Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Tacky Hymns 105

We move on to the hymns, I mean Assembly Song, in the ELCA hymnal supplement All Creation Sings (Augsburg Fortress, 2020), beginning with the Advent section....

901 is "Now the heavens start to whisper" by Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953), set to the Welsh melody SUO GÁN with its rhythmically palindromic groupings. The poem uses impressive imagery to sell the idea of nature welcoming the advent of Christ, but its language is mostly pretty vague about the work He came to do and His connection to the human race. In all of stanza 1, the only thing it posivitely says about Him is calling Him "seed of promise" and "child (of) Jesse's stem"; in stanza 2, it names Him "Christ, the morning star" and in stanza 3, "eternal Sun of justice" and "the grace of wisdom's seed" who "comes to bless with fire and fragrance" (?!) and "grace the manger," and it asks Him to "teach our hearts to welcome Him." So, it joins the full number of those Christmas carols that barely, and vaguely, say anything about Jesus. For that, and for the dubiousness of some of the things it does say about Him, 2 tacks.

902 is "Come now, O God" by David Bjorlin (b. 1984), set to the Finnish folk tune LOST IN THE NIGHT. With the refrain "Come, Emmanuel," it calls on God to come in a number of contexts that are certainly in need of His intervention, such as when our faith is shaken and our hopes are mistaken, when we squander the freedom He gave us and to break the sin that enslaves us, etc. I think it would be improved by suggesting how Christ comes, i.e. His means of grace, or maybe acknowledging what He did when He came the first time. For this sin of omission, 1 tack.

903 is "Freedom is coming," words and music transcribed from some South African source. It appears written to be sung in harmony and, spread across two whole pages, its entire text amounts to repetitions of "Oh, freedom, freedom is coming. Oh, oh, yes, I know." There's a second stanza, looking rather lost at the bottom of the second page, which replaces the word "freedom" with "Jesus," in case you were asking whether this has anything to do with Jesus. It might almost be just an anthem to social justice. But even so, it seems like a lot of time and effort to spend saying only that one simple thing about Jesus. 2 tacks.

904 is "Come, be our hope, O Jesus" by Jaci Maraschin (†2009), to its own tune by Marcilio de Oliveiro Filho (†2005), with the original Portuguese relevated to block text at the top of the second page while the melody's text underlay leads off with a Spanish translation by Jorge Rorgiquez, followed by the English version. Frankly, I think those priorities are mixed up, but I suppose the compilers aren't expecting this book to see a lot of use in a Portuguese-speaking context; in which case one wonders why they devoted space to the original text at all. Text-wise, it opens with lines reminiscent of "Come, Thou long-expected Jesus," but by the end of stanza 1 it leans into the desire for Jesus to "release from ev'ry prison those who suffer in our land," which is open to interpretations at varying levels of literalness. Stanza 2 invites Jesus to "build (His) new creation through the road of servanthood," and while its further prayer to "give life to ev'ry nation, changing evil into good" has merit, the context of that is, again, open to interpretation. It concludes with a prayer inviting Christ's final coming and "joyful reign" but I can't shake off the suspicion that, perhaps by design, some singing this will have in mind a this-worldly paradise of social justice. For the linguistic jiggery pokery, 1 tack; for omitting the accompaniment, which keyboardists like me might like to try out, 1 more tack.

905 is "We are waiting for Jesus," with words and music by John Helgen (b. 1957). In two stanzas, it says that opening line plus "Jesus brings peace" six times. That leaves only 4 lines of contrasting material in all, calling on Jesus' warming and guiding presence. We're this far into the Advent section and there hasn't been any talk, yet, about the atoning work Jesus came in history to do. For repetitiveness to little purpose, and for omitting the accompaniment, 2 tacks.

