Saturday, November 25, 2023

Tacky Hymns 109

We're up to the "End Time" section in the hymnal supplement All Creation Sings, albeit with three-quarters of the book still to go ...

949 is "Keep your lamps trimmed and burning," an African-American spiritual. I appreciate ACS at this point for providing the harmony for this piece, with which I wasn't familiar. After a play-through on the piano I can say that I like the music, but also, I hear it more as a choir piece being sung at the congregation, unless this particular style of rhythm and harmony is right in their wheelhouse. Lyrics-wise, and this goes for quite a few spirituals that try to pass as hymns, it doesn't give the worshiper much in proportion to the amount of time they are asked to spend on it. Each stanza is the same line repeated three times, followed by "for this work's almost done." The refrain is "Children, don't grow weary" repeated three times, followed by "for this work's almost done." Stanza 4 is identical to stanza 1. So you could read, as a poem without repeats, everything this song gives us in literally five lines. Even at a brisk tempo, that's a significant investment of time in saying five lines worth of material, when it cries out for much clearer and deeper application. As a piece of folk art when performed by a solid musical group, three stars. As a page (plus) in a pew hymnal, 2 tacks.

950 is "Oh, when the saints go marching in," another African-American spiritual. I always got a kick out of this song when I was a kid, but I never wanted or expected to see it in the hymnal. For turning the believer's joyful anticipation of the Lord's Second Coming into a hand-clapping, foot-stomping dance (best when backed by a jazz band), it can't be beat. For having five stanzas that each consist of one line, more or less repeated over and over, with the addition of the quasi-refrain "O Lord, I want to be in that number," it can totally be beat(en) by most any hymnal-style treatment of the coming judgment. Each of the five stanzas says pretty much the same thing but with slight variations of imagery. A hymn on this subject could, and should, give us so much more. 2 tacks.

951 is "Deep river," also credited as an African-American spiritual. I would like to learn more about this piece's actual history, because (don't take this as a criticism) I have my doubts about its roots within the slaves' preliterate oral tradition. It's just too good. The musical writing is too beautiful, too sensitive, too clearly the work of an educated genius. I'd welcome evidence that proves me wrong. Also, the lyrics – only two stanzas and a refrain – run circles around the two prior numbers in richly expressing the hope of eternal life, albeit couched in biblical metaphors. "My home is over Jordan," it confesses. "Lord, I want to cross over into campground," it pleads. It tells of "that gospel feast, that promised land where all is peace," and of taking my seat in heaven and casting my crown at Jesus' feet. Compared to some End Time hymns I know, it isn't much. But for giving us a bit more than 949 and 950, I'll confine myself to 1 tack, and that's for really belonging in the choir repertoire and not the pew hymnal.

952 is "The reign of God, like farmer's field" by Delores Dufner, with the early Americana tune DUNLAP'S CREEK by Samuel McFarland (c.1816). Dufner's lyrics paraphrase four of Jesus' kingdom parables: the tares, the pearl, the leaven, the mustard seed, with the final application that in Christ, "the reign of God is here." I think I owe it 1 tack for being in the wrong section of the book, because apart from stanza 1 it isn't particularly focused on the End Time.

953 is "Before the Ancient One, Christ stands" by Susan Cherwien, with Robert Farlee's tune CHRIST CHURCH, MINNEAPOLIS bearing witness to how challenging it can be to set to music a hymn in a very long meter (10 lines of 8 syllables, here). Dramatically, structurally, the tune runs out of gas around phrase 7, only perking up a bit at the very end. Looking at Cherwien's poetic structure, I think I see a better approach to setting these words to music. Oh, boy, I want to write a tune for this hymn! But clearly, this is a "musical taste" issue of a high order. The only thing that, to my mind, detracts from the impressiveness of Cherwien's text is the final couplet of stanza 3, which could perhaps be interpreted in a postmillennialist light. Aside from that, 1 tack only for omitting the accompaniment.

954 is "You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd" by Sylvia G. Dunstan, set to the French tune PICARDY ("Let all mortal flesh keep silence"). Accompaniment omitted. Right here, I might as well point out an observation that's been building up from the beginning of this ongoing review: Doesn't ACS seem to be the Ruth Duck, Delores Dufner, Sylvia Dunstan, Mary Louise Bringle and Susan Palo Cherwien show? A few other "usual suspects" in modern hymnody have shown their faces, such as Troeger, Stuempfle, et al., but we keep coming back to this handful of female contributors, some of whom are operating at a higher level than the others. Could this go some way toward answering the bedeviling question, "Who asked for this?" or, in a word, "Why?" Discuss. Dufner, who seldom disappoints, makes an argument in this hymn surrounding the paradoxes of Jesus – prince and slave, peacemaker and sword-bringer, etc. Its penultimate line in each stanza, another semi-refrain, calls Christ "the everlasting instant." Stanza 2 contrasts His power and weakness in the Passion; St. 3 explores the presence of the ascended Jesus, both "each day beside us" and sitting "in power at God's side." Stanza 4 heads into "Worthy is the Lamb" territory. Steaky stuff. 1 tack only for omitting the accompaniment.

