Saturday, December 4, 2021

Tacky Hymns 94

As we reach the end of the church year-oriented hymn 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.)
473 (Type 2) is "Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious" by Thomas Kelly († 1855), filed under Ascension. I'm a bit of a Kelly fan, having noticed high quality in many of his hymns. This particular hymn I've seen paired with several different tunes: William H. Monk's CORONAE (TLH), Henry J. Gauntlett's TRIUMPH (SBH), William Owen's BRYN CALFARIA (also SBH, as well as LBW, ELHy and LSB; LW pairs it with George Bourne's hymn "Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendor"). CWH goes out on a limb and introduces a new tune by Kenneth Kosche called GLORIOUS VISION. It's a nice tune, very dignified, so maybe it's just the side of me that hates change speaking (but I doubt it, because I've been totally into lots of changes), but I don't think you can top the majestic, awe-inspiring BRYN CALFARIA as a setting of this hymn.

In further "Type 2" business, be it also understood that several hymnals (e.g., LBW, ELHy) update the language of Kelly's text so that the first line reads, "Look, oh look, the sight is glorious." I have no idea why; if it's about cleansing the world of Jacobean usages, they could have just changed "ye" to "you." And I can't see any point in expunging the word "saints" from the middle of the line; it's not as if it's gendered or anything. The most pernicious aspect of this tendency to update the language of great writers is how inconsistently it is applied; Christians learning these hymns from different books will simply be divided, forever, as to how to sing them. Meanwhile, no one can explain why an author in the middle of the 1800s (way past the era of Jacobean language) must have his diction corrected, as if it wasn't obviously a conscious creative choice, while someone more recent like, say, Martin Franzmann can choose to write thees and thous and the editors let it stand. Maybe it's that Franzmann's work is still protected by copyright and Kelly's isn't. Behold, how sad it is when one's work outlasts its copyright protection! But anyway, I'm preaching to the choir: CWH rolls back the updated language, and I humbly approve.

475 (Type 2) is "We thank you, Jesus, dearest friend," translated from German by the great Matthias Loy, and set to Nicolaus Herman's powerful tune ERSCHIENEN IST. I love this tune, and I also love Michael Praetorius, who composed the setting used here, but I don't love Praestorius's setting and that probably goes back to that tendency to distrust change. I'm just used to a setting from at least TLH, LW and LSB that has some passing notes and a few snappier rhythms. I wonder how many people familiar with that setting were tripped up by this book's introduction of the Praetorius setting. I've noticed similar problems in other books regarding Bach arrangements of hymn tunes, harmonies that I love but that maybe weren't best judged as the arrangement to put in the pew book; this is a subtler case of that issue.

478 is "When God the Spirit came," a Day of Pentecost hymn by Timothy Dudley-Smith, paired with a striking tune by Richard Dirksen († 2003) called VINEYARD HAVEN. It's such an attractive and well-structured melody that my fingers cry out to try it on the piano; but again, the pew book omits the harmony. Which, as I've said again and again, is a shame when they're introducing new music for which a reasonably well supplied musician can't find the notes elsewhere, except by ordering an expensive companion book to this one. 1/2 tack for cussed cheapness. And before I forget to comment on Dudley-Smith's text, it's also a tightly-structured thing that holds up the example of the first generation of Christians and applies it (stanza 5) to "this present hour." The phrase "in Pentecostal love and power" will have to be understood in a non-Neo-Pentecostal sense, however.

479 is "God's Holy Spirit came" by Mary Jackson Cathey and Michael Denham, set to the Hebrew tune YIGDAL (which you may know as the tune to "The God of Abr'ham praise"). As pianist/organist, I'm interested in the fact that CWH transposes it down to E minor (one sharp), making one less opportunity for precocious brats (I'm thinking of myself, starting out) to practice sight-reading in F minor (four flats). But that's neither here nor there. Now, while the Day of Pentecost following Jesus' death and resurrection was certainly a milestone in church history, I feel I must question the accuracy of saying, as this hymn does, that "The Spirit thus began God's holy work on earth at Pentecost," as if the Holy Spirit had not operated on earth before, was not at work in Jesus' disciples before, etc. I would rather say He was poured out dramatically, with audible and visible signs, and blew the church in a new direction. But I know, poetic license, the requirements of the meter and rhyme scheme, keeping it simple for the people in the back row, etc., etc.

