Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Tacky Hymns 95

As we move into topical 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.)
501 is "Evening and morning," a hymn by Paul Gerhardt with a tune by Johann G. Ebeling that, put together, make up one of the great beauties of 17th century Lutheran hymnody, in my opinion. I think it's underappreciated and underused; more congregations should get to know it better.

504 (Type 2) is "We sing the almighty power of God" by Isaac Watts, which is interesting to see paired with the tune FOREST GREEN; CWH has certainly made a lot of use of that tune, so far. The tune my TLH/LW-trained mind's ear hears when this text comes up is ICH SINGE DIR.

507 (Type 2) is "Let all things now living," a "first article" hymn by Katherine Kennicott Davis († 1980), paired with the Welsh traditional tune THE ASH GROVE. I've probably said this before, but every time this tune pops up in a hymnal, I remember one of my music teachers complaining that it always reminded her of campfire singalongs when she was in the Girl Scouts. By the way, Davis was a composer and choral arranger best known for writing "The Little Drummer Boy."

510 (Type 1) is "In Christ alone (my hope is found)" by contemporary Christian music mavens Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, who have also gotten a remarkable amount of airplay in this book. I just flipped to the Sources Index and confirmed that Keith is credited in 20 hymns in this book; his wife Kristyn, in 10; and Townend in 16. Compare that to contemporary traditional-style hymn writers and composers such as Timothy Dudley-Smith (14), Herman Stuempfle (11), Stephen Starke (11), Jaroslav Vajda (9), Paul Bunjes (8), Carl Schalk (7), Fred Pratt Green (7) and, heck, Marty Haugen (7). I don't know what conclusion to draw from this; maybe that the late 20th and early 21st centuries are over-represented. But if the average congregation can actually sing this tune, I don't know why the same people would find tunes from the Reformation era or the age of Lutheran orthodoxy challenging, except (ding!) bad taste. It's rhythmically complex compared to a straight hymn tune and arranged in a way that, in my opinion, predisposes it to be sung by a soloist at the audience. Some of the lyrics sound, to me, like someone pulled apart "My hope is built on nothing less" and put it back together again in a different order. A lot of the content is good, however, and set to a more congregation-friendly tune I would have no objection to it; so I'll limit it to 1/2 tack.

515 is "Christ is the world's light" by Fred Pratt Green († 2000), set to the tune NANDINA HILL by K. Lee Scott. The tune may remind you a bit of CHRISTE SANCTORUM, mainly perhaps due to their rhythm. Green's text has a tightly woven argument that applies Christology to the Christian life: "If we have seen him, we have seen the Father" (stanza 1); "No one can serve him and despise another" (stanza 2); and going on to cover redemption before a doxological stanza that (strangely) reverses the order of the Persons of the Trinity.

516 is "Christ be the way in whom we walk" by Dudley-Smith, set to Hubert Parry's tune REPTON (which LSB users may associate with "How clear is our vocation, Lord"). It's a "way, truth, life" hymn that accomplishes its task with a minimum of fuss. I think the tune might be on the tougher side for congregations coming at it fresh; and besides, it doesn't quite fit the meter of the text, requiring the final line to be repeated. However, I wrote a hymn in the same meter as TDS's text and, in my search for an existing hymn tune to fit it, I couldn't find a better one than PAX CELESTE ("There is an hour of peaceful rest"); so, maybe REPTON is a good choice.

519 (Type 1) is "There is a redeemer," which I mildly criticized before. 1/2 tack.

523 is "How deep the Father's love for us" by Stuart Townend and Bruce Greer, a relatively hymn-like specimen of this group's output. The tune, titled TOWNEND, isn't particularly inspired, but its musical language may yet move some levers in sentimental believers' hearts. Again, and you can't believe how it gripes me to say this, the content of the text is good, proclaming Law and Gospel and focusing on Christ crucified. It may, however, be vulnerable to people (and I know they're out there) who like to lampoon the egotism of hymns dominated by "I/me" language, like this, even if the confession they make is sound. Be aware, this hymn is phrased as an individual's personal confession.

525 (Type 1) is "The Lamb, the Lamb" by Gerald Coleman, of which I have complained before. And after several years of having to play it as a church organist, I'm only more irritated with it now. There's something about this tune that runs counter to providing strong instrumental leadership for the singing congregation; as an organist, I always feel underpowered during this hymn. 3 tacks.

