Friday, September 21, 2012

Beddor Bernheimer Vande Velde

Seeing Redd
by Frank Beddor
Recommended Ages: 13+

In this sequel to The Looking Glass Wars, young Queen Alyss has scarcely claimed the throne of Wonderland—the "true" version behind Lewis Carroll's garbled account—when already she faces another threat to the peace and security of her realm. Her Imperial Viciousness, the ex-Queen Redd, has escaped through the Heart Crystal that enables the queens of Alyss's bloodline to rule through the power of pure imagination. Too soon, Redd is ready to stage a comeback, complete with a gang of otherworldly ruffians. Meanwhile, King Arch of the neighboring Borderlands has his own designs on the Queendom, plans based on a ludicrous form of machismo raised to the level of political ideology. Armed with weapons of freakish deadliness, seconded by henchpersons whose powers of inflicting death are as disturbing as their lack of humane values, and shrewd enough to hedge their bets with, for example, a bit of hostage-taking, these villains could not only overwhelm Wonderland's defenses but even destroy it forever.

Meanwhile, Alyss faces dilemmas closer to home. First, there's the matter of Dodge, the young guardsman she has loved since they were children, but who is consumed with vengeance against the anthropomorphic cat who murdered his father. Then there's Homburg Molly, the queen's half-blooded bodyguard from a race of warriors, called Milliners, whose specialty is weaponized headwear. Molly's disappearance coincides with an outbreak of trouble that threatens the power of "white imagination" throughout Wonderland, stops up the looking-glass transportation system, and leads the father Molly never knew—the Hatter—on a queen-defying quest that at times seems like downright madness.

This fast-paced book is crammed with magical whimsies, macabre twists, furious battles, sneaky double-crosses, and Lewis-Carrollian imagery turned upside-down and inside-out as though in a fun-house mirror. Romance, family tragedy, Victorian-era alternate history, fantastic creatures, dancing skeletons, terrible poetry (what you get when you let slip the doggerels of war), and characters ranging from creepily ambivalent to flamboyantly evil, all crowd into the same canvas as card-soldiers, living chessmen, and a species of large-eared albino tutors. Somehow, it seems to be over too soon. But that's all right; the series continues with a third book, titled Arch Enemy. Plus, author Beddor has co-authored a related series of graphic novels, collectively known as Hatter M.

Dead Eye: Pennies for the Ferryman
by Jim Bernheimer
Recommended Ages: 15+

Mike Ross sees dead people. He saw them in a big way in Iraq, where a couple of his war buddies were blown to bits by a roadside bomb right next to him and nearly killed him too. But he doesn't start seeing them "walking around like regular people" until the eye-patch comes off after a cornea transplant saves the sight in his right eye. The cornea used to belong to a ghost hunter who suddenly developed the ability to see ghosts at the exact moment that bomb changed Mike's life, and who mysteriously died 17 days later. And now, as Mike tries to get his life back together, he is suddenly faced with a new set of potentially life-threatening problems. And the "nearly departed" are going to have a lot to do with them.

At first, Mike just wants to concentrate on his belated college studies. But a cute girl encourages him to use his new gifts to help the dead cross over. Maybe, he reasons, he can make a bit of cash on the side, by claiming the rewards for solving murders and missing-persons cases. One such case even nets him a girlfriend, though something always seems to prevent them from getting close. Meanwhile, Mike soon learns the downside of being a "ferryman"—ghosts can be dangerous! They can punch, kick, and even use weapons, though most of their weapons are only harmful to other ghosts. Given enough ectoplasmic energy (or "spook juice"), some ghosts known as Skinwalkers can even take possession of a living person. Mike experiences this himself and, to put it mildly, it's nasty.

Even as Mike learns to protect himself from ghostly enemies, his danger grows. Unknowingly he has gotten himself in the middle of a war between gangs of power-peddling ghosts, some of whom are actual historical figures (mainly from the Civil War era), and who have divided up the territory around Washington, D.C. It's spooky (no pun intended) to think how much influence these revenants may hold over mortal politics. But what's even spookier is the plan a Skinwalker, a treacherous ghost, and a fiend known as the Beast of Baltimore have in store for Mike.

Judging from its inconclusive ending, this book is meant to be the beginning of a series. And I'll hand it to Mr. Bernheimer, whose signature is on the first page of my copy: it's an entertaining story with an engagingly imperfect hero, a story that I would enjoy seeing continued. If I must complain about anything—and face it, I must—it's the sloppiness of the punctuation and a few other minor but irritating grammatical issues. Frankly, Mr. Bernheimer's story deserves a better editor than it had for the edition I read. Perhaps later editions will correct, or have already corrected, these mistakes, so I won't feel any embarrassment in recommending the book. As it is, I approve of it with the reservation that readers with grammatical OCD should keep their anti-anxiety drug of choice at hand while reading this book—I recommend Darjeerling tea—because, after all, it's the story that matters.

Heir Apparent
by Vivian Vande Velde
Recommended Ages: 12+

Giannine's birthday gift from her long-absent father is one she picked for herself: a gift certificate to Rasmussem Enterprises, a high-tech gaming parlor whose only similarity to a penny arcade is that it costs a pretty penny. Giannine arrives in the midst of a protest by a group of demonstrators who believe that fantasy and roleplay are of the devil. Soon after she plugs into a total-immersion, virtual-reality game about castles and wizards and barbarians and dragons, the protestors storm the facility and damage the machine Giannine is playing on. Thus she becomes trapped in the game, which she must start over each time her character dies. The only way out is to play it to the end and win. And she can only afford to "die" so many times, because the damaged machine will damage her more the longer she stays connected. If she doesn't make it out quickly, she never will.