480 is "Sing praise to our Creator," an Holy Trinity hymn by Omer Westendorf († 1997), set to a 19th century Dutch tune, new to me, called GOTT VATER SEI GEPRIESEN. What'll probably strike you about this hymn, off the bat, is the refrain: "O most holy Trinity, undivided unity; holy God, mighty God, God immortal, be adored!" The three brief stanzas may do their work more subtly, with one confessing that God adopts us as His children in baptism; another, that we are made one as members of Christ's body; and the third, that the Holy Spirit "sanctifies and guides us, confirmed in our rebirth." My goodness, what a baptism-centered hymn! And when you think about it, that's pretty appropriate for a Trinitarian devotion.

482 is "Triune God, O be our stay," a late medieval German hymn adapted by Martin Luther, set to the great chorale GOTT DER VATER, WOHN UNS BEI. I'll say it again, no matter how often I said it before; I hate these latter-day hymnals' insistence on replacing the three-stanza version of his hymn ("God the Father, be our stay," followed by "Jesus Christ, oh, be our stay" and "Holy Spirit, be our stay" on successive sing-throughs of otherwise identical petitions) with a one-stanza, catch-all, "Triune God" version. To start, I'm not sure I'm comfortable just addressing God as "Triune God" rather than naming the Persons individually. It makes the hymn, at best, a glib and unhelpful refresher in trinitarian theology; it also gives people fewer opportunities to struggle their way through the long, uniquely structured tune which, in my experience, tends to start sounding good on the second or third try. Semi-props to CWH for at least including the three-stanza version as an italicized option, under the one-stanza main argument; I just hope nobody ignorantly decides to make a four-stanza extravaganza out of it. It'll be impossible to correct the error if the congregation decides on its own to do this; so, if you're going to sing the three-stanza version, be sure to announce loud and clear what you're going to do. 1/2 tack.

485 is "Day of wrath, O day of mourning," the medieval sequence hymn for the Mass for the Dead, set to the tune DIES IRAE as found in TLH. CWH sections it under "Second Coming," i.e. the end of the church year, which is a good use for it. The Latin-to-English translation has been altered somewhat, and 12 of the 19 stanzas supplied by TLH have been omitted. This might not be a bad thing; the Dies irae does rather fixate on the terror of facing eternal judgment and is, to put it mildly, slow to arrive at anything like gospel comfort. But you know, if you're going to transmit a piece of church history like this, you should transmit it and not just a watered-down fragment of it. It may end up being one of those things that's only in the book for people to look at and ponder; or maybe portions of it, at most, will actually be sung in church; and maybe I'm being inconsistent in saying this after all the flack I've given this book and others for wasting space on material no congregation is likely ever to sing. But I'm also the guy who has, consistently, stood up for very long hymns on the rationale that being sung from beginning to end isn't the end-all-be-all of why they should be in the book.

487 (Type 2) is "Lo, He comes with clouds descending" by Charles Wesley, here set to Thomas Olivers' stately, high-Anglican sounding tune HELMSLEY. I've previously seen it set to this hymn as well as the French, plainchant-sounding tune PICARDY, as well as other tunes; I'd take either of these two melodies any day as musical vehicles for this very impressive Second Coming hymn, which some hymnals file under Advent. There is, indeed, a crossover between the two categories, which I suppose creates a continuity from the end of one church year to the beginning of the next.

489 is "The King will come at age's end" by Laurie Gauger, set to an original tune by Joyce Schubkegel. It's a simple but effective melody, achieving unity and an impressive character in only three phrases plus an Alleluia. Gauger's thoughts are also solid, as usual, though there are a few details that feel a bit off, like "the trumpets trill" in stanza 1, and "The Book of Life will name its names" in stanza 2. I think these word choices inject a tone of levity into a gravely serious subject. But current turns of phrase and variegated textures might just be the cost of doing business with contemporary creative artists. You want good quality, modern hymns? Be happy with what you get.

492 is "A few more years shall roll" by Horatius Bonar, set to Michael D. Schultz's original tune TALENTS. I guess I've seen this hymn before in something like American Lutheran Hymnal (1930), where it was set to the rather boring tune LEOMINSTER; TALENTS is definitely an improvement. And though I wouldn't consider Bonar a great friend of Lutheran thought, most of his hymns that I've looked at weren't bad at all, this one included. Nevertheless, its tightly structured argument borders on mannered repetition, which I think may be a sister to romantic sentimentality. It would be possible, no doubt, to read this hymn as an edifying prayer to be prepared for Jesus' second coming; but it would also play as a wallow in self-indulgent spirituality. For me, the decision might depend on which side of the bed I awoke on.

494 is "See, he comes, the King of glory," also by Gauger, with its own original tune by Jeremy Bakken. The music is very impressive sounding, in maybe a cliched way, but the harmony (which CWH is kind enough to include, this time around) isn't chorale, it's organ or maybe piano with a really wide reach. Open fifths, five- and six-note chords, open chord spacings ... It's not unique in this respect. I know of a tune by Gustav Holst that's even more pianistically (or organistically) challenging, not to mention a couple tunes in LW and LSB with fistfuls of notes, for example. They can be very impressive when pulled off, but I wish CWH would show some consideration for Mrs. Hasenpfeffer, who only plays one pedal note out of three and whose arthritis doesn't permit her to reach farther than an octave. She'll probably be grateful if the accompanist's book has an easier, alternate setting. Backing up to Gauger's text, her depiction of Christ's second coming carefully balances the awe and fear of judgment with comfort for the faithful. Stanza 2 is a beautiful versification of Jesus' saying about the sheep and the goats. Stanza 3 falls into more of a casual, contemporary idiom but continues to voice strong ideas, like "We serve not so God will save us; we serve God because we're saved." And stanza 4 again strikes a balance, this time between keeping our eyes and ears peeled for Jesus' return and, at the same time, serving our neighbor.

495 (Type 2) concludes the Second Coming section with "The King shall come when morning dawns" by John Brownlie († 1925), abbr., alt.; the tune is the Irish traditional FLIGHT OF THE EARLS, which has a little bit of the pomp and circumstance you would look for in a depiction of Jesus' majestic return, but perhaps just a wee dash of sentimenality with it. Like the kind of tune that men in a pub would sing at the top of their lungs, arm in arm, with tears rolling down their cheeks. My, what an imagination I have. Anyway, I've grown accustomed to hearing this tune paired with CONSOLATION (cf. LW, CWALH, ELHy, ELW and LSB).

499, sectioned under Minor Festivals: St. Michael and All Angels, is "Christ, the Lord of hosts, unshaken" by Peter Prange, set to Carl Schalk's tune FORTUNATUS NEW, as in LSB. Prange, an exact contemporary of yours truly, is another writer who combines strong ideas with very contemporary word choices, like "slams them in their steely cage" (stanza 1) and "You'll lie crushed beneath his feet" (stanza 3); but his depiction of Jesus' triumph over the devil's power is undeniably powerful. Meanwhile, the tune might by Schalk's best work.

So much for the church year section. More topically-oriented categories start with hymn 501. So, to sum up so far, I think I added a total of 1 tack this time, bringing the total for CWH's first 200 hymns to 45 tacks, an average of 0.225 tacks per hymn. While it's nice to see a tackiness quotient of less than one quarter, there's room for improvement. And it remains to be seen whether the part of the hymnal unconstrained by liturgical necessity (like seasons or feasts of the church year) shows more or less interest in bringing forth treasures, new and old, that sit well on the foundation of the Lutheran faith.

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