Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Tacky Hymns 68

Last time, I got through the first 45 or so hymns of The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) without finding any hymns that I actually felt were tacky – with regard to confessional Lutheran values for words and music to be sung by the congregation. But as I've noted, I'm scoping out three things in this thread: (1) objectionable choices by a pew book's hymn selection committee, (2) interesting variants of commonly seen text-tune marriages, and (3) really good hymns that I think deserve to be learned and sung by more Lutheran congregations.

I'm going to start off, however, with a blemish on CPH's so far spotless record – though, to be sure, I've passed over some slightly boring numbers without belaboring them.

(47) Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise is one of those sentimental old chestnuts that some of you are going to hate me for picking on. I think the tune, ELLERS by Edward J. Hopkins (1869), is on the outer limit of sentimental mush that has any business sharing bookroom with the likes of WACHET AUF and EIN FESTE BURG. It's a warm, gushy, touchy-feely piece that comes to an inconclusive ending (the last note of the melody is the fifth of the scale). It has nice, rich harmony – at least in this book – so that's one thing it has over a lot of other smarmy 19th century hymns. John Ellerton's 1866 hymn text, a hymn to depart, thus comes across as an oddly touching farewell to a place of worship and a body of fellow worshipers whom one might reasonably hope to see again the next week. 2 or 3 tacks out of 5.

(48) How blest are they who hear God's Word, however, is another example of "type 3," a Danish hymn that I suspect goes unsung, or undersung, in many German Lutheran congregations because it's just different enough from the familiar and comfortable pattern of German chorales that – strange as it may seem, I can only report what I've observed – people who don't even remember a time when their church worshiped in German are taken against it. Johan N. Brun's post-Communion hymn is really beautiful, and the 16th century tune MIN SJAEL OG AAND is quite expressive and richly harmonized. I think people given a chance to sing it every now and then (like, once a month) will gradually develop a fondness for it in proportion to such faithful words as, "Today I was my Savior's guest, My soul was here so richly blest, The Bread of Life receiving."

(50) Lord dismiss us with Thy blessing is the first instance of "type 2" that I want to point out. TLH awards it two tunes: REGENT SQUARE by Henry Smart (1867), better known as the tune to "Angels from the realms of glory," and NEW ULM by Fritz Reuter (1910). The latter is a very nice tune, but face it, everybody uses REGENT SQUARE. Unless they grew up using certain other hymnals, in which case maybe they use SICILIAN MARINERS (roughly, the tune to the Christmas carol "Oh, how joyfully"). Maybe, one of these days, I will write a new hymn and stick NEW ULM to it, because I think the tune deserves another shot.

(54) Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah is another "type 2" hymn, interesting because TLH pairs it with the tune GUIDE ME by George W. Warren (1884) that, I gather, was written for it. However, in most hymnbooks you find this popular hymn, translated from Welsh, paired with a conspicuously Welsh tune, CWM RHONDDA (James Hughes, 1905). Actually, I think I've met this hymn under the guise of other tunes as well, but none more frequently than CWM. I'm debating amongst myself whether I want to offer GUIDE ME the same deal as NEW ULM. I'm not sure I like it as much. I'd guess that as comfortable as TLH users are/were singing this hymn to Warren's tune, switching to Hughes' was/will be one of the more painless changes that come with buying into a new hymnal.

(55) Come, Thou precious Ransom, come is set to the Darmstadt (1699) tune MEINEN JESUM LASS ICH NICHT – which, judging by its name, is meant to be paired with "Jesus I will never leave" (TLH 365). The book also uses this tune for "Jesus sinners doth receive" (TLH 324) – the hymn I, personally, most strongly associate with it – and the children's funeral sermon "Tender Shepherd, Thou hast stilled" (TLH 595). I say this because I only mean to bring this tune up once, and only in the "type 2" context, to let you know that there are two other chorale melodies named MEINEN JESUM LASS ICH NICHT which can be used interchangeably with this tune, although not necessarily with the same degree of success. I used all three of them in my book of original hymns, Useful Hymns, just because I love fine old hymn tunes.