906 is "No wind at the window" by John Bell (b. 1949), set to his own arrangement of the Irish tune COLUMCILLE. Musically, I'm intrigued to see a hymn tune in F-sharp minor, a key you rarely see in the hymnal, though it isn't really that hard to play at sight. Bell's four stanzas have a nice, folk-poetry ring to them. The first sort of negatively sets the scene for the angel's annunciation to Mary, eliminating a bunch of phenomena that did not attend his appearance, like "no foot on the floor," etc. The annunciation itself takes up stanza 2. Stanza 3 covers the reason for the Child's coming (finally!) – "salvation for many, destruction for some ... both message and sign; both victor and victim, both yours and divine." Actually, that's not bad. Stanza 4 is a kind of whimsical interpretation of Mary's response, leading off with more negatives (like "no wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed" and ending with the punchline, "Tell God I say yes." I could actually see people laughing as they sing this. I'm not going to stick any tacks into it, but in my opinion, this is more the kind of thing you'd sing at home or during a social gathering around Christmastide than as a hymn in public worship. Sort of in the category of Country-Western songs about Jesus, only with an Irish lilt.

907 is "Filled with hope and gratitude," words and music by Paul Damico-Carper (b. 1981), "based on Luke 1:46-55," i.e., a paraphrase of the Magnificat. Here it's unfortunate that ACS omits the accompaniment, because there's a three-beat vocal tacet right in the middle of this hymn, and a six-beat rest at the end, suggesting some instrumental fill that a singer like me would like to see. I rather like the phrase "filled with very God," repeated in stanzas 1 and 4. However, I'm a little dubious about the author's decision to go fully into character as Mary in the last lines "her own sweet milk to Christ," etc. 1-1/2 tacks.

The Christmas section begins with 908 "In a far-off place, Jesus comes" by Bringle, set to TENTH NIGHT by Sally Ann Morris (b. 1952). Again, bad show, omitting the accompaniment! Stanza 1 sets a scene with sheep, cattle and angel songs, and Bringle's beloved imagery of "the whisper of the wind" (cf. 901). Stanza 2 links the shepherd with the theme that Jesus came for the poor in heart, e.g. "each homeless infant born," etc. Stanza 3 adds the imagery of the "star to light our way" to the pastiche, adding that Jesus comes "with a warm and loving will, to a world that needs him still," and that's it. Jesus comes, but what He comes to do is left to prior knowledge or, failing that, the imagination. 2 tacks.

909 is "Where shepherds lately knelt" by Jaroslav Vajda (†2008), to Carl F. Schalk's (b. 1929) MANGER SONG, a hymn already known to me from Lutheran Service Book (LSB). I've previously dished on this hymn a couple times, notably here; and my complaint here about it being printed in Christian Worship: Hymnal (CWH) without accompaniment also applies in this instance. I gave it 4 then, but I'll let it off with 2 tacks now – one each for the lyrics and the (lack of) music. See? I can be ruthless, but I don't have to be. Or maybe it's just that I didn't re-read the hymn this time, so I didn't get worked up.

910 is "A stable lamp is lighted" by Richard Wilbur (†2017), set to David Hurd's (b. 1950) ANDÚJAR. That I don't mind this Christmas poem (with its refrain "And ev'ry stone shall cry") is evident from the fact that I wrote my own tune for it (cf. Useful Hymns); though it's also evident that I thought I could improve on Hurd's melody. 1 tack (for omitting the accompaniment). However, let me add that including this hymn doesn't alter my statement, in Post 104, that I could walk away from this book not regretting anything in it except "Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior." While this is a lovely Christmas hymn, it's also more likely to be heard as a choir piece or a spoken poem than a congregation-sung hymn, I think. And that holds true even with the music I wrote for it.

911 is "Glory to God," words in Spanish and tune by Marcus Venestra (no dates), translation "composite" and arrangement by Greg Scheer (b. 1966). A footnote explains that this piece is based on the angels' song in Luke 2:14, i.e. the Gloria in excelsis. It only "improves" on the biblical text as far as expanding "peace on earth" to "peace to you, peace to me, peace to all the earth." No goodwill toward men. For its minimalism and the impression that it will most likely be sung by a choir (possibly in Spanish to an English-speaking congregation), 2 tacks.