Moving into the "Holy Baptism" section, 955 is "Come to the Water of life" (first line: "All who are thirsty for mercy"), words and music by Ray Makeever (cf. 945). The melodic shape is simple but its rhythm alternates between triplet and non-triplet groupings, giving the congregation more credit than it probably deserves for their musical prowess. It also omits the accompaniment. The four stanzas fall into a pattern with "All who are thirsty" phrases slotting in different objects of thirst and concluding with the titular refrain, so the only differences between them are whether you're thirsty for love and mercy, touch and healing, truth and beauty, or peace and justice. It isn't hard to imagine (or remember) hymns on this theme that deliver far more than this. 3 tacks.

956 is "Born, reborn", words and music by Justin Rimbo (b. 1980), accompaniment omitted. Despite the harmony being hidden from pew-book holders, the score for the two stanzas does include ossia notes for a second vocal part, echoing the first. It hits me as a decent children's hymn, saying quite a bit about Baptism in a few short words. Why it's in the pew book, as if for adults to sing, I don't know. 1-1/2 tacks.

957 is "Take me to the water" (to be baptized), an African-American spiritual crediting Horace Clarence Boyer (†2009) for the arrangement. I have no prior familiarity with this hymn, so I'm not sure what tempo it's meant to go at, but assuming a dotted quarter equals one beat, the fast part of each phrase would have to go pretty fast for this piece as a whole not to go incredibly slow. It's kind of an unusual piece, but (as with many of the spirituals so far in this book) it gives me vibes of a prepared group singing it at the congregation rather than the laypeople really participating – unless, as I've said before, this is their native musical idiom. Which, I think, still applies to a very small minority among Lutheran parishes. So, again, the question arises: Why does this have to be in the pew book? The text, meanwhile, is a lot of repetition of very thin and lightweight material, compared to many baptismal hymns I know. What it says is fine, and what it omits could more economically fill the same length of time it takes to sing it. 2-1/2 tacks.

958 is "To Christ Belong, in Christ behold" by Susan R. Briehl (b. 1952), to Farlee's tune WONDERS. It's a real pity that the accompaniment is omitted, because I feel it would help me make better sense of this tune. I have a sense it might be more effective sounding, all put together, than it is as a bare line of melody, especially with notes tied across a barline at the end of each phrase to suggest something happening in the harmony parts. And behold, Briehl's text is an example of what could be done with a Baptism hymn beyond repeating, say, "Take me to the water" a bunch of times. Stanza 1 acknowledges that we are "baptized into the death of Christ," and "drawn ... into abundant life." St. 2 confesses that the Spirit is poured with the water, and the veil of sin and death is released. Stanza 3 wraps up with an exhortation to living a baptismal life. I'm sorry to have to award it 1 tack for hiding the harmony.

959 is "God of promise, let these signs of grace" by Paul Damico-Carper (cf. 907). Again, his tune (STELLAN) is given without accompaniment. It has rests in it that suggest instrumental cues that might be helpful. It's also a fairly unusual tune with rhythms that might put it out of the reach of Grandma Smurf and the Smurfettes (if indeed there are any Smurfettes), your country parish organist and her possibly non-existent choir, to say nothing of her hard-of-hearing husband, who compensates for not singing well by singing loudly. I'm not prophesying disaster or anything, but it would be wise to prepare for one and that just might mean not choosing this hymn. PDC's lyrics are not without merit. Stanza 1 calls Baptism "life-giving water," for what it's worth after the opening refrain describing it as a "sign," and describes it as drowning our sins each day. St. 2 relates the Word breathed on the water to the Father's voice, heard at Jesus' baptism: "This is my child, my beloved." But the stanzas continue with riffs on the oil of anointing, the burning light (a candle that may be given to the baptized) and the "robe of adoption" (baptismal garment), suggesting that these optional, not-divinely-instituted ceremonials are on an equal level with water and word in whatever this hymn is saying about baptism, and that once again reinforces the impression that the word "sign" in the refrain is of driving, um, significance. Discuss amongst yourselves, but I'm giving it 4 tacks.

Going on to "Holy Communion," 960 is "O Lamb of God", a setting of the Agnus Dei with lots of extra "have mercy on us"es and, fitting the music better than the English version, the original Finnish lyrics that apparently went with Petri Laaksonen's undated tune JUAMALAN KARITSA. I googled the composer's name and found evidence of a composer by that name, born in 1962, for what it's worth. I live just up the road from a town with a higher percentage of Finnish-descended residents than probably anywhere in the U.S. outside the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I bet this piece would go over a treat there (particularly, maybe, in their Laestadian congregation). It has some nice harmony, albeit with a couple parallel perfect fifths (but hush, I just spotted some PP5s in one of my own published hymn accompaniments). I don't want to be mean, but I'm going to give this 1 tack for being in the wrong part of the book (it should be in with the liturgical settings), and I'll graciously overlook the limited range of its appeal within U.S. Lutheranism.

961 is "Come to the Table" by Jennifer Baker-Trinity (b. 1976), set to her own tune INVITATION, which is really a duet. The first part delivers, apart from repeats, exactly the following value: "Come to the table. All is now ready, come one and all. Come, oh, come." The second part repeats, as a four-note ostinato, the line "Come one, come all" four times. No accompaniment is included, if indeed any is intended. As a communion hymn, or even a liturgical chant, it really doesn't offer much – least of all, something that can be sustained throughout a significant part of the distrubtion. Moving beyond pragmatic concerns, the lyrics offer flat-out nothing for communicants to meditate on regarding the sacrament they are about to receive. 3 tacks.

962 is "In this feast of love" by Jarkko Maukonen, translated and arranged by Mark Sedio (b. 1954), and including one stanza of the original Finnish despite the page having plenty of room for all three, if the hymnal editors were inclined that way. Not that I wouldn't have dinged them for doing it; like I said, there's only so much demand for a Finnish-language hymnal in the U.S. and this book ain't it. Musically, it's a Contemporary Worship slow song styling. The three stanzas, with a repeated first line, are a very brief and condensed prayer of one receiving the Sacrament. Nevertheless, it does bear witness to the truth that in His Supper, the Lamb of God does share His blood and body; that He has promised to be with us in the bread and wine; and that the joy of the Spirit comes from the ever-living Word. That it's actually a paraphrase of the Agnus Dei is so subtle that the realization may not hit you until Stanza 3. I'm going to be a pig and give it 1 tack for blotting the page with a line of Finnish lingo that only those folks down the road from me in northern Minnesota, and over yonder in the U.P., are going to try singing.

963 is that "Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior" – translated by Martin Seltz (b. 1951) and Paul Westermeyer (b. 1940) from Martin Luther's (†1546) German paraphrase of Jan Hus' (†1415) Latin, and set to one of the two beautiful chorales wedded to it (and the one not included in LSB, at that) – of which I formerly declared that I could leave everything in this book, except this one hymn, without a qualm of regret. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you know what? I know where to find this hymn elsewhere and, besides, I'm giving it 1 tack for omitting the accompaniment.

964 is "Here would I feast" by Horatius Bonar, translated – into Spanish, mind you – by T.W. Speaks, and set to its own tune by José Ruiz (b. 1956). Three stanzas in both languages, Spanish first, set to a tune that has a repeat sign after the first stanza, and a new strain of music for the third – like one, enormous bar song (AAB form, that is), rounded off at the end by a pair of phrases similar to the beginning of the piece. As LSB numbers them, the lyrics are stanzas 2, 5 and 6 of "Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face." And the style of music reminds me of an old campfire sing, like "Bill Grogan's goat." Of course, that's based on the melody only, since the accompaniment is omitted. For the same cost, the hymnal editors could have set all 7 stanzas of Bonar's text (English only) to FARLEY CASTLE and have done. 2 tacks.

965 is "The rice of life" by J. Andrew Fowler (b. 1935), set to BÍ-NÍU by I-to Loh (b. 1936). I have three things to say about the tune. First, the accompaniment is omitted. Second, it has several notational markings that suggest a vocal technique that isn't widely taught at the level of musical education to which most Americans have attained. Third, it has ossia notes for "last time" through – a different melodic ending to the last stanza, which makes twice in this book but very nearly a first in my decades-long study of Lutheran hymn tunes. This is weird stuff. I'm not sure quite how to interpret it all (other than scooping up to some of the notes following that funny notation, and sagging down from others). This seems like the kind of piece you'd teach to a choir or a group of college students who are majoring in music, during a unit on Asian musical forms. Your little country church, with the Smurfs and all, are going to give it a sketchy try at best. As for the lyrics, the repeated phrase "the rice of life" hints at an effort to contextualize the concept of "bread of life" for an Asian audience, but what's intended by throwing that contexualization in the teeth of western Lutherans who, surely, can grasp the biblical metaphor of bread? I've already gone on long enough about this hymn and haven't really discussed what it says about "the rice of life," but let's say, there's much to discuss. I hate to leave it vague like that, but to move on, I'm giving it 4 tacks.