We've moved on into the Advent section of the book by now. I tell you, I have to bite my tongue, or rather my typing fingers, to avoid stopping at every single hymn and telling you in the spirit of "type 3" why they're so great. I'm going to make an effort to restrict that use of this thread to the hymns I can't stand not mentioning. And so ...

(58) O Lord, how shall I meet Thee is a beautiful Paul Gerhardt hymn, from which TLH selects a mere nine stanzas (gasp!) and sets them to two tunes. The first is VALET WILL ICH DIR GEBEN by Melchior Teschner (1613), whose title suggests a deep tie to the hymn "Farewell I gladly bid Thee" (TLH 407) and which TLH uses with a total of seven hymns – more, I believe, than any other tune except OLD HUNDREDTH and WIE SCHOEN LEUCHTET (each also used seven times). (SEPTEM VERBA doesn't count; its seven hymns in TLH are really sections of a larger structure, a litany on Jesus' Seven Last Words.) I think VALET (sometimes also called ST. THEODULPH) is a great tune, don't get me wrong. But in my study of many anglophone Lutheran hymnals, I've found it chronically overused with more different hymn texts than almost any other hymn tune. But this tune has become such a generic, go-to melody that it shouldn't be difficult to divorce it from any particular hymn except, maybe, "All glory, laud and honor." And then there's the second tune, WIE SOLL ICH DICH by Johann Crueger (1653), a beautiful tune that is tender and devout where VALET is bold and bright. To judge by the title, it's the tune this hymn is really meant to be sung to – and I applaud the fact that more recent hymnals have made it the sole tune for this hymn. Not everyone's with me on this, however; for in spite of, or maybe because of, VALET's systemic overuse (bordering on abuse), it's a terribly well-known tune that requires few Lutherans weaned on hymnal-style worship to learn it cold. And a couple generations of those Lutherans have the impression that it's the tune to this hymn. Let's keep working on them.

(60) Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding is another interesting case of "type 2." I think the tune TLH pairs with it is a very fine and respectable tune: O DER ALLES, from a 1705 book out of Halle (yes, that hotbed of German Pietism; but oh, well). Solemn, dignified, with a wide-ranging arch shape, I think it deserves to be better known. But these days, everybody seems to be choosing a different tune for this hymn and I hate to admit it, but some of them are really good tunes, too. One is W.H. Monk's 1850 tune MERTON (cf. Lutheran Service Book Hymn 345), a very high-church Anglican sounding thing that grabs this hymn in an inextricable grip. Then there's Michael Weisse's 16th century chorale FREUEN WIR UNS ALL IN EIN (cf. Lutheran Worship Hymn 18), which I think is just about equally awesome. I want to sing all three tunes! Which basically means that, since MERTON is obviously going to win, I'm going to have to find an alternate home for O DER ALLES and FREUEN WIR UNS.

(73) Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates is that example of the "type 2" principal where the whole story is actually laid out in TLH. It has three tunes, all titled MACHT HOCH DIE TUER: (1) from a 1661 Berlin publication, (2) by J.A. Freylinghausen (1704), and (3) by August Lemke (1849). Now let's make it easy for you. Nobody sings (1) anymore. More congregations, I sense, are partial to (3) than to (2), but I believe (2) is the higher quality tune – classically elegant, well structured, handsome – whereas (3) is more catchy in a popular, Romantic-era way that (to my ear) sounds just a little coarser. No surprise, subsequent hymnals dropped (1) and kept (2) and (3) as alternates. I advise continuing in this manner and, most definitely, not letting (2) fall by the wayside.