912 is "Night long-awaited" with Spanish lyrics by Félix Luna (†2009), English translation by Adam M.L. Tice (b. 1979), tune by Ariel Ramírez (†2010) and arrangement by Carlos Colón (b. 1966). Three stanzas in each language, which is all right if you have a bilingual parish or a school attached to your church where the kids are learning Spanish, but which still (in case I actually need to say this) doesn't make this a Spanish hymnal. I blush to say this, but if I were to hold this carol up alongisde "Silent night," I think this hymn would get the better of the comparison. Though they have a similar way of romanticizing the night of Christmas (cf. stanza 1, "blooming like roses ... still in the starlight," etc.), stanza 2 identifies the child in the manger as "born for our dying; bearing our cross." Stanza 3 calls us to live in the light of God's promise. I actually regret having to give it 1/2 tack for that reminder, above, that a few stanzas of Spanish lyrics do not a Spanish hymnal make.

913 is "While shepherds watched their flocks" by Nahum Tate (†1715), to WINCHESTER OLD. While I find no tackiness in this hymn, I'm frankly surprised it has to be in the supplement rather than the pew book. I'm still not repenting my "except for 'Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior'" remark. Reason no. 1: It's abundantly available elsewhere. Reason no. 2: Despite its charming paraphrase of the shepherds' encounter with the angels announcing Jesus' birth, among so many marvelous Christmas hymns that I know it absolutely is one that I could forget about for long periods of time without feeling a deep sense of loss.

Moving on to the "Epiphany, Time after Epiphany" section, 914 "Jesus, the Light of the world" actually begins with the words "Hark! the herald angels sing." That's because its stanzas are drawn from Charles Wesley's hymn, with a completely gratuitous refrain by George D. Elderkin (†1928), set to Elderkin's setting of the traditional tune WE'LL WALK IN THE LIGHT. Rather than adding to Wesley's text, Elderkin's refrain takes away, cutting it down to 8 lines amongst a total (over four stanzas) of 24 lines of Elderkin blathering, "We'll walk in the light, beautiful light," etc. For subtraction by addition and just inferior music, 2 tacks.

915 is "When a star is shining" by Sylvia G. Dunstan (†1993), set to Bob Moore's (b. 1962) WHERE THE PROMISE SHINES. Its three-stanza argument is a bit impersonal, only hinting at the historical Epiphany in the last line of Stanza 2 ("incense, myrrh, and gold") and, in stanza 3, calling on the Daystar to "Show us in a manger our redemption's sign." The last stanza and refrain also call on someone (I suppose Jesus) to "lead us on to a morning where the promise shines." For omitting the accompaniment, and for impersonal vagueness, 2 tacks.

916 is "Down Galilee's slow roadway," also by Dunstan, with MERLE'S TUNE by Hal H. Hopson (b. 1933). It's a Baptism of Our Lord hymn that, in stanza 1, describes Jesus as a stranger who went down to the river to be baptized like any "soldier, scribe, and slave," interestingly adding that "there within the river the sign was birth and grave." After an account of the Holy Spirit's descent as a dove and the Father's voice speaking in stanza 2, the third stanza moves on to "we too" – e.g. "have had to travel in search of hope and grace," then applies the voice saying "You are my own, my chosen, beloved of your Lord" to all the baptized. Grudgingly, I'll give it 1 tack for omitting the accompaniment.

Concluding this section is the Transfiguration hymn, 917 "Dazzling presence on the mountain" by Paul E. Hoffman (b. 1956), set to WAVERLY by Karen E. Black (b. 1950). There's some good stuff in this hymn, drawing John's "Word made flesh" language onto the mountaintop in stanza 1; replacing Moses and Elijah with the two thieves who "Christ's wings adorn" on the cross in stanza 2 and describing Jesus' response to the penitent thief as "transfiguring assurance"; moving on to the new creation in stanza 3, where "justice, mercy, and compassion" are "the booths he bids us build"; and calling for "praise (to) ring from each mountain" in stanza 4 and concluding with a Trinitarian doxology. This hymn is OK. Would I pick it for the next Missouri Synod hymnal? Sure. Am I going to give it 1 tack? Yes, because the accompaniment is omitted.

Nevertheless, let the record show that 17 hymns in, there have been about 5 really decent hymns and 23 tacks. So, even though I'm dispensing tacks at a lower volume than I've previously done, that's a good-hymn ratio of 29% and a tackiness quotient of 135%.

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