966 is "Loaves were broken, words were spoken" by Herman Stuempfle (cf. 937), set to Marty Haugen's (b. 1950) JOYOUS LIGHT, originally a liturgical canticle from what I know as Holden Evening Prayer (cf. also LSB 445 and 932). It's kind of the epitome of a Contemporary Worship ditty, with a refrain that goes to exactly that place you'd expect after hearing a bunch of the like. If you're looking for a definite confession of what the Lord's Supper is and does, Stuempfle's lyrics are a bit disappointing. Starting with Jesus' post-resurrection appearance by the Sea of Galilee, Stuempfle argues that in the blessed and broken bread, "Jesus, Bread of life from heaven, was their food forevermore." Then (st. 2) he circles back to the paschal meal in the upper room, where "in the bread and wine (He) gave them, Christ ... came as Light from Light." St. 3 applies these precedents to today's celebration in which "Jesus speaks across the ages: 'I am with you; do not fear.'" St. 4 is the move one expects from the sacramental theology that gave birth to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, applying the sacrament by backhandedly exhorting us (while addressing Jesus) to go forth to share bread with the hungry millions, as well as "words that tell your love and care." You're not meant to ask where the hymn actually asserts that we eat Jesus' body and drink His blood for the forgiveness of sins. But I'm asking anyway, and that, as well as omitting the accompaniment, is why I'm giving this hymn 3 tacks.

967 is "This is Christ's body" by Anne Krentz Organ (b. 1960), set to her own tune BROKEN AND BLESSED, with tiny lyrics indicating an echo effect in the tenor line at the end of the phrase "Feed us with mercy and love." And now you already know half the lyrics of this hymn, which go on to say "We are Christ's body, broken and blest. Heal us and make us one." There's no harm in it, surely. But also, there isn't much of anything in it. It's a communion hymn that either has to be repeated over and over, with no more profit the 10th time through than the first, or that isn't going to occupy much of the distribution time at all, unless by way of an extended intro and outro. And meantime, it doesn't give the communicant much to meditate on, certainly when compared to some of Lutheranism's rich repertoire of Communion hymns. 2 tacks.

968 is "Feed us with hunger for justice" by Organ again – this time two phrases (the second being "Feed us with thirst for peace") that are completely beside the point of the Sacrament of the Altar and bespeak the kind of this-worldly, we-are-the-bread-given-for-the-life-of-the-world, bizarro-sacrifice-of-the-mass claptrap ELW peddles in throughout its Lord's Supper section. What use is it as a Communion hymn, anyway? It's two phraes long, double-barline. Unless you either use it as a liturgical versicle and response (choke, gag) or repeat it to the point of self-hypnosis, I don't see this serving a needful purpose in the Divine Service. Also, the music omits the accompaniment, the better (I suppose) to squeeze it in at the bottom of a page, though it does provide an optional descant. Now we're talking repeats and rehearsals. Help us, good Lord. 5 tacks.

969 is "Welcome table" (first line: "I'm a-goin'-a eat at the welcome table"), an African-American spiritual arranged by Mark Hayes (b. 1953). Musically, I can see how this would be an enjoyable exercise, although its rhythms aren't within the shared musical vocabulary of most American Lutherans and its harmony is, at times, tediously sedentary. (Almost all of the second system is played and sung over a C major chord.) The three stanzas of highly repetetive lyrics, with a "some of these days" thrown in now and then, might suggest something relevant to the Lord's Supper to start with, but then move onto feasting on milk and honey (not even bread and wine) and, finally, wading across Jordan's river. If that's about the Sacrament, it is figurative to the point of obscurity. How much do we want or need that, eh? 4 tacks.

970 is "We come now to your table", with words credited to "Caribbean Conference of Churches Jamaica workshop" (Kyrie eleison) and the tune LIVING BREAD credited to "St. Vincent traditional, adapt.; arr. Pattrick Prescod" (†2013). This may be a stretch, but that may be a reference to the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I'll bet it goes over great in the Caribbean Conference of Churches, but I have doubts about midwestern Lutherans, and only because I've tried teaching rhythm like this to a church choir who Just. Didn't. Get it. Lyrics-wise, there's four times as much music here as necessary to get across the message (addressed to the Lord) that "You are the Living Bread" and "Let every soul be fed." Four times as much music that's going to throw Grandma Smurf and Co. and stomp them into the dust. 2 tacks.

I quit! For the day, that is. But hey, we've made it through 22 hymns, adding another 48 tacks. So, with a running total (so far) of 128 tacks in 70 hymns, we've reached a tackiness quotient of about 183%. Google informs me that 128 over 70 is a good blood pressure, but I'm not sure what this level of tackiness in church would do to my blood pressure. Heaven help us.

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