So, no pressure.

The trouble is, Giannine is only fourteen years old, and the grandmother who has raised her can't afford to send her to Rasmussem Enterprises every weekend; so she actually isn't very good at gaming. Her inexperience tells early as she has to start the game over and over just to get past Level One. This isn't an encouraging sign in a fantasy game in which Giannine's character, very creatively named Janine, must rise from tending sheep to ruling a kingdom in three days.

Time passes much faster in virtual reality than in the real world; but even so, three days can be a lifetime when you keep getting killed on Day One and having to start over. And there are so many ways for a shepherd girl-turned-heir to the throne to die. There are three handsome princes, sons of the jealous dowager queen, who all have ambitions; deciding which of them to trust, and how to get him to trust her, is a life-and-death decision that comes out differently each time Giannine plays. Then there are the soldiers, who could become loyal to Janine if she can avoid getting assassinated by them; the barbarians, who intend to kidnap her; a witch with a knack for brewing poison; a wizard who likes to play a game of riddles with one hand on the lever to release the trap door under one's feet; a greedy dragon; an army of ghosts; and a mob of rebellious peasants, all with Janine's name on the blades of their swords or the tips of their arrows.

There is no one right way to play it. There may even be infinite ways to win. But as Giannine soon learns, there are infinite ways to lose. And unless she figures out how to get three royal advisors (one of them an embezzler, another a religious fanatic) to work together with three workers of magic, and keep the princes, soldiers, barbarians, and peasants from stabbing her in the back, she is just going to keep dying virtually until she dies for real. And that would totally ruin her birthday.

Giannine's fantasy adventure within a fantasy adventure is fun in and of itself. Particularly interesting is the unusual way she plays it—a sign that she is a special person in the real world, and one that endears her to the gaming tycoon who is desperately trying to save her. The idea that the sword-and-sorcery fantasy is a game that must be played over and over until the player figures out a way to win throws a unique light on the genre, and points out a variety of whimsical takes on the standard storyline. Plus, Janine/Giannine's double jeopardy adds an extra level of suspense as she gets closer to either final victory or total oblivion. A generous charge of mouthy attitude, a fizz of silliness, a tingle of controversy over the role of fantasy in the formation of children, and a sizzle of teen romance make this virtual world one that young readers will gladly plug into.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Farmer O'Dell

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm
by Nancy Farmer
Recommended Ages: 12+

This Newbery Honor Book by the author of The House of the Scorpion conjures a unique world in which futuristic fantasy and ancient folklore are intertwined. Set in the year 2194 in the African nation of Zimbabwe, it relates the adventures of three sheltered, privileged children when they escape from the walled compound of their father (the country's ruthlessly efficient security chief) to have an adventure and maybe earn a few scouting badges along the way. Instead of crossing the vast, dangerous city of Harare by bus and getting home in time for dinner, the children are almost immediately scrobbled by a gang that lives in a trash-filled wilderness called Dead Man's Vlei. There, surrounded by gray silent people who have learned to blend in with the filth around them, they are forced to slave in the garbage mines while a gangster picturesquely called the She Elephant decides whether to sell them.

Tendai, the older boy, worries that he is too sensitive and dreamy, and possibly cowardly as well, since he overheard the children's martial arts instructor telling their father that he wasn't soldier material. Nevertheless he shows great courage and protectiveness towards his rambunctious little brother Kuda and his "shooperer" sister Rita (that word means she always knows exactly what to say and when to say it to keep people at each other's throats). Besides, he also seems to have a knack for communicating with the spirits of the land, especially after he discovers a spiral-shell amulet that goes back to the first king of Great Zimbabwe. And so, as the children escape from one captivity to another, and then another—each one seeming to belong to a different world, or a different time—something like destiny seems to be guiding their adventures and misadventures.

Meanwhile, Tendai's frantic parents have hired three most unusual detectives—unusual, to start with, because they're the only detectives anyone in 22nd-century Harare has heard of. Each named after his most distinctive feature, Ear, Eye, and Arm were born with physical deformities and special sensitivities, thanks to a toxic waste disaster that struck the village where they grew up. Now they overcome the curse that comes with their gift to track the movements of the General's lost kids, though they always seem to be a step behind. Their side of the adventure also demands great courage, especially as these three men are so vulnerable and the dangers they face are so bewildering. Only at the climax of the story do both the children (especially Tendai) and the detectives (especially the empathic Arm) join together to fight the supernatural evil that threatens the whole country.

This book rewards sympathetic readers, but it is not for the prim or the faint of heart. Its depiction of the animistic spirituality of ancient Africa, to say nothing of the spirits themselves, make for a fascinating study of cultural traditions, but also call for an "occult content advisory" so that conscientious parents may be prepared to discuss this material with their children. The enemy Tendai confronts at the end of this book is really scary, and what it plans to do to him is stomach-turningly awful. The book unflinchingly depicts both good and bad aspects of its characters and the values they represent—well, most of them—inviting you to pity some of its less noble characters and to recognize the flaws of the noblest. It ranges from the miserable underbelly of low-life society to a pinnacle literally a mile above it, with breathtaking dangers and strange whimsies at all levels. It combines an eye-opening study of a culture you may never have visited even in your readings with a gripping, mind-expanding tale of pure imagination. And it establishes Nancy Farmer, once again, as a builder of worlds with a gift for storytelling.

The King's Fifth
by Scott O'Dell
Recommended Ages: 12+

Scott O'Dell (1898-1989) is widely, and justly, regarded as one of the USA's most important children's authors. Only the second American to win the international Hans Christian Andersen Award (a distinction he shares with only four other American authors and one illustrator), he won a 1961 Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins and, in a fifty-five-year career, published over two dozen more young-adult novels, mostly historical fiction set in Mexico or the American southwest. Four of them were Newbery Honor books, including this 1966 book, which has been made into an anime television series and, as if it needed any more honors added to it, made me shed tears by the end.

