Skip to comments.What's a Hymn For? (Catholic Music in the USA)
Posted on 11/02/2007 2:40:04 PM PDT by maryz
I'm having some problems with music in Catholic America. Part of it is my problem. I spent fifteen years in the Anglican Church with the New English Hymnal--which is probably the finest hymnbook ever published in the English language. Musically and liturgically it was the best that traditional Anglicanism had to offer.
Catholic music in England--well we won't even go there. Apart from a few islands of decent church music the Catholic church in England was a wasteland.
I am discovering that in the USA it is not much better. My problem is that I am actually unfamiliar with most of the music in American Catholic Churches because I have lived abroad for so long.
However, what I do experience is not encouraging. Who on earth is writing these hymns, publishing these hymns and choosing to buy, prepare and perform these hymns? Doesn't anybody know what a hymn is for?
Surely a hymn is first, and foremost part of our worship. That means the words are words that we use to address our praise, adoration and worship of God. So much of the stuff I come across isn't that at all. Instead it is sentimental language in which God talks to us to reassure us, make us feel better and comfort or inspire us. So..."Be not afraid...for I am always with you...Come follow me.. etc" This may be a pleasant enough devotional song to remind us of God's promises, and there may be times when it is appropriate to sing such songs, but Mass is not one of those times. We're not really at Mass to sing God's comforting words to ourselves. We're there to worship Him.
Another problem are hymns that simply put Scripture verses to music. "I am the bread of life...he who comes to me shall not hunger...etc" Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true, but it simply isn't a hymn. The words are the words of Jesus about himself. They are not words of praise, worship and adoration addressed to God.
The second problem with much of the contemporary music is that it originates from solo artists or has been written for a choir to perform. If the words are praise and worship words, they don't translate well for congregational singing. An example of this is the well known prayer of St Francis, "Make me a channel of your peace." It was originally written as a solo performance piece, and as such it is nice enough, but try to get a congregation to sing it and it goes all over the place with its croon like phrasing and difficult wording. A good hymn has music that has a good steady, predictable rhythm so everyone can join in.
The final problem is that too many hymn writers seem to have little understanding of either Scripture, the symbols and types of the faith or the theology of the faith. The great old hymns that have stood the test of time were written from the authors' deep immersion in the great themes of Scripture, the great stories of the Old Testament and the great theological concepts that inspire and instruct us as we sing. The newer stuff tends to be dumbed down, sentimental and weak.
So what's a poor old convert priest like me to do? One experiences some pressure to 'give them what they like.' My inclination is to 'give them what they need.' In other words, to select hymns on the correct criteria and not bother whether they are 'new' or 'old'. I'm sure there are some worthy modern hymns just as there are some awful old hymns. Then we have to educate those in our charge to understand what a hymn is for and what makes a good hymn--and it's not just the ones we happen to like.
Finally, it seems to me that the underlying problem with the contemporary hymns is an almost universal lack of understanding in the modern American Catholic Church about what Mass is in the first place. If it is a gathering of friendly Christian people around the table of fellowship in order to get strength and encouragement from one another as we all think about Jesus, why then the contemporary hymns fit the bill very nicely, but then, so would quite a few snippets of music I can think of like--"My favorite things" from The Sound of Music.
However, if the Mass is meant to take us to the threshold of heaven; if it is meant to be a glimpse of glory and a participation in the worship of the spheres of heaven itself, why then the sentimental, sweet and comforting songs just won't do. They wont' do not because they are bad or untrue, but because they are not good and true enough. Worship that takes us to the threshold of glory needs to be, well...glorious.
But, it can be protested, not all parishes can manage to have a grand organ, a paid organist and a fine choir. True, and that's why the church recommends Gregorian Chant. With a little effort and just a little expense a small group of singers can learn Gregorian Chant which beatifies the liturgy simply and give is the transcendental glory that our worship deserves, and to tell you the truth, once you develop a taste for Gregorian chant--it's pretty comforting too.
A look at American hymns by a former Anglican.
Part of the problem is that 80% of everything is junk, and it is (usually) time that tells us what's junk and what's not. Most (not all) of the awful old hymns have been forgotten, so what remains from, say, the 17th and 18th centuries is mostly pretty good. Most of the rotten new stuff hasn't yet had time to be forgotten.
At least we can sympathize in true fraternal fashion with one another! ;-)
Ick! Don’t get me started!! It’s all I can do to stay til the end of our NO mass. We suffer from the Haugen & Haas curse. As soon as our (slightly more traditional) priest left, so did the wonderful choir director who incorporated some chant and Latin music into the mass. We ended up with full-blown Haugen/Haas garbage when the new choir director came in.
I go to mass in spite of the music. I just try to keep my focus on the alter and I always leave (sorry Dad) before the final hymn.
I go to the earliest Mass — unfortunately, not until 8:00 a.m. Almost never any music! :)
LOL! Sounds like a man who knows his own mind anyway!