526 (Type 1) is "What wondrous love is this," of which I have also delivered myself before. As lovely as it is, and I really think it is, it still drives me crazy.

527 (Type 1) is "I will sing of my Redeemer" by Philip Bliss, the author of (among other works) "'Almost persuaded' now to believe," "'Man of sorrows,' what a name," "Wonderful words of life," "The light of the world is Jesus" and "Jesus loves even me," all of which I've weighed and found tacky, as well as certain hymn tunes associated with similar tackiness by other authors of his time. On this particular hymn I have already commented, and it was actually the tune – the same here as in The Ambassador Hymnal – that I dinged at that time. The arrangement in CWH isn't as part-songy, but if anything, the pianistic figuration reveals more shortcomings, including the fact that the melody isn't particularly kind to the text. So, without any particular objection to Bliss's text, 1 tack.

532 is "As the deer runs to the river" by Herman Stuempfle, set to David Hurd's tune JULION. Musically, it's attractive but perhaps a little on the challenging side; I would definitely not leave the congregation unaccompanied to sing, say, stanza 3 a capella. Stuempfle's paraphrase of scriptures relating to Christ as the water of life (Psalm 42, Isaiah 55, etc.) has merit, though there was at least one awkward line that you may have to re-read once or twice before you get its drift ("we have come from hurt and hurry," stanza 1).

535 (Type 1) is "Come, behold the wondrous mystery" by Matt Bosell, Matt Papa and Michael Bleecker, words and music whose copyright blurb is just about the longest and most complicated I've ever seen. Nothing screams "product of a commercial music act" more loudly. (I think CWH misspells Bleecker's last name, however.) My search for more information about these guys led to a Youtube video of Matt Papa singing it with a torch song-style piano accompaniment, guitar, drums, backup singers and high production values. I take it that's the sound that church musicians performing this number will be trying to duplicate; God bless them. At the tempo at which (per Papa's recording) this hymn's four stanzas are meant to be sung, you could probably sing six or more stanzas of a hymn that's at least as good in about the same amount of time. Text-wise, it's not bad; but again, the same ground has been covered by many other hymn writers and, I think, with more skill. 1-1/2 tacks.

536 (Type 1) is "Jesus, ever-abiding friend," another distinctly CCM-style number by Keith Getty and Steve Siler. I'm starting to feel like this book is purposely reprogramming Lutherans' idea of what hymnody is supposed to sound like; but unfortunately, this new sound is increasingly the sound of a lone voice, electrically amplified, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, more likely hired than volunteered. (Just try to get Mrs. Hasenpfeffer to play this on the home theater organ at the back of your church; I'd like to see that.) An instrumental bridge between verses; rolling chords; faux-jazz harmonies, including an added second in the closing chord; etc. So, compared to a piece that lends itself to a singing congregation accompanied by an organist, I'd call it "less bang for more bucks." People who would rather sit and listen might disagree with that, but phooey on them. And if you parse the sentence structure of the two stanzas, there is none; it isn't a complete thought, just a list of names for Jesus concluding (appropriately) with "name above all other names." I don't remember how old I was when I lost patience with hymns that don't actually form a complete thought; but I'm not getting any younger. 2 tacks.

538 (Type 2) is "Jesus, my great High Priest," a cento from Isaac Watts' "Join all the glorious names." Unlike ELHy, CWH doesn't restore the stanzas omitted by previous hymnals; like it, however, it pairs it with the impressive tune ST. PETER'S, MANCHESTER.

539 (Type 1) is "O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer" by Nathan Stiff, set to his own original tune. I think Grandma and Grandpa Smurf's congregation may have some trouble catching on to Stiff's rhythm, and as an admirer of fine musical arrangements of lovely tunes, I'm a bit frustrated with his composition as well; I think it missed several opportunities to be, well, more interesting. The footnote "Some musical settings may repeat this closing phrase" is an admission that people using this song aren't going to do it by the book. And while the text also has its admirable points, I'll note once again that CWH enclosed a Spanish translation of the song, in case your church's Spanish speaking members are OK with the hymnal only being bilingual to the tune of a couple of hymns. Either that or maybe they're just a space-filling advertisement for the Wisconsin Synod's evangelistic zeal or something equally worthwhile. 2 tacks.