The narrator is seventeen-year-old Estéban Sandoval, a talented map-maker from Spain, who has come to the New World to seek his fortune. Even though to him this means the chance to draw beautiful maps of places no European eye had seen before, young Estéban is not immune to the gold fever. He attaches himself to a wily and ambitious conquistador named Blas de Mendoza, who leads his small band—including three musicians, an ostler, a priest, and an Indian girl—in a frankly obsessed search for the rumored Seven Cities where the streets are said to be paved with gold. What they find instead brings ruin to several native tribes, death and heartbreak to themselves, and (for Estéban himself) a trial before a court whose rules of evidence are not above being bent by greed and twisted by the hope of finding out where the boy hid his hoard of gold.

The title of this book refers to the crime Estéban is being tried for: withholding the King's share of whatever gold is discovered in Spanish America. But the reason Estéban cannot pay this amount is revealed only at the end of a double narrative, going back and forth between his trial and his memories of the terrible adventure of which he was a part. Estéban experiences at first-hand how the European conquerors' greed for gold led them not only to do untold damage to the beautiful and mysterious native cultures they encountered, but also to destroy themselves. Even though our young narrator himself catches this disease, he is fortunate enough to be redeemed through grief, through suffering, and through love. And it is this realization, especially of the last of the three, that may move you to tears at the end of this powerful, sensitive, memorable book.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dip, Ye Bachelors

Mom is back with another comfort food recipe: a dip that, according to her, is ideal for those extra-thick Townhouse "Topper" crackers, the ones that are like Ritz crackers on one side and pretzels on the other (or something like that).

Mom's SOS Dip
  1. Take 2 or 3 dill pickle halves and chop them up fairly fine.
  2. Stir them into 1 or 2 bricks of cream cheese, softened in the mixing bowl.
  3. Crumble in 1 or 2 packages of shaved dried beef.
  4. Add half a cup of sour cream, Worcestershire sauce and garlic powder to taste.
Voila! A dip that my brother Jake approves of, and that my three-year-old niece likes to lick off the blades of the mixing bowl. I just hope my mother unplugs it first...

Thanks to Minnesota Bread for the photo.

Friday, September 7, 2012

James Melville Reisman

Cultural Amnesia
by Clive James
Recommended Ages: 12+

I discovered this book the night Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows went on sale. Having arrived two hours ahead of the much-hyped midnight release, only to land 1,289th in line to purchase my copy, I found myself with more than enough time to give even a two-story super-bookstore a thorough once-over. And then I realized that I had even more time on my hands, during which I could either lose my mind through boredom or (fancy the thought!) crack open a book. And somehow, the book that demanded of me to be cracked that night was Cultural Amnesia. In this book, quite as long as Deathly Hallows, veteran cultural critic Clive James (native of Australia, citizen of the world) shows his mastery of that purest literary form—the critical essay—in a series of biographical sketches, glosses on memorable quotes, and engaging reviews of the novels, poetry, painting, music, film, history, and philosophy, that together form what one calls The Humanities. And for good reason. For they represent the best of what the human race can produce through the exercise of intellect and creativity. Their pursuit, and their appreciation, should not only be left up to over-educated academics and over-cultivated humanists. They are the treasure and heritage of all mankind.

I have spent the last several years slowly savoring Mr. James's essays. I have read some of them several times. I have read a few of them aloud to friends and loved ones. I have quoted them in conversation and in writing, and perhaps unconsciously let ideas I found in them shape some of my own opinions. It has taken me until just now to make certain of having read every word of every essay, all 800-odd pages of the book. It is slower going than Harry Potter, I will grant that. But it's been a wonderful book for reading a few pages and pausing to think about them for a quarter-hour or two, for ducking behind during commercial breaks when visiting a home where all social intercourse (including meals) takes place in the glow of a TV set, for sneaking ten minutes of mental privacy during a break in a frenetic rehearsal, or for taking along on a trip to ward off a few dull moments and then losing at the bottom of a carry-on bag for months after returning home. It's a book to be read out of order (since the essays are arranged in alphabetical order of their nominal subjects), starting with the names you recognize and are most interested to learn more about, and spreading outward from there as interesting names are dropped and your sphere of cultural reference is stretched.

Basically, this book accomplishes three things. The first is the reason that I daren't part with my copy of it: It lays out a curriculum for becoming (more) fully formed in the humanities. It goes a good way toward being a through-composed, compulsively readable bibliography of the best and most essential books that you must read if you want to pursue any line of inquiry in western culture, up to and including learning to read in several foreign languages. The second achievement of this book is that it plants the irresistable idea that anybody—even a workaday shmuck like me—can live a rich inner life. It's like this: whatever your "day job" is, let it support your bodily needs while you pursue your spiritual needs outside of working hours. How can one live better in any income bracket than to live his true life, his inner life, to the fullest—to fill it with cultural experiences—theater, music, art, film, and above all, literature!

And the third, and perhaps most serious, thing this book does is to argue that liberal democracy is essential (and in the end, James argues that it may even be inevitable) for the humanities to be fully and most gloriously human. He devotes many pages to mankind's dark and painful experiences in the 20th century, when history proved over and over again that totalitarianism destroys culture and sucks the variety out of life. And though there is a strong tendency in the intellectual community to deny the overwhelming evidence of this—though we should be concerned lest forgetfulness of history lead us to bring back those bad old days—ultimately, if James's analysis is correct, all utopias built on cold theory will finally crumble under the weight of their own self-destroying tendencies, and history will tend towards freedom.