(76) A great and mighty wonder is an interesting case. The hymn, translated by John Mason Neale (1862) from the 8th century Greek by Germanus of Constantinople, is set here to the 16th Century German tune ES IST EIN ROS ("Lo, how a rose e'er blooming") and all but the last stanza end with the refrain, "Repeat the hymn again: 'To God on high be glory And peace on earth to men'" – lines which are actually cut from one of the hymn's original four-line stanzas. The Common Service Book with Hymnal (Philadelphia: Board of Publication of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1917), Hymn 17, preserves the original shape of this hymn with this stanza intact (first line: "And we with them triumphant") as stanza 3, and sets it to the tune KOCHER in the meter Nobody's with me on this, but I'd like to see this hymn restored to that shape and leave ES IST EIN ROS to the hymn it originally paired with – the rhythmic version, not the bland, stodgy isometric thing TLH uses.

(77) All my heart this night rejoices, a long but lovely Christmas hymn by Gerhardt (1653) set to its own tune (FROEHLICH SOLL MEIN HERZE) by Crueger, is a definite "type 3": More Lutheran congregations need to learn it, love it, live it, and for goodness' sake, sing it to Crueger's beautiful melody and not some half-baked piece of bland modernity commissioned on purpose to replace it. This hymn is a Lutheran church treasure, words and music as one unit.

(80) All praise to Thee, eternal God is another "type 3" hymn, with words translated from Latin to German and additional stanzas by Martin Luther hymself, set to a chorale adapted from a medieval plainsong, GELOBET SEIST DU, JESU. This is a rich, powerful confession of faith in the incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, which again, complete with its strong, earnest tune, are a piece of the Lutheran Church's rich doctrinal and cultural heritage. It should definitely be kept alive among us, alive and kicking as a counterexample to many hymns that present-day Lutheran songbooks keep alive for no essentially Lutheran reason.

(81) O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is is another Gerhart/Crueger collab – the tune, like the original German text, is titled O JESU CHRIST, DEIN KRIPPLEIN – and what I said about Hymns 77 and 80 applies here as well.

(82) Come rejoicing, praises voicing is a translation from Juraj Tranovsky's Slovak hymn and is set to a 12th century Czechoslovak melody that TLH titles GLADNESS but that I think is also known as CAS RADOSTI. It's quite an unusual selection, outside Slovak Lutheran circles (though, to be sure, a Slovak-American church body did merge with the Missouri Synod at some point). I think it's a good example of the freedom shown by the editors of TLH not to stack the book (or even just its Christmas section) with the songs everybody expects to see, hear and sing every year. As a charming and ethnically-flavored alternative to the usual English, French and German stock pieces, I think it deserves to be kept around and used once in a while.

(85) From heaven above to earth I come, I want you to know, is my favorite hymn of all time. I'll probably say that of a couple other hymns, but right now I mean it about this one – another Christmas hymn by Luther (1535), set to the great tune VOM HIMMEL HOCH (Leipzig, 1539) and printed in TLH with no fewer than 15 stanzas. And I don't care if you think that's too long for a hymn. Sometimes lots of stanzas are called for (like, during a really long communion service). Sometimes, you can take a break and listen to a prelude between stanzas. Or sing five here, five there and five another place during the service. Or have different forces (left side vs. right, male vs. female, adults vs. children, choir vs. congregation, soloists, etc.) chime in for different stanzas. Or just sing selected stanzas. At least to have them to read and meditate on – a complete work of rich scope, beauty and power, fully worked out and full of spiritually moving thoughts – makes it a shame, and I do mean to cast shame, when subsequent hymnals omit fistfuls of stanzas to save space or shorten services.

(86) Christ the Lord to us is born, translated by two different authors from an anonymous Czechoslovak text from the 15th century, is set to its own tune (here titled SALVATOR NATUS, elsewhere given with slight alteration as NARODIL SE KRISTUS PAN). Like Hymn 82, I think it has strong character and could grow to be a new "must sing" Christmas carol.

