Four Hymns at Mass, and Only the One by a Protestant was Unobjectionable
by David Trumbull
A recent Saturday I attended the vigil Mass at the local Novus Ordo parish, and, as usual, the hymns were a mini lesson in what is wrong with the music in American Catholic churches.
We started with “Now We Gather” by Eugene Castillo in which the congregation congratulates itself for being saved. God does manage to make a cameo appearance — in fact he shows up 15 times in the four verses plus refrain — but is no match for the congregation, with the first person pronoun employed 39 times. The best that can be said of “Now We Gather” is that the tune is so unsingable that there is little risk that hymn will ever become anyone’s favorite.
At the offertory we were assaulted with Dan Schutte, whose work can always be counted on to offer a memorably unpleasant musical experience. The hymn, “You Are Near,” was an adaptation of the psalm Domine, probasti (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps139.htm), Psalm 139 (Psalm 138 in the Vulgate) and the words, being true to the original, cannot be disparaged. As for the tune, if one can call it that, it is typical Schutte, in other words, the congregation has long since learnt that there is no point in even trying to actually sing this musical abortion.
The post-communion hymn, “Come, Worship the Lord,” was also a paraphrase of another psalm, in this case the psalm Venite, exultemus (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps95.htm), Psalm 95 (Psalm 94 in the Vulgate). Again the words, being faithful to the original cannot be objected to. As for actually singing, well, the irregular meter assured that there was no risk of congregational participation.
Thank God for Protestant clergyman Henry Van Dyke and for his 1907 hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” which, set, as is customary, to the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, offered us one hymn that could be sung with gusto, feeling, and joy.
When I started attending Mass at my local Novus Ordo parish in 2012 (I formerly attended the traditional Latin Mass, and before that I was high church Anglican), I found the music so annoying that it distracted me from worship. I found that by making notes on just why it was so God-awful I was able to get past my annoyance and direct my heart and mind to worship.
Here are my notes, taken over several weeks, in the form of journal entries.
February 4, 2012. This evening I attended the vigil Mass at the local Novus Ordo parish and once again thought, “No wonder Catholics don’t sing if this is what they are given as hymn tunes.”
The first hymn, “Let Us Go to the Altar” was based on the Psalm Judica me, Deus (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps43.htm), Psalml 43 (Pslam 42 in the Vulgate) and, surprising for a composition by Daniel L. Schutte, it had a singable melody in three-quarter time. However, the musical phrasing and the text were not well matched, and there is little likelihood that anyone will hum the tune while doing chores. It wasn’t exactly bad just not all that good.
For the offertory we sang “Seek Ye First” by Karen Lafferty. The words were a paraphrase of Matthew 6:33. I enjoyed the simple, pleasant melody, which far surpassed the typical “contemporary” hymn tune. By simple, I do mean simple; it reminded me of the hymns that the 1940 Episcopal Church hymnal classified as “for children.” Still, a good choice given the limited choices in the hymnal (the name of which I must remember to write down next time) used at __________ Church
Well, if “Seek Ye First” had lulled me into a false sense that maybe the music was improving, the post communion hymn jolted me back to the unpleasant reality of bad Catholic hymnody. “On Eagle’s Wings” by Michael Jonas, has to be one of the worst hymns ever written. It is based on the Psalm Domine, refugium (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps90.htm), Psalm 90 (Psalm 89 in the Vulgate) and the words are a prose paraphrase of the original, and therein lies the first problem. What is point of setting a prose paraphrase to music when there exist many good rendering of the Psalm into English poetry? Then there is the music! Possibly someone who has studied voice seriously for several years could sing “On Eagle’s Wings,” I don’t know. What I do know is that the typical congregation cannot possibly join in something with no clear time signature, an irregular meter, and an ever-changing melody time and tempo.
February 11, 2012. This evening I again attended the vigil Mass at the local Novus Ordo parish and made notes regarding the hymns
We started with “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” by Catholic convert from Anglicanism, Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) set, to the 18th century Dutch hymn tune In Babilone. The music is beautiful and the words moving.
The offertory hymn, “All My Days,” was written by Dan Schutte and is based on the Psalm Domine, Dominus noster (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps8.htm), Psalm 8. With the first line of the first verse a “red flag” went up. Schuette’s text was “You have made me a little less than a god,” which he must have intended as some sort of paraphrase of verses four and five:
4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? * and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5 Thou madest him lower than the angels, * to crown him with glory and worship.”
or in the Vulgate:
5 quid est homo quod memor es eius aut filius hominis quoniam visitas eum
6 minuisti eum paulo minus ab angelis gloria et honore coronasti eum”
Schutte’s text employs the word “god” where “angels” is more conventional, and although it is true that the Hebrew text has “elohim” (i.e., “gods”) it is equally true that “elohim” can mean “angels” and was so translated into the Greek of the Septuagint” Angels is also the word the Vulgate picked up, as have most English translations.
More troublesome is Schutte’s putting the Psalm into the first person. Christian tradition, following the Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 2 verses 5 through 9, usually interprets the “Son of man” in Psalm 8 as the Christ, 2:5 For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak. 2:6 But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? 2:7 Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: 2:8 Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him. 2:9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
The post-communion hymn, “Seed, Scattered and Sown, was written by Dan Feiten and is based on the Didcahe 9, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, and Mark 4:3-6. Published in the 1980s, I found it one of the most theologically sound and musically pleasant of “contemporary” hymns.
St.________’s Parish saved the best for last at this Mass. “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” by William Chatterton Dix (1837–1898), insurance executive and part-time hymn-writer, is one of the greatest of 19th century English praises to our Lord. It was set to that grand old Welsh hymn tune — a tune to which many hymns have been set — Hyfrydol by Rowland Huw Prichard (1811-1887). It is one of my favorites. When, last year I started learning to play the piano, I picked it out as the first “real music” (as opposed to exercise) that I had my instructress show me how to play. Co-incidentally, I passed the time walking to Mass today by humming (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/alleluia_sing_to_jesus.htm) Hyfrydol, little thinking that I’d be singing it at the end of Mass.
February 19, 2012. This morning I again attended Mass at the local Novus Ordo parish and made notes regarding the hymns, which were considerably improved over the past couple of weeks.
At the processional we sang (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/be_thou_my_vision.htm) “Be Thou My Vision”, a traditional Irish hymn, translated by Eleanor H. Hull and versified by Mary Elizabeth Byrne. It was set to the moving tune Slane, to which the hymn (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/lord_of_all_hopefulness.htm) “Lord of All Hopefulness” has also been set.
The offertory hymn, the so-called “Prayer of St. Francis,” set to music by Sebastian Temple, is an example of how “contemporary” hymnody, even when it is good — and “Prayer of St. Francis” is very good, being both theologically sound and musically pleasing — nevertheless fails as a congregational hymn. “Prayer of St. Francis” sung by a choir at communion could serve very well to assist in putting the communicants in the proper mood to receive their Lord, but it is not something that a congregation of non-trained singers can pull off.
The post-communion and recessional hymns offer an interesting contrast.
“Taste and See,” by James E. Moore, Jr. is based on the Psalm Benedicam Dominum (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps34.htm), Psalm 34 (Psalm 35 in the Vulgate). The refrain, “Taste and See the goodness of the Lord. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” (yes, it repeats) sung, as it is, four times, certainly brings home the message of the first half of the eighth verse of the Psalm. The three hymn verses consist of 88 words chopped into eight sentences. Now, it is true that Hebrew poetry employs short (by English standards) sentences, so I suppose one could argue that Moore is being faithful to the original. However, even a translation, let alone a paraphrase, ought to follow at least some English language conventions. “Taste and See,” aside from the eminently forgettable melody, fails stylistically as English poetry.
Now compare that to the magnificent Lutheran hymn we ended with. (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/nun_danket_alle_gott.htm) “Now Thank We All Our God,” words by Martin Rinkart (1586–1649); music by Johann Crüger (1598-1662), in the familiar translation by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) arranges 126 words into three well-crafted sentences.
- Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
- O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
- All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
February 27, 2012. This past Sunday, First Sunday in Lent, at my local Novus Ordo parish we started and ended with beautiful old Anglican hymns. For the processional it was (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/lord_who_throughout_these_forty_days.htm) “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” by Claudia F. Hernaman (1873), set to the tune St. Flavian, and for the recessional (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/forty_days_and_forty_nights.htm) “Forty Days and Forty Nights” by George H. Smyttan (1856), set to the tune Heinlein. They were especially moving sung in that order. The first has a simple upbeat tune that invites us to join in the experience of Jesus in the desert while marking the transition from the outside secular “hubbub” to the reflective sacred space of the temple of God. The second repeats the theme, but to a more somber tune, sending us out in a mood to keep a holy lent in spite of the many distractions we shall face through the week.
At the offertory is was a contemporary hymn, “Hosea” by Gregory Norbet, OSB, published by the Benedictine Monks of (http://www.westonpriory.org/) Weston Priory in Vermont. Can’t say that I remember anything from it, however I made a note at the time — “Not bad.”
The post communion hymn, “Save Your People” by Jim Farrell, was based on the Psalm Dominus illuminatio (http://www.bookofhours.org/psalms/Ps27.htm). Psalm 27 (Psalm 26 in the Vulgate). The refrain, with it’s line “show us the way to come home,” is set to a simple pleasant melody and reminds me ever so much of —
“Show me the way to go home.
I’m tired and I want to go to bed.
I had a little drink about an hour ago
And it went right to my head.
There’s a verse too, not that it has much of a melody to sing it to.
March 4, 2012. Last evening I again attended the vigil Mass at the local Novus Ordo parish and made notes regarding the hymns.
The processional hymn was, as it was last week, the Anglican hymn (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/lord_who_throughout_these_forty_days.htm) “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” set to the tune Flavian.
At the offertory we sang (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/amazing_grace.htm) “Amazing Grace!” by Anglican clergyman John Newton, set to the beloved tune New Britain. Some Catholics object to this hymn (for example, see this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TTu66Dl71w) by Michael Voris alleging that some words and phrases betray a Protestant understanding. Certainly, one can read the words of “Amazing Grace!” as teaching a Protestant — specifically Calvinist — doctrine of salvation, but then again, you can find plenty of individual words and phrases in St. Paul’s and St. Augustine with which to condemn them as heretics if you start out looking for heresy. Equally, one can find in “Amazing Grace!” orthodox Catholic teaching regarding salvation. If you want to find hymns that are truly suspect as regards their theological assumption, you’ll find a much richer target in some the “Catholic” hymns of the past forty years.
The post-Communion hymn, “Gift of Finest Wheat” by Robert E. Kreutz was another example of unsingable “contemporary” Catholic hymnody. This train-wreck of a tune starts in 4/4 time, then after two measures switches to 3/4 time for a few measures, then back to 4/4 time for one measure, only to conclude in 3/4 time.
We concluded with the 18th century Catholic hymn “Grosser Gott” by Ignaz Franz in the 19th century Catholic translation (http://www.bookofhours.org/hymns/holy_god_we_praise_thy_name.htm) “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” by C.A. Walworth. It is a paraphrase of the ancient Latin hymn (http://www.bookofhours.org/office/canticle_te_deum.htm) Te Deum Laudamus.