James puts this down to the power of the humanities and the self-correcting ways of humanism. He may not possess all wisdom, but he has formidable taste. And though I couldn't hope to read half of what he has read if I had twice as long a life, I am thankful to him for providing some guideposts for getting started along the way.

by Herman Melville
Recommended Ages: 13+

This 1851 novel (full title: Moby-Dick; or, the Whale) is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest American novels. Some even regard it as the greatest novel in the English language, regardless of nationality. But it is an intimidating piece of work. My copy of it has probably sat on the shelf unopened as long as the next person’s copy. I made it through War and Peace while still dithering over whether to bother with Moby-Dick.

It is common knowledge that Melville’s great tragedy of the whaling captain obsessed with avenging his leg on the albino sperm whale that severed it is a ripping yarn. But it is also, per common knowledge, a tremendously serious book, fraught with melodramatic soliloquies that test the reader’s vocabulary and comprehension to the limit. It is vastly long in proportion to the amount of story in it, and full of compound-complex sentences that go on so long that the author often has to repeat bits of them to remind himself of what he was getting at (and sometimes he clean forgets). In it there are passages of transcendental prose-cum-poetry in the spirit of Whitman, Emerson, or Thoreau, separated by dissertations on whales and whaling. Thanks to the Quakerish Nantucket dialect in which most of its characters speak, the book also boasts a high concentration of Thees and Thous, to say nothing of Yes. Schoolteachers are likely to shrink from it because of its pre-Civil War depiction of slavery, its stereotyped Indian, African, and Pacific Islander “savages,” and its unconcern for the possibility that whales were being hunted nearly to extinction.

And like more literary masterpieces than you would probably guess, it’s a very imperfect novel. I’ve never known a book to get off to such a waffling, undramatic start: pages and pages of quotations concerning whales. Somewhere about Chapter 3, Melville introduces a character in a way that suggests he will be important later; the next time he mentions the guy, around Chapter 23, it is only to admit that he has no significance. It is meant to be the first-person narrative of a character named Ishmael, but many of the most powerful scenes and pieces of interior dialogue could only be known to an omniscient narrator. In fact, Ishmael turns out to be such an insignificant character in it that when he isn’t presenting symposium essays based on his whale research, you almost forget that he exists.

Plus—I don’t mean to harp on something I have already mentioned, but it’s a fact—of the 135 chapters in this book, only about 25 chapters really move the storyline ahead. I suspect that’s a generous estimate. (I could go back and count, but I won’t.) Many of the chapters that do touch on the main attraction do so only lightly, presenting a sliver of plot cushioned on a thick puff of lyricism—Captain Ahab’s morbid imaginings, first-mate Starbuck’s prayers of mounting desperation, second-mate Stubb’s reckless whimsies, cabin-boy Pip’s insane ravings. Melville devotes the rest of his thought-space to refining his portrait of his setting and fending off critics who are skeptical of its realism.

The genius of this is that it creates an impression of space, or the passage of time, filling up the gaps in the thin and broken narrative thread as the whaling ship Pequod sails from Nantucket across the Atlantic, rounds the Horn of Africa, passes across the Indian Ocean and through the Sunda Strait, and finally catches up with its quarry in the midst of the wide Pacific. By the time the Pequod all but circumnavigates the globe, you feel you have gone all the way around the world of knowledge that has to do with whales: their anatomy, their social habits, and the anatomy and social habits of the ships that hunted them. Yet there are also times when a grumpy reader may be provoked into wondering why, if the author couldn’t keep his mind on his own story, I should be expected to do so.

I’m not saying it’s not a great novel. It is definitely a great novel. But it also risks becoming a perversely boring one, the bulk of it being a scholarly digression like the last section of War and Peace. If you find the information Melville gives you about whales interesting—and eventually, even I did—you may not be so much bored as irritated by the slightness of the actual story in the scheme of the novel. In other words, it’s an “imperfect masterpiece.” It makes you wonder: if something so profoundly imperfect can be held, with considerable consensus, to be at least one of the top handful of novels in our language, why so many seemingly “perfect novels” fall short. Evidently it is the novel’s very imperfection, its reckless disregard for what makes conventionally readable prose and predictably enjoyable fiction, its whale-like wallowing in huge questions of the nature of existence and man’s place in it, the agonizingly inevitable doom of its central character, and its final dizzying rush to the doom of all its characters but one, that distinguish it above so many safe, snug contenders.

In spite of all I have said about the book majoring in the details of its backdrop and the inner turmoils of Captain Ahab, it does leave behind powerful impressions of several other characters. The first subject it portrays in painterly detail is Queequeg, with whom the narrator contracts an eyebrow-raising same-sex “marriage” long before the time when such things were widely accepted. (Middle-school-aged boys with a nose for the prurient will sniff out more than a few howlers in this book.) The earlier chapters present a broad gallery of distinctive characters in the tradition of the picaresque novel, such as Captains Peleg and Bildad, who own the Pequod; Fedallah, the captain’s ill-looking and ill-fated Zoroastrian confidant; and the preacher whose interpretation of the biblical Jonah gives a quick insight into the whaling culture all by itself. All this is besides the unforgettable images that crowd the final few chapters, from the grief of the ship-captain who fears he has lost his son to the fulfillment, point by point, of a prophecy of Ahab’s doom in which all but one member of the Pequod’s crew shares.