542 is "To my precious Lord," with words and music by Chung Kwan Park. Tune-wise, it's a simple, hymn-tune-like tune; the arrangement spins it in more of a CCM piano ballad direction. The lyrics of the refrain put the singer(s) in the character of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with fragrant oil. While I think this kind of histrionic fantasy is a shaky basis to build a hymn on, the three stanzas take the hymn's focus on Jesus' feet in more interesting directions (albeit, again, with a lot of individualized, "me" language). I suspect that it wants to be sung by a solo voice, or at best, by a group of people who are imagining themselves as individuals into the picture; not so much a "congregation" vibe. Sure, I'm inconsistent about where I do and don't see that as a flag, and I'm not saying this one's a red flag. But it detracts a little bit from my excitement at the novelty of this hymn of (apparently) Korean origin.

544 (Type 1) is Suzanne Toolan's "I am the bread of life," of which I have already spoken. 1 tack.

549 (Type 1) is "Across the Lands" (first line "You're the Word of God the Father") by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Again with the Spanish translation filling up the lower half of the right-hand page (and you know what I think about that). More commercial CCM, dressed up in a chordal texture that isn't really a convincing hymnal style because the harmony doesn't go anywhere. Typical of that musical school of thought, it's a pale imitation of the great artistic treasures of our hymn heritage. Text-wise, again, I won't quibble with the content; no doubt it runs circles around the lyrics of other CCM artists in its richness of biblical imagery and the strength of its law-gospel message. I'll let it off lightly with 1 tack.

550 (Type 1) is Twila Paris's "Lamb of God" (first line, "Your only Son, no sin to hide"), on which I've already commented. 4 tacks.

553 (Type 2) is "The Lord's my shepherd; I'll not want," a Scottish paraphrase of Psalm 23 that some hymnals set to the tune BELMONT, but this one joins others in pairing it with BROTHER JAMES' AIR. It's sort of an amicable schism in American Lutheranism, always interesting to see which side of the line each new book falls on.

554 is "The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want" by Stuart Townend, an instance of hymns being easily confused by their first line (except to eagle-eyed readers who note the difference in punctuation). This is definitely a piece for performance, maybe by an ensemble or choir, but most likely with a soloist involved on some level. It has, for example, a descant in the refrain. It also has rhythms that experience has taught me are hard to teach to conventional church choirs; it's going to take people skilled in this type of music to pull it off – unless no one cares about doing it right, which is a kind of bad taste unto itself. Text-wise, it's an incomplete paraphrase of Psalm 23 with a refrain only tangentially derived from the psalm; pretty loose and lightweight compared to the preceding couple of Psalm 23 paraphrases (cf. 552-553).

555 is (surprise!) "The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want," which, despite the punctuation, is the same version as 553, only set to BELMONT. So, I guess this hymnal falls on both sides of that line. It's kind of weird that the two versions aren't side by side; I see no reason why they couldn't be. (Like, by swapping 552 and 555.)

561 (Type 1) is "Before the throne of God above" by Charitie Lees DeCheney Bancroft († 1923), set to a modern tune apparently written for it by Vikki Cook. BEFORE THE THRONE (the tune) reminds me of several of the other contemporary tunes preceding it in this book, with (for example) similar phrases to hymns 449 and 450, and a sedentary bass line that, for me, has the effect of making it hard to hear anything going on for entire phrases at a time. Also, someone – I don't know whether it's the author of the text or the composer of the tune – decided to repeat the last phrase. Regardless, the result isn't as interesting as it could have been. With more of that "I/me" language that makes some texts sound more like private devotions than congregational hymns, it tells a good gospel story: "I have a strong and perfect plea; a great High Priest ... My name is graven on his hands." However, there are moments in this book when you regret its rule of not capitalizing modifiers referring to God, and one of them is a line in stanza 2 of this hymn: "for God the just is satisfied." How much more immediately clear that would have been if "just" had been capitalized! 1 tack, for the original music's lack of originality.