I used to be able to get up that early. LOL We have 7:30 on Sunday and 6:45 on weekdays.
Here’s a suggestion, dump ALL the hymns and go back to a sung Liturgy like The Church, Latin and Eastern did until Vatican II (with the exception of “low masses”) and the East still does.
We shouldn't be singing much of anything that hasn't passed the 100-year test. 200-year test is even better!
The Episcopal Hymnal is full of grand old Catholic hymns -- if you look in the back for the source materials, there is Gregorian chant all over the place and old (15th-16th c.) German Catholic hymnals as well as the standbys everybody knows (like "Crown Him With Many Crowns" and "The Church's One Foundation"). Really they have done a better job of conserving the Catholic musical patrimony than the Catholics have.
I'm going to give our music director the large organist's edition (spiral bound in cloth; two volumes) for Christmas.
You will all appreciate this. In the 'From the Mail' section of this week's edition of The Wanderer, a MA reader recounts her terrible parish experience after a new pastor arrived and began telling jokes during the final blessing at Mass and introduced other novelties, such as clapping during the singing of a new Gloria "with a bouncy rhythm." She writes.
"Sunday Mass was like a show. My husband and I were appalled but nothing we said [to the priest or fellow parishioners] made any difference. Finally, I decided to beat them at their own game. When they clapped hands, I clapped mine longer and louder and threw in a few extra claps. Sometimes I beat the palms of my hands on the wooden pew in front of me in rhythmn with the music.
Well, that really riled the pastor. He told the "liturgy director" ( what's that? Is this something new?) to have words with me. I told her I was responding to the "bouncy music" and didn't see anything wrong with it. The pastor then talked to my husband, and told him to tell me to stop. My husband told him to tell me himself.
I continued clapping and beating my palms against the pew during the Gloria. Now, the pastor has told me he will get a restraining order against me.
What do you think of this? Very truly yours
The paper suggested that the woman try to get 20 friends together and request a Mass in the "Extraordinary Rite." Otherwise, to check out other parishes in the surrounding community.
Some of us have had similar encounters at our local RC parish. Such a priest would not be responsive to the suggestion of a TLM and, besides, would you actually want him celebrating it!? The Catholic Church is big. My suggestion would be to start with prayer and ask the Lord to guide her to a parish with a holy priest, a reverent liturgy and a community where her God given talents can be of benefit.
You've got my vote . . . but nobody ever listens to me! :(
I'll have to get me one of those sometime!
RCs, correct me if I am wrong, but wouldn't that be considered a High Mass in the Extraordinary Rite? In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, ALL Divine Liturgies are chanted, even those that qualify as a 'low' Mass in the Latin Rite. While this is a commendable suggestion, K, the Latin Church does not offer a comparable alternative, be it in the low Mass of the TLM, or in the Novus Ordo Rite.
For RC's, Eastern liturgies are always chanted. It narrows the possibilities of such 'novelties', other than for an Entrance, Communion or Recessional hymn. These chants follow a set rhythmn thus precluding the introduction of modernist tonalities. In the Maronite Catholic Church, the liturgy is sung in strophic chant. All seminarians are expected to learn these ancient chants and rhythmns as they form the central focus of the liturgy. Regardless of which Maronite Divine Liturgy we attend, the words always follow the same strophic chant. Oddly enough, certain parishioners who have attended the Novus Ordo liturgy while traveling to places where there are no Maronite Churches, often inquire into 'when' our hymns will expand to include these more contemporary ones. It is usually me (the RC) who has to explain the history of the Maronite liturgy to them. Ignorance of faith is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church :-)
What’s a hymn for? How should we know. Haven’t heard one in thirty years.
Rejoice, and be glad! What we have are what sound like pop songs and nursery rhymes with trite, silly words ( I won't dignify them by calling them "lyrics").
Another problem are hymns that simply put Scripture verses to music. "I am the bread of life...he who comes to me shall not hunger...etc" Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true...
And made wonderfully politically correct, too (and I'm speaking specifically about "I am the bread of life")! What a bargain!
I've begun a big collection of Gregorian chant and sacred Medieval and Renaissance polyphony CDs. It's so beautiful there's no comparison.
As I recently learned, what we always called a High Mass (parts of the Mass sung or chanted, with one priest, as opposed to priest, deacon and subdeacon) in the old rite is really a sung low Mass. It was news to me. I couldn't comment on the NO.
“Join the club — we meet at the bar.” hahah. naw, but, truly it is poor. This too shall pass, surely. With our Latin Masses just instituted EVERY Sunday, as of last month, we have the most beautiful, heavenly choir and organ, and chants. Y’all come, it’s quite beautiful.
I can only go to the early, NO-music mass. Until the Latin Masses were instituted, of course. The ditties, for me, are agony.
Sometimes ear plugs and a rosary are the best alternative.
Hopefully future generations will have the fine, prayