Sunday, December 3, 2023

Tacky Hymns 110

Continuing with the "Word of God" section in the hymnal supplement All Creation Sings ...

971 is "Come and seek the ways of Wisdom" by Ruth Duck, set to Donna Kasbohm's (b. 1933) MADELEINE – accompaniment omitted. Should the fact make us squirm, that this hymn takes full advantage of one of Scripture's few feminine metaphors for the word of God? And so, when it gets around (mid-stanza 2 or so) to "the Word made flesh," and then equivocates a couple of lines later regarding what word it is talking about, should we suspect a subtle attempt to blur out the masculine gender of Christ? I'm constantly in peril of being caught inputing what I can't prove to this hymnal's account so I'll just leave that innuendo dangling there and give it 2 tacks.

972 is "Listen now for the gospel," a Zimbabwean traditional song translated by John L. Bell (b. 1949). The stanzas and the Alleluias of the refrain are harmonized in a way that suggests part-singing, albeit with very limited harmonic movement. The rest of the refrain is notated, in tiny notes, for "Leader" to sing, suggesting a soloist-and-choir presentation rather than a hymn to be sung in unison by the congregation. I mean, congregations may be up to this sort of thing in Zimbabwe but not at Grandma Smurf's church. Nevertheless I have to give this piece credit for packing more Pentecost prayer-to-the-Holy-Spirit value than most of the hymns in this book's Pentecost section. For being sung at, rather than by, the congregation, 1 tack.

973 is "The Word who sang the light into creation" by Alberto Taulé (†2007), translated by Martin L. Seltz (cf. 931, 932, 934, 963), including Taulé's own tune, PALABRA VIVA. The structure of the tune requires it to be spread out over two pages, accompaniment omitted, so that stanzas 1 and 4 can be sung to one musical strain, stanzas 2 and 5 to another, and stanza 3 to its very own, which makes it more like a piece of popular music than a hymn. It is of the nature of a hymn, generally speaking, to be able to be sung stanza after stanza to the same melody. For this structural complexity, which probably puts it out of the salt-of-the-earth parish's price range, and for the accompaniment issue, and for makiing a conspicuous display of the original Spanish lyrics when this still, last I checked, isn't actually a Spanish-language hymnal, 3 tacks. As for the merit of its lyrics, I once again see a potential hymn-tune writing project.

974 is "Listen to the Word" by Anonymous, Canada, to its own tune. It's very brief – four lines – and seems like the beginning of a good argument that cries out to be extended. At that length I'm somewhat at a loss to imagine where it could usefully fit into a service. Also, the accompaniment is omitted, so 1 tack.

975 is "O God, whose word well-planted" by Stuempfle, set to Stephen P. Folkemer's (b. 1952) ABIDING PRESENCE, accompaniment omitted. A sight-sing-through leaves the impression that it sounds like an awful lot of tunes on the spectrum between Irish folk and contemporary worship songs. It also has an unfortunate rhythm at the end of its odd-numbered phrases that I think Grandma Smurf's congregation may struggle against and emerge victorious. If you know what I mean. I'd be looking for a different tune to suit this otherwise blameless hymn. As it is, 2 tacks.

976 is "Come and See" (first line: "What are you looking for?") by Robert A. Hobby (b. 1962), set to his own tune. The accompaniment is provided this time, and I'm pleased to report that it has touching harmonic colors with constantly moving inner parts, in the style of the finest modern hymn tunes – complete with an echo effect written into the last phrase for the altors and tenors. Of course, this raises the concern that it's meant more as a choir piece than a congregation number. But what does it give the congregation? The lyrics in their entirety are represented in the hymn's title and first line. It literally doesn't say anything more. It doesn't go anywhere; it doesn't lead one to any conclusion; it doesn't really, explicitly, point to Christ. Its lyrics are based on a biblical allusion (John 1:38-39) that the hearer/singer needs to know in advance to get any value out of it. It could be open to so many interpretations, so many uses other than an edifying, Christian one. If it was the beginning of a multi-stanza hymn that actually built on the promise of its first (and only) two lines of lyrics, it would be something worth, er, coming and seeing. As it is, 4 tacks; I'm sparing it the full count only because of the nice music.

Moving onto the "Gathering" (i.e., opening of worship) section, 977 is "Look who gathers at Christ's table" by Thomas H. Troger (cf. 920, 947, 954), set to Michael Corzine's (b. 1947) tune COPELAND. Again, I'm very happy that the book included the harmony, which is rich and beautiful and supports a well-structured hymn tune (albeit with a phrase lifted from O DURCHBRECHER). Troeger's text is definitely among those hymns that emphasizes the horizontal communion between believers, through Christ is painted into the picture. It builds into a beautiful expression of the invitation that a gracious God extends toward sinners to dine at His feast of grace and mercy. I think I've had aesthetic issues with some of Troeger's word choices before; there are a couple places in this hymn where I think he could have improved his verse style, but honestly, 0 (zero) tacks this once.

I know! It hardly ever happens, with my finger on the trigger of the tack dispenser. What does it take to skate by like this hymn? Oh, I don't know – having decent music, showing all the notes, and pairing them with a text that does a good job and does it well, maybe? It doesn't have to be as hard as ACS makes it look. I've gone through hymnals where there was hardly anything to tack – like the supplement I looked at immediately before this. They don't all have to look exactly like ELDoNA's rump hymnal. The hymns don't all have to be 15th and 16th century chorales. Heck, they could all be 21st century originals. But Lutherans who care about what the church sings should feel like they're getting a good deal in this book, and, well ...

978 is "God welcomes all," with words by Bell set to his transcription and arrangement of a South African traditional melody. It's very brief – three phrases – but in that space it has four iterations of an off-beat rhythm that will probably take the average congregation several repetitions to master. It might be more of a choir piece, but again, soooo brief that it makes you wonder whether "repetition ad nauseam" is the intended direction for it. If parallel fifths make your flesh crawl, you should medicate ahead of time; this is culturally authentic stuff, you'll want to be repeating in the back of your head. I'm going to give it 2 tacks: one because of its brevity, which is either awkward or has weird implications; the other, because in the context of the ELCA, I can't help but wonder whether this blaring emphasis on "all are welcome" isn't connected with open communion.

979 is "Making their way" by Delores Dufner (cf. 930, 933, 944, 952, 954); you know, that Minnesota nun who has been hymn-writing in circles around the contemporary Protestant authors represented in this book. I doff my cornette to her. In this hymn, she depicts the procession of "sinners and saints" throughout the ages who, hearing God's call, have been coming to His feast in the worship of Jesus. It seems like a decent enough hymn, though something about the "Making their/our way" opening line of each stanza, combined with the character of the tune (KOMT NU MET ZANG, from a 17th century Dutch hymnal), makes the whole piece come across to me as the themesong for an educational program or the jingle for a line of motivational seminars ... which is a terrible but not entirely inaccurate description of what a hymn is. So, I guess, 0 tacks.

980 is "Come, Holy Spirit, descend" by Bell, with a fermata in parentheses (that bullseye thing that means "hold this note") followed by some hummed notes and a repeat sign, and then a block of "Additional verses ad lib." below the score. The hymn bids the Spirit "descend on us" as "we gather here in Jesus name," and that's it. Other than, in the optional additional stanzas, changing the first line to "Come, Breath of heaven," or Word of mercy, or Fire of judggment, or great Creator, or "Come to unite us," or to disturb us, or to inspire us, and I suppose one might feel oneself invited to make up additional openers to keep this musical motor cycling. I wonder if people singing it the last time through will know not to sing the hummed bridge back to the beginning of the piece. It doesn't, in any conventional or painfully obvious way, say "Stop here on the last stanza." Or, you know, Fine (not in the passive agressive sense, but in the music notation sense). But I don't really care. When you look straight through this piece – and there isn't much in the way of doing so – you'll recognize that there's not a lot there and repeating it more times isn't going to bring out any hidden merits. 2 tacks.

981 is "All who are thirsty" by Brian Wentzel (b. 1979), words and music. One stanza of a duet between Leader and All, with the latter singing in harmony. Stylistically, it's either a counterfeit African-American spiritual or a counterfeit African traditional song. It's very brief, delivering an invitation for the thirsty to come to the waters, the hungry to come here and eat, and concluding "There's enough for all" before going into an indefinite number of repeats. The irony is, the very creation of this piece and its inclusion in this book suggests that today's American Lutherans are being reconditioned to accept a starvation diet of meaningful content in their hymns. 2 tacks.

982 is "Many will come" by Daniel Schwandt (b. 1977), words and music, based on Luke 13:26 and 14:15. Notated without accompaniment, is is pointed to be sung in two-part canon; and the two stanzas are not numbered to be sung in sequence, but separated by an "OR" in small caps – I guess because once you're doing it as a round, there's no convenient way to switch to the next stanza. In the first stanza, in Roman type, the many from east and west come to eat in the kingdom of God; and blest are they who eat bread in the kingdom of God. In the second, italicized stanza, they come to be washed in the waters of life, and blest are they etc. It's a nice little round, and I'm on the fence about whether I'd rather see it pulled from the pew book and put into an album for the choir or youth group or Sunday School or what-have-you. But regardless, the amount of time spent singing it as a round (if you can get the congregation to play along with that) could probably be more profitably spent singing a hymn that explored the theme more deeply. 2 tacks.

We'll pick up another time with the "Sending" section where, I promise you, we'll see another round, another line of Spanish lyrics above the English, a line of Swahili lyrics above English, a line of Palestinian Arabic lyrics above English, a Leader part dialoguing with All, and so many other things that you know are going end up with tacks stuck in them! For today, however, we've added another 20 tacks to a running total of 148 tacks in 82 hymns – making this book, so far, 180 percent tacky. In perspective, that's enough tackiness to saturate one and four-fifths books. But we're still less than halfway through it. So much more fun to come.

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