My journey around the world with Ishmael and his shipmates was finally not a result of cracking that book that had stood on my shelf for so long. I owe it to the audiobook narrated by Paul Boehmer who, unless I mistake, is an actor best known for his numerous guest roles on Star Trek (including, for my money, one of the best Borg drones ever). He is truly too gifted to waste on TV guest roles, having the ability to modulate his voice to become so many different characters, from the haunted Ahab to the haunting Fedallah, from coarse Stubb to cultured Ishmael. With his help I learned that it isn’t really all that intimidating a book after all. Some of the sentences may be hard to get through in one go without fluffing the inflection, and the storyline goes behind the curtain for quite a few chapters, yet even in its prosy moments it is a closely-argued book and one that gets its point across effectively. I set aside several more immediately appealing books so that I could focus solely on this one—a choice I owe not to my own self-punishing stubbornness but to the book’s deeply engaging strangeness and steadily building atmosphere of dread. Even after returning Mr. Boehmer’s recording of the book to my friendly public library, I feel a misgiving that I may read this book all over again. It tried to bore me, it did its best to frustrate me, at times it seemed intent to shake me off with its obscurities, but in the end, it pierced me, and its harpoon stuck.

Simon Bloom: The Gravity Keeper
by Michael Reisman
Recommended Ages: 12+

Simon Bloom is an ordinary-looking sixth-grader in the ordinary-looking town of Lawnville, New Jersey. His parents are workaholics and at school he is so good at staying unnoticed that he is practically invisible. Which gives him ample freedom to enjoy his favorite passtime: daydreaming. Then one day his daydreams get kissed by a magical breeze, which leads him to an enormous forest a few blocks from his house that has somehow gone unnoticed by everyone in town, where a book falls out of a rip in the universe and lands on his head.

It's the Teacher's Guide to Physics, ingeniously camouflaged as a school science book, but really containing formulas that enable the user to control the laws of physics. It is only one of several books belonging to the Council of Sciences, which exists to keep nature and the universe in proper running order. Why has a young Outsider been given access to this precious book? Because its rightful Keeper has been attacked and almost killed by a ruthless villain (nicknamed Sir) who believes that the power to control reality is owed to her(!). Simon doesn't know any of this at first. All he knows is that bad people are after him, and soon enough the good guys are out to get him too; and before he and his friends Owen and Alysha can breathe safely, they will have to learn to fly, move objects with their mind, control the forces of electricity and friction, and do lots of other science-y things.

This is a loopy adventure in which the characters meet their third-person omniscient narrator (a very awkward moment). Normal people witness freakish occurrences. A vile traitor is unmasked. A children's playground becomes a magical battleground. And a weird school principal gives new meaning to the phrase "Keep your hair on." Kids keen for science and full of imagination will get a kick out of the adventures of Simon and his newfound friends in this book, as well as its sequel Simon Bloom: The Octopus Effect.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tunes for 3-Line Hymns

For a general introduction to this thread, click here. For 2-line hymn tunes, click here. And now we continue with tunes for 3-line hymns represented in 20th century anglophone Lutheran hymnals, grouped by meter.


Heilger Geist, du Tröster mein
15th century melody; Bremen, 1633.
Stephen Langton's sequence hymn “Holy Spirit, come, we pray” is set to this Dorian-mode tune in LHA 120. The melody is simple and brief, yet hauntingly memorable, in part because of its unusual meter. Its modal harmonies give it a serious, ancient sound which, combined with the rhythms at the end of its last two phrases, makes it seem right at home with Reformation-era hymnody. An unusual tune all around, it is well adapted to the genre of sequence hymns, and so ought to be better known.

St. Philip
by William H. Monk, 1823-89.
I believe the 13th-century Latin hymn “Holy Ghost, my comforter,” set to this tune in LHy 378, may be a different translation of the Langton hymn referenced above. If so, that puts these two tunes in direct competition; and although this tune is simple, brief, and gently charming, I am afraid Heilger Geist, du Tröster mein comes out on top. Easy enough for children to learn, to say nothing of the average congregation, St. Philip only lacks distinctiveness. It also, frankly, sounds a bit unfinished; and the most memorable bit of it—the third phrase—is reminiscent of Orientis partibus (known to generations of Sunday School Christmas Program veterans through the carol "Friendly Beasts").


Stabat Mater
a.k.a. Mainz
from Gesangbuch, Mainz, 1661 (or 8.8.7. D).
“At the cross, her station keeping,” adapted from the Latin Stabat mater, is set to this tune in SBH 84 and LBW 110. These aren't the only anglophone Lutheran hymnals to make use of this Romanist hymn (cf. LHy 320, "Near the cross was Mary weeping") which, though it falls short of making Mary out to be a Coredemptrix, recasts the Passion of Christ from her point of view. My thinking on this hymn is influenced by conductor David Robertson, who conducted a performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater when I was in the chorus. During rehearsals, Robertson opined that the 13th-century Stabat mater marks the point at which the focus of Catholic theology moved from atonement (with all its violent, bloody, masculine themes of judgment and sacrifice) to empathy (a comparatively feminine point of view). Choosing this hymn on Good Friday invites the worshiper to experience Jesus' suffering and death from the point of view of a sympathetic observer, rather than as a central character in the drama of one's sin being expiated in the body of Christ. Be that as it may, this brief, simple tune—which can be sung either as three-line stanzas or as a six-liner doubled by a repeat sign, is handsome, humble, and plaintive enough to suit its purpose, though it may not wear well with much repetition.