(89) To Thee my heart I offer is an anonymous German Christmas hymn dated 1653 which, were it not for the fact that it predates the birth of Pietism by 22 years, would set off all my Pietism alarms. It addresses the "Christ-child sweet and dear" in I/me terms that focus almost single-mindedly on transactions involving "my heart" and "Thy love." These aren't bad things in themselves, but they crowd out a lot of other stuff concerning the incarnation of God's Son that, in my opinion, make for a deeper and richer Christmas hymn. Nothing it says is wrong, to be sure; but it is so preoccupied with my surrendering and committing and confiding and declaring that it almost forgets to mention what Christ did and does for me, and for all. In "type 1" terms, I'd give it 2 or 3 tacks.

(96) Oh, rejoice, ye Christians, loudly is a hymn for the Christmas season – specifically, in my view, a Sunday After Christmas – with words by Christian Keimann (1646) and its own tune, FREUET EUCH, IHR CHRISTEN, by Andreas Hammerschmidt. The version in Lutheran Worship (Hymn 40) restores Hammerschmidt's original 12-fold Hallelujah that bookends the hymn – an improvement that The Lutheran Service Book (Hymn 897) unfortunately undoes. With or without the Hallelujah, however, it's a wonderful hymn that proclaims "joy beyond all gladness" in the news that God "our race has honored thus That He deigns to dwell with us," touches on His suffering and bleeding to redeem us, thanks Him that "by Thee I am saved eternally," prays that Jesus would "guard and guide" us and stir us to life, and finally wishes all Christians "holy peace, a glad new year." It's really the essential hymn for the top of the calendar year and if you don't know it, I urge you to start learning it.

(98) Of the Father's love begotten is a great fifth-century hymn by Prudentius, set to the 12th century plainsong DIVINUM MYSTERIUM which, these days, just about everybody knows – or, again, should start working on it. I take note of it here because TLH presents the melody in an unusual, isometric arrangement that I don't recall seeing elsewhere. Stick with the free-flowing plainchant version, thanks.

(99) Now are the days fulfilled is a hymn, from an anonymous 18th century German source, that I suspect most Lutheran congregations fail to properly appreciate. Where I sometimes complain about hymns being repetitive, I think in this hymn's case – all three stanzas beginning and ending with the same line – it drives home the point richly made by the intervening lines: In Christ the woman's seed, God's majesty is clothed in human flesh; Jacob's star has risen, fulfilling biblical hopes and bringing God's people out of darkness; the child of God is freed from the bondage of the Law and its curses. It's so simple and so eloquent, so full of encouragement, that I would suggest teaching it to people who are struggling with emotional problems, guilt and troubles in life, as well as to children, the elderly and the simple-minded.

I want to leave off for today with (100) Christians, sing out with exultation, which I mention mainly because its exuberant tune by Louis Bourgeois (1544), here titled NAVARRE, is elsewhere and more commonly known as RENDEZ A DIEU – in case you go looking for it in the index at the back of another hymnal, wondering why it seems so familiar. LSB uses it three times: "Mark how the Lamb of God's self-offering" (600), "Father, we thank Thee who hast planted" (652) and "New songs of celebration render" (792). I should also add that the hymn text, translated from the original French by Benedict Pictet (1705), does a good job of laying out the doctrine of the person of Christ: "God himself became your Brother" (stanza 1) ... a beautiful poetic description of Christ's State of Humiliation in stanza 2 that I can't quote just in part and daren't quote in full ... a brief telling of the Christmas story in stanza 3 ... and the application in stanza 4: "The primal curse is done away," etc.

So, this time I hit the tackiness buzzer a couple of times, and spent a bit of time comparing TLH's text-tune combinations with some other books. But mostly, this stretch of the Tacky Hymns thread seems to be more on the order of the non-sticky silk that forms the load-bearing parts of a spider's web: the kind of superb but underappreciated hymnody whose excellence sets off in higher relief the tackiness of so many hymns that, face it, just don't belong in Lutheran worship.

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