Friday, May 29, 2020

Tacky Hymns 62

More on the 1999 Wisconsin Synod hymnal supplement, Let All the People Praise You: A Songbook. See the previous six posts under "Tacky Hymns" for background info. We resume with ...

(226-227) The old rugged cross (first line: "On a hill far away"), all four stanzas plus refrain of the old sentimental favorite by George Bennard. The extent to which adding this song to the repertoire available in the pew is a response to popular demand is approximately the extent to which your congregation is no longer meaningfully Lutheran. True story: I was playing hymns out of The Lutheran Hymnal, softly, on the Hammond organ at the funeral parlor during the visitation for one of my late members (way back when I was still in the ministry), when a member of the decedent's family who had never darkened the door of the church in my time mooched over and hissed in my ear, "I hope at the funeral you'll play some Lutheran hymns!" I batted my eyelashes and asked for an example of what she meant. Guess which song she named! The part of me that has hope for the future of American Lutheranism dies a little every time I remember that story.

Is there any harm in Bennard's lyrics? On the contrary, it has some merits. But it milks those merits for the maximum amount of treacly sentiment allowable under state and federal law. Far be it from me to impugn a poem steeped in the atoning blood of Jesus. But somehow this one manages to be me-centered with it. I know, I've heard the same said of the beautiful baptism hymn "God's own child, I gladly say it" – but maybe I'm more willing to excuse that hymn's egocentrism because, in the first place, it loads more comforting, edifying faith content into its stanzas, and because it fashions itself as a congregational hymn rather than a vehicle for an emotive soloist.

(228-229) On this day earth shall ring is the medieval English Latin Christmas hymn "Personent hodie" (Piae Cantiones, 1582) in Gustav Holst's brilliant arrangement. I think it's fabulous and I get a tremendous thrill out of playing it, or trying to. Its piano part is pretty far out on the difficult end of the continuum of hymn literature, including left-hand octaves (some of whose notes go lower than the pedals on the organ), high ossia notes that apparently require the accompanist to grow a third hand, and singing forces that have been prepared ahead of time to sing the Latin refrain "Ideo, ideo, ideo gloria in excelsis Deo" (or ideo, o, o as some hymnals phrase it). This means "therefore, glory to God in the highest," not that this book explains it. All in all, I think it's a great piece, full of exuberant energy, that would serve as a challenging and enriching piece for the youth choir, if your church can scrape one together, or the choir in general (although the text clearly speaks of "the song children sing"). As for its chances of being sung by the congregation, with Grandma Smurf puffing away on the Hammond, I think the editors might as well have saved this space for something more likely to succeed.

(230) is the Japanese version of "Jesus loves me," four stanzas without music, that I told you was coming. Again, its practical use, apart from warming parishioners' hearts with a reminder of all the important mission work their church body has done, is apparently to fill a page that would otherwise have been left blank.

(231) Once on a mountaintop is a Transfiguration hymn by Michael Hewlett, set to the Hebrew melody elsewhere identified as either YIGDAL or LEONI; this book, however, is not very helpful with regard to the names of hymn tunes. You may know it as the tune to "The God of Abraham praise." Hewlett's verse description of the Transfiguration in Stanza 1 is interesting, marrying plain language – perhaps a little too plain, in lines like "there stood three startled men" – with a knack for capturing the awe and mystery of that moment. In stanza 2, he goes on to address the hiddenness of God. Stanza 3 then asks God to "forgive us who despise the things that lie beyond our sight, and give us eyes." It's not the application of Jesus' Transfiguration that I expected. It ends up, in fact, being kind of a "blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed" kind of thing, albeit without quoting that. On a scale of tackiness from 1 to 5 tacks I would give this hymn less than 1, and that half-tack only for attempting a novel and perhaps off-message interpretation of a yearly gospel pericope. But mostly, I mention it here as a positive example of the kind of original hymnody that this book could have been filled with, instead of the CoWo dreck that crams the majority of its pages.

(232-233) One small child (in a land of a thousand) is a very 1970s Christmas/Epiphany hymn with CoWo piano stylings, all by David Meece. There's a second strain of melody added onto stanzas 2 and 3 (but not 1 and 4). Except for those bridge verses, which repeatedly say things like "See him lying... See him smiling... See his mother praising his Father," etc., each line of all four stanzas is a sentence fragment, an image or an interpretive point of view about the scene here depicted (e.g. "One small hand reaching out to the starlight") that never completes a thought – kind of the same thing I hate about "Now the silence." The tune is attractive if a bit derivative sounding. The Christmas story thus told in non-sentence units of grammar isn't particularly true to the biblical record (assigning specific roles to the three "kings" and putting them ahead of the shepherds in the receiving line). It also paints in details that trace back to someone's pious imagination, like a candle flame, a smile, a cradle. Basically, it's a catchy bunch of Christmas-flavored bunk.

(234) Our Father in heaven (we hallow your name) is Sarah Hale's paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer set to the tune DENIO (best known, I think, for "Immortal, invisible, God only wise"). I'd like to pass over this piece without comment, but I feel it must be mentioned that the second line of stanza 1, "May your kingdom holy on earth be the same," conflates the Second and Third Petitions in a way that seems to omit "Thy will be done." Another 0.5 tacks.

(235) Our thanks, O God, for parents is a 1960s-era hymn about children by Lois Johnson. Her original tune is actually written in a pretty solid hymnal style. It would be a good song (and an easy one, I think) for children or adults – many of whom also have parents, you know – to sing on occasions when we are called upon to remember God's gift of our parents. Zero tacks, for once.

(236-237) Pass it on (first line: "It only takes a spark") is actually that song by Kurt Kaiser – you know, the one everybody sang around the bonfire when the cool young assistant pastor pulled his guitar out and made all the kids weep with sentimentality. Even though some of us kind of cringed, too. It's a song full of cute analogies to God's love – a spark lighting a flame that warms everybody up, the wondrous time of spring that brings songbirds and blooming flowers – and concludes with the "I wish for you, my friend" verse that ties it up in a personal evangelism bow. Fine. But it's a youth bonfire song. Nobody needs it printed in the pew book. (Oops: I forgot to check, but I've commented on this song before.)

(238-239) Peace like a river (first line: "There's a river that brings joy") is also one I've done before. However, I should note that this time around, it has four stanzas and the music is laid out in a comparatively space-saving way that shows, after all, that the refrain uses exactly the same music as the stanzas. There's a lot of repetition in the refrain, which tempts me to suggest that you skip it altogether. I'm also struck by some of the lyrics in John Ylvisaker's paraphrase of the traditional American hymn, specifying that the city of our God = "the sacramental house of the Most High." There's also a pretty strong Trinitarian doxology at the end. Whatever Ylvisaker did to it seems to have been an improvement.

I'm calling this unit of LAPPY because there's somewhere I have to go. Also, it ran pretty long, considering that I only made it through 14 pages. I'm going to have to work on biting my tongue, or my pen, or my typing fingers, as the case may be. And all the people said, "Amen."

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