Dies iræ (1)
Latin melody, 13th century.
The Latin sequence hymn from the Mass for the Dead—“Day of wrath! that day of mourning”—is found set to this tune in ELHb 555, TLH 607, and CW 209. This is the simplest of four musical settings of this text that I have found in anglophone Lutheran literature, and the only one that is strictly speaking a three-line hymn tune. The others qualify for the distinction mainly because the hymn text is mostly laid out in three-line stanzas except at the very end, and that textual twist is often edited away. So the larger tunes set to this text can be regarded as compound settings, whereby multiple stanzas can be sung to each once-through, or whereby the entire hymn is arranged in an elaborately through-composed manner. Setting 1, the tune above, is simple, short, and memorable. After singing it through 19 times in a row, you try and forget it! Humble and reverent in character, it may become tiring with too much repetition unless the stanzas are divided up between different groups of singers, such as congregation and choir, left side and right side, etc.

Dies iræ (2)
ad. from Latin melody, 13th century (or 8.8.8. 8.8.8. 8.8.8.)
“Day of wrath! that day of mourning” is set to this Dorian-mode tune in ELHy 537. Don't let the fact that it's only represented in one hymnal fool you. This is the best-known tune associated with this sequence hymn since the heyday of Gregorian chant. Many classic composers, such as Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, have quoted this tune in their instrumental works as a universally recognizable musical symbol of death. Strictly speaking, the hymn is a prayer for mercy on the Day of Judgment, and thus tends to be sung in Lutheran churches toward the end of the Church Year, if ever. Nevertheless, if you feel the gripping power of these verses, you may enjoy listening to various composers' settings of the Requiem liturgy, starting with the Gregorian setting in which this tune features prominently.

Dies iræ (3)
by Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-87.
Continuing to ascend in order of length and complexity (as well as in alphabetical order by source), this tune is the setting for “Day of wrath! that day of mourning” in LHy 601. By dint of its outer sections being in d minor and its middle part in A Major, it is also one of the few tunes in Lutheran hymnody to suffer a key change. It has room to do this because of the complicated way composer Lindeman planned to dramatize the text through changes of melody. The first sixteen three-line stanzas are divided up between the first two lines of music in the order A, A, B, B, A, A, B, B, etc. Stanza 17 is then sung to the third line of the tune, and repeated with a slightly different ending the second time round. Lindeman then dares to set the last six lines of the hymn to a single, non-repeating flow of melody, avoiding the necessity of doing violence to the unique meter of those two stanzas. As a thoroughgoing musical composition it is very impressive, distinctive, memorable, well-formed, and thoughtfully structured. It covers a range of moods from sternly dramatic to tenderly supplicating to ominous, and ends on a somewhat hopeful note. Even as an admirer of Lindeman's output, I consider this to be one of his stronger efforts. Grandly romantic, beautifully expressive of its end-times theme, it deserves to be kept in the quiver in case the possibility materializes of performing it—perhaps with the congregation and choir in alternatim. But on the other hand, that occasion may never come for those congregations that have an average or below-average aptitude for tackling musical challenges.

Dies iræ, dies illa
by John B. Dykes, 1861.
“Day of wrath! that day of mourning” is set to this tune in CSB 515. While it doesn't change keys like the previous tune, it does alternate between d minor and D Major. The amount of music it requires its singers to master is even greater than in the Lindeman tune. Here the first fourteen three-line stanzas (counting them according to their original three-line layout) are sung to the first six phrases of music, repeated over and over; then the last five stanzas are specially through-composed. All this wouldn't be so bad if it was even nearly as inspired as the Lindeman version, though it does strike supplicatory, cheerful, ominous, and peaceful notes in succession. It has a certain sweeping grandeur. But because of its length, complexity, tricky intervals, and lower degree of memorability, I would only recommend this piece to be sung by the choir. And thus the question arises: Why give space to this tune in the hymnal?

8.8.8. + Alleluias

by Charles R. Anders, b. 1929.
This is the tune set to “Christ is the king! O friends, rejoice” in LBW 386. It has the ring of a tune commissioned from a distinguished professor by the program committee of a national church convention: dignified, modern, a little impractical, a little catchy, well-constructed if not terribly inspired, etc.—a style characterizing a good number of tunes in this study. The text isn’t so hot, either. Anders's tune has an angular energy to it, and a certain memorable quirkiness, but its performance would probably require either a well-rehearsed choir or a strongly accompanied, musically fearless congregation. I like it, but that may be because I have studied so many hymn tunes that I value one that surprises me. On the other hand, the musical surprises in this piece may limit its accessibility to town-gown parishes, campus chapels, and a few other congregations keen for adventure. Will they find it worth the trouble? That's another question. George Bell's (1883-1958) poem is a verbal fanfare of praise calling on brothers and sisters to "let the world know [Christ] is your choice" and to "seek again the way his faithful followed then," to unite in serving the Lord, with the result(!):
So shall the Church at last be one;
So shall God's will on earth be done,
New lamps be lit, new tasks begun...
Funnily enough, God doesn't do much in this hymn. We do it all. Even the phrase "love's all-reconciling might" is about the love with which we love one other. But where is Christ?

Gelobt sei Gott
a.k.a. Vulpius
by Melchior Vulpius, 1609.
This is chiefly the tune to which Cyril Alington's Easter hymn “Good Christian men, rejoice and sing” is set in SBH 109, LHA 105, LBW 144, and LW 129. Other texts I have seen put to this music include “O Lord of life, where’er they be” (SBH 600), “The strife is o’er, the battle done” (LHA 97), and the first-Sunday-after-Easter hymn “Ye sons and daughters of the King” (TLH 208, CW 165, ELHy 366). Because of my TLH upbringing, if given the choice between singing "Ye sons and daughters of the King" to this tune or to the next one down, I would probably pick this one just to spare my congregation the trouble of learning a new trick—though I have spent enough time in churches that sang that hymn to O filii to appreciate its beauty too. Vulpius's tune, however, is an excellent property that Lutheranism would do ill to relinquish. Joyful, athletic, with a rhythmic vitality that makes the triple Alleluia at the end of each stanza all but impossible to sing without meaning it, it works particularly well at Eastertide.

O filii et filiæ
French melody, 15th century.
This Dorian-mode tune seems to have been tailor-made for the Sunday-after-Easter hymn “Ye sons and daughters of the King,” to which it is set in SBH 96, LBW 139, LW 130. Be aware that a triple Alleluia is supposed to be sung before and after the hymn to the portion of the tune to the right of the repeat-sign; plus, each three-line stanza ends with a single or double Alleluia, depending on which of the two versions you go with. The choice is significant. The first version is more ornate and technically difficult. The second version, omitting the F-sharp, has a more ancient, modal sound and "period" rhythm. Hauntingly memorable, distinctively shaped, susceptible to a variety of contrapuntal arrangements (I should know; I've written a set of variations on it), this tune brings a graceful reverence to the Easter solemnities, supporting the verse narrative of Christ's appearance to the apostles (with the institution of absolution, doubting Thomas, and all) with a strange combination of lithe energy and awesome seriousness. I wouldn't want to lose Gelobt sei Gott, but I can see a congregation trying this tune once and getting hooked.

a.k.a. Palestrina
ad. from G. Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1591 (or CM or SM).
The Eastertide hymn “The strife is o’er, the battle done” goes with this hymn in LHy 324, CSB 109, ALH 434, TCH 198, TLH 210, SBH 90, LBW 135, LW 143, CW 148, ELHy 357. Between these books, one can find arrangements in both E-flat and D Major, in case the organist needs help transposing it. In addition, ELHb 307 pairs the CM ( version of this tune with the hymn “Lord, we confess our numerous faults”; and ALH 231 puts the SM ( variant, harmonized by W. H. Monk, with the text “Take Thou my life, dear Lord.” Neither these anomalies, nor the fact that "The strife is o'er" is set to Gelobt sei Gott in LHA 97, contradict the clear evidence that this tune and that text are inextricably wedded in anglophone Lutheran hymnody. Though the melody runs on a minimum dose of inspiration, it is highly engaging, distinctive, and memorable. It is also easy to perform, provided the organist does not commit the enormity of playing the triple Alleluia after every stanza. The one complication is, after all, that this is virtually the only hymn tune in our repertoire that has (or ought to have) a dal segno al coda symbol in it. Besides the SM arrangement, Monk is probably responsible for the triple Alleluias, which are laid out differently in each hymnal and call for alertness on the part of the musicians and the congregation.


St. Sebastian
by Percy C. Buck, 1871-1947.
LHA 209 sets “Sing Alleluia forth in duteous praise” to this tune. The text is a Mozarabic hymn with two 10-syllable lines per stanza, followed by the refrain "An endless Alleluia," with a melisma on the Al-. Strikingly unusual, lyrically graceful, noble, and devout, it is also compellingly structured with its inverted arch shape and a conclusion that may remind some of Vruechten ("This joyful Eastertide"). It's a fine, relatively new hymn with much potential, made more impressive by the text's imagery of glorious worship in the spirit of "Ye watchers and ye holy ones."


Parting Hymn
Danish tune.
TCH 69 sets the hymn “Brothers and sisters, we now must depart” to this tune. It's a nice little close-of-worship hymn translated from a Danish original written partly by Jens Larsen (ca. 1860) and partly by Frederik Boye (ca. 1750). I think it would be especially appropriate for morning devotions before going to work, or at a farewell-and-Godspeed for people leaving the community, since the first stanza says: "Follow we Jesus with gladness of heart, each in his lawful vocation." The second stanza does, I'll admit, admonish worshipers to "open your hearts unto Jesus," but only in the context of "treasur[ing] God's word with devotion and care." The last two stanzas together are a strong doxology to Christ, "the Lamb who for sinners was slain," concluding with not one but two Amens. All this—four three-line stanzas—takes but half a page in the book, and flows over a guileless, cheerful, folk-songy melody that even unfamiliar ears may find comforting.

10.10.10. + Alleluias

by Charles V. Stanford, 1904.
Here is a tune whose harmony changes at the end of the final stanza, so that where there has previously been a half-cadence leading directly back to the beginning of the tune, there is a full and convincingly final cadence. A clever arranger could possibly give the tune a Mixolydian inflection as well. Such creativity has been expended on a tune that one can find paired with the hymns “All praise to Thee, for Thou, O King divine” (LHA 174), “We know that Christ is raised and dies no more” (LBW 189), and “When in our music God is glorified” (CW 248, ELHy 380). It's a warm, appealing, pomp-and-circumstancy number, again the sort of thing that sounds as if it might have been commissioned for a special church service—though, intriguingly, the tune is in public domain. I may as well say here as under the next tune below that, in spite of my high view of church music, I despise the hymn "When in our music God is glorified." It's one of those annoying instances of an author talking about what he's doing rather than doing it, of telling rather than showing. As a didactic poem that makes a pertinent argument, it's all right. But on the terms of its own argument, it isn't a hymn. While I'm at it, I might add that "We know that Christ" is also pretty weak.

by Charles R. Anders, b. 1929.
“When in our music God is glorified” gets paired with this tune in LBW 555 and LW 449. It doesn't make me like the text any better than Engelberg does. Instead of the Stanford tune's single Alleluia, this tune provides scope for a triple Alleluia at the end of each stanza—though it somehow comes off sounding a little sad. I like it. It's so peaceful, gentle, even wistful, that it seems to float along in disregard of regular bar-lines, eliciting the sympathy of the hearers so that they don't mind the challenge of learning to sing it. A perverse arranger could perhaps write a harmonization of this tune in the Phrygian mode, but the tune would forgive him because that's the kind of nice tune it is.

