next edition may have a footnote suggesting an alternate text: "Let us sip juice together..." But with the sun rising in your eyes, you won't be able to read it anyway.

Hymn 288, "Take the Name of Jesus with You," threatens to make me sound like a broken record. Whatever I said about the music for Hymn 251 goes for this tune as well, only with an added pinch of shmaltz. William H. Doane's music may turn out to be good therapy for patients suffering from a misplaced devotion to such hymns; evidence of their tedious sameness might shake them up. Lydia Baxter's confirmation hymn distracts you from its own meaning (which is "just OK") by framing it in terms of hypnotically dull sentimentality.

That gets me through Hymn 300. If you think I'm being too picky, you should see the material I'm skipping over. I'm setting the tackiness threshold fairly high, I think. And look how far we have come!

IMAGES: Theodore Dubois; J. E. Rankin; W. H. Doane

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