562 (Type 1) is "Jesus paid it all" (first line: "I hear the Savior say") by Elvina Hall († 1889), set to the tune ALL TO CHRIST by John Grape († 1915). It's an artifact of old-time country church religion, which typically (and, indeed, in this case) means "the minimum of gospel and the minimum of musical interest designed for the maximum of sentimental effect." The way stanza 3's avowal "I'll wash my garments white in the blood of Calvary's Lamb" is framed, it's hard to imagine that Elvina (if I may speak of her in a familiar way) was receiving that blood sacramentally; it sounded more like something a converted individual does by him- or herself. Way back in Walther's day, the Lutheran Church was well warned not to hare after songs from American Protestant culture (specifically, Methodism), and here is CWH (and apparently CWALH before it) doing exactly that. 3 tacks.

563-564 (Type 2) are both "My hope is built on nothing less" by Edward Mote, first set to John Stainer's tune MAGDALEN and then to William Bradbury's THE SOLID ROCK. Again, here's CWH landing on both sides of a divide within Lutheranism, as to which tune this hymn goes with. The result may be that congregations will have to duke it out internally, rather than accepting the call the hymnal's editors made. Hark at me, a fan of alternate tunes! But even I have to admit, they sometimes cause trouble.

565 (Type 2) is Martin Franzmann's "In Adam we have all been one," set to a tune apparently written for it by Kurt Eggert († 1993), titled ADAM. Those of us tuned to LW or LSB may know it better to the early American melody THE SAINTS' DELIGHT.

566 is "Father, God of grace, you knew us" by Paul Eickmann († 2006), set to John Goss's tune LAUDA ANIMA ("Praise, my soul, the King of heaven"), a richly harmonized bit of English romanticism. It's a pretty good "justification" hymn, addressing all three Persons of the Trinity in stanzas 1-3, making me think of Einstein in stanza 4 ("spanning time, transcending space"), then emphasizing the Means of Grace and leaving us as Jesus left His disciples, with the Great Commission and his promise to be with us.

567 is "What Adam's disobedience cost" by Fred Pratt Green, with an additional stanza by Carol Bechtel and the tune DETROIT from Kentucky Harmony. The text's peculiar pattern of varied repeats in the last lines of each stanza is an interesting touch. Stanza 3 takes us to Advent/Christmas with "a little child" by whom Adam's race is restored. It's a neat little piece that I'm sorry I haven't seen before.

568 (Type 1) is "His robes for mine" by Chris Anderson, with a tune called AUSTINBURG by Greg Habegger, both roughly my contemporaries. And "contemporary" is definitely a relevant word here, with a melodic shape and musical structure that will be very familiar to people who have heard a few CCM ditties. Much more interesting than the music are the words, including (from the refrain) "I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost: Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God." It's a Great Exchange hymn that I think could be improved by an exchange of tune. 1 tack.

569 (Type 2) is "Arise, my soul, arise" by Charles Wesley, set to an original tune called CHODAN by Dan Forrest, which I don't think is particularly inspired. Not to be confused with a totally different hymn by Finnish author Johan Kahl, which is in CWALH (as well as SBH) and has the same first line as well as, in my opinion, a much catchier tune. (My warning is apparently too late for Hymnary-dot-org, which does confuse the two hymns.) I'm unsure whether I've seen the Wesley hymn before in a Lutheran book; parts of it seem familiar (such as the line "shake off your guilty fears"), but the history of how hymns have been abridged, altered, rearranged, chopped into multiple hymns, etc. is so complex that I just don't have time to chase it down. Anyway, there's a lot I like about this text, but I don't love the awkward repetition of the last two lines of each stanza (the first of which is also repeated in other hymnals where the hymn is set to the tune LENOX). Maybe someone could help me out here and explain to me why parts of this hymn seem so familiar and also, perhaps, suggest a better tune. And I mean, one that doesn't require repeats.

571 (Type 2) is Martin Franzmann's hymn "O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth," which LBW, LW, CWALH and LSB all set to Jan Bender's magnificent but, admittedly, challenging modern tune, WITTENBERG NEW. I've often called Bender's tune the hardest good hymn tune in the book (whatever book) and I've tended to shy away from introducing it to a congregation that was skittish about learning something new. I'm sorry to see it go, because I really love Bender's work, but maybe CWH is onto something when it substitutes Hubert Parry's JERUSALEM (the tune that, surveys show, most citizens of the UK think should be their national anthem). Of course, if you're not from the UK, this tune may not be any easier for you than WITTENBERG NEW, but it has the advantage of being a gorgeous, late Romantic piece as opposed to cutting-edge 20th century art music. Sorry, Jan.

572 (Type 2) is Horatius Bonar's "Not what my hands have done," set to George W. (not R.R.) Martin's tune LEOMINSTER, which I Hate with a capital H. It's just such a boring tune, with long stretches in which it doesn't even change notes. I notice the tune credit includes "alt." which, I theorize, refers to some added dotted rhythms that try to improve it a bit. I don't get why hymnals are still plumping for this rubbish, when other perfectly nice tunes have served this text before, such as ST. BRIDE. And just to emphasize that capital H, I'm going to stick 1/2 a tack into this one, despite it being a Type 2 comment. Why be so mean? Because hymnal editors seem to need the reminder, once in a while, that choosing lousy music is tantamount to killing a hymn's chances (and maybe hymns' chances, in a wider sense).

574 is "The Tree of life with every good" by Stephen Starke, set to its own tune by Bruce Becker. I've always had an uncomfortable awareness of this tune's similarity to Billy Joel's "And So It Goes," but otherwise it's an exemplary hymn that's starting to spread its way across Lutheranism.

576 is "Amazing grace," about which I've previously expressed some misgivings, but it doesn't seem I was very specific about them and I'm going to shut my mouth now, as well, in order to preserve peace and harmony in the temporal church.

577 (Type 1) is "Magnificent, marvelous, matchless love" by the all-star lineup of Matt Papa, Aaron Keyes, Luke Brown, and Keith and Kristyn Getty. The first line strikes me, right off the bat, as a tag from a Sherman Brothers movie musical. Sprawled across two pages, with no accompaniment provided (an established no-no for new melodies), it's a bit of a mess with three stanzas, a refrain and a bridge, requiring a road map of score text directing you to the next strain you're supposed to sing in the proper sequence, as well as a two-and-a-half-bar vocal rest at the end of each stanza for instrumental whatnot. It's complicated. It's going to have to be rehearsed. It's probably going to be rehearsed, as well as performed, by a crack force of musicians and singers, at the congregation and not by the congregation. Except in congregations that have, unfortunately, already been catechized to sing CCM instead of hymns, and probably even in most of those when you get to thinking about it, this is a waste of two pages in the pew book. 3 tacks.

579 (Type 1) is "His mercy is more" (first line: "What love could remember no wrongs we have done") by Matt Boswell and Matt Papa. As a "grace" hymn, the text is fine, and without the so-called refrain, it already has a refrain – the line "Our sins they are many, his mercy is more" at the end of each stanza. With a more hymn-like tune, scotching the unnecessary "refrain," it could really do fine as a congregational hymn. As it is, particularly with the rhythms in the refrain, there's little chance it'll be anything but a solo sung at the congregation. 1 tack.

580 (Type 1) is "All I have is Christ" (first line: "I once was lost in darkest night") by Jordan Kauflin and Jeremy Bakken. It's a CCM ballad that hits all the musical cliches of the genre (so many of these tunes sound closely related to each other), and again, its "I" language hints at either a solo to be sung at the congregation or a personal devotion, rather than a congregational hymn. Also, because only stanzas 2 and 3 go to the refrain, the setting requires a first and second ending for the stanza part of the hymn with score text roadmapping what to sing next. So again, I ask you; why is the hymnal suddenly filling up with stuff like this? Does it really benefit the people in the pews?

582 is "Not unto us" by Kurt Eggert, which I've snarked at before without actually sticking any tacks into it.

584 (Type 1) is "Jesus loves me" with (yay!) Spanish stanzas at the bottom of the page! 1/2 tack.

I've reached the "Work of the Spirit" section, which seems like a good place to pause after this rather long segment. Whew! Where are we at now? Another 25-1/2 tacks, making our running total 70-1/2 tacks in 284 hymns. So, this section has pulled CWH up to an average of almost 0.25 tacks per hymn, or one-quarter tackiness overall, so far. I'm making my concerned face. And frankly, I think I took it easy on many of these hymns. I know for sure that many of the authors aren't Lutheran, and just because there's nothing specifically "wrong" with their texts (and they often seem pretty good), the fact that they'd be just as acceptable to Methodists, Baptists and evangelicals might be worth a pause to consider. Do we want to have as an objective in our hymn selection and hymn writing not to say anything that wouldn't be accepted by Methobapticostals? Food for thought.

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