Pro omnibus sanctis
a.k.a. Sarum
by Joseph Barnby, 1869.
This, believe it or not, is the original tune to “For all the saints who from their labors rest,” and remained in circulation at least through the middle of the past century (cf. CSB 250, SBH 144b). By the way, that lower-case "b" after SBH 144 means that this had become the "Second Tune" for that hymn. By that time it must have been hard not to assume that W. W. How's All Saints' Day hymn would always be sung to the next tune below. Time and changes of style have not been kind to this tune. Uninspired, awkwardly pompous, it makes up for its insipidity by being tricky to perform. It's funny how hymn tune composers like Barnby and Dykes, whose facility often outran inspiration, so often seemed to christen their most mediocre tunes with the most venerable, ancient, and catholic sounding names. Perhaps this gives a glimpse into Romantic artists’ conceits about the achievements of antiquity, and their unsuccessful attempts to imitate or equal them. They couldn’t resist writing tunes for hymns they didn’t understand—that is, if their comprehension of text is to be judged by the strength of their music. But arise, let us move on to

Sine nomine
by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906.
Now that's more like it! “For all the saints who from their labors rest” is graced with this magnificent tune in TLH 463, SBH 144a, LHA 213, LBW 174, LW 191, CW 551, ELHy 554... pretty much every hymnal whose compilers had time to assimilate The [Anglican] Hymnal 1940, to which Vaughan Williams contributed much. I remember discovering this hymn when I was in first or second grade. It was the first time I was really conscious of the hymn tune as a distinct art form, and of a particular hymn tune as a great piece of art. To be sure, the rhythm of this hymn can be a bit challenging for those unfamiliar with it, though I suspect every congregation that tries it will gladly make the effort. The one real complication is the text underlay (i.e. which notes the syllables go with), which varies from text to text owing to author How's irregularity of diction and composer Vaughan Williams's care to avoid barbarous effects. It's a powerful, joyful, energetic piece of music with a benign case of pomp and circumstance, and the advantage of being both widely known and wedded to a single text. What with the variety of festive settings that have been arranged for it, it screams "processional hymn" with choir, brass, timpani, and whatever other instruments can be brought to bear. If there is ever any doubt that this hymn should be in a Lutheran hymnal, it will arise not from the tune but from the text.


Paschal Alleluias
by Harry Bartels, b. 1929.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Bartels, who wrote the hymn “Now Christ is risen! Death’s reign is over” as well as this its tune (cf. ELHy 355). Interestingly, he pronounces his name "BAR-təlz," though his son (whom I met at the same time) styles himself "bar-TELZ." These saints belong to the ELS, of which I was a member for three years during the mid-1990s, and so I also know Mark DeGarmeaux, who made ELHy's very effective arrangement of this tune. But enough name-dropping. I'm sorry to say I wasn't around the ELS much after its new hymnary came out, so I never became acquainted with this hymn until this study forced me to look at it. And at the risk of losing the favor of a new and interesting friend, I have to admit that I don't foresee having much use for this hymn. There is already an over-abundance of fine Easter hymns. Several of them may be more popular than they deserve, but a wise pastor makes some small concessions to popularity at times of year like Easter. All that Mr. Bartels says in this hymn is good, but neither how he says it, nor the tune to which he sings it, distinguishes this hymn above the crowd.


by Allan Mahnke, b. 1944, 11 7 10.
The hymn “Oh, gladsome light of the Father immortal” (LBW 279) is an altered version of Longfellow's translation of the third-century Greek hymn Phos hilaron, best known to Lutheranism from the Robert Bridges version "O gladsome Light, O grace" (cf. TLH 101). Just now I sat down and played and sung my way through all three stanzas of the Longfellow version and I admit that I found it beautiful. I may even be ready to reconsider my initial assessment, noted down years ago: "An uninspired, almost random-sounding mess... No congregation will ever sing this." Yes, that is a bit harsh. But it's also true that LBW has it laid out across a page break with the trickiest rhythm in the piece, in terms of the way words and music come together, jammed into the crease, exactly where your eye is going to miss it while it's shooting from the bottom of the left-hand page to the top of the right. What this spells is disaster. Some kind soul is going to have to rescue this hymn, and to do so they will probably have to photocopy the hymn, cut up the printout and paste it back together in a more reader-friendly format, copy it again, and teach it to the choir or the school-children before the congregation can be brought on board. Meanwhile, someone is bound to ask why they can't just sing the Bridges version. It's a fair question. Maybe this will just have to stay in the choir folder, then.


by Jack Schrader, b. 1942, 12 12 12.
Fred Pratt Green's hymn “This is the threefold truth” goes with this hymn in CW 406. If it seems more familiar than that obscure reference would warrant, you might have seen it in a hymnal supplement. It's the hymn whose stanzas all end with the refrain "Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!" I would like to quote the hymn in full, but its text, tune, and setting are all under copyright, and I have probably stretched Fair Use to its limit by presenting the melody here for discussion. Again, like too many modern hymns, it sounds as though the composer bathed his head in a bucket of Pomp and Circumstance before setting quill to parchment. It's also the type of tune that probably requires strong accompaniment to enable worshipers to negotiate its many bare leaps of a 4th or a 5th. I frankly think more of the text than of the tune, though it's also more than likely that the text's internal rhythm eternally condemns it to being sung to a mediocre tune. I have seen numerous cases like it, though perhaps someone reading CW 406 will be struck by the inspiration to write the tune this hymn deserves. Till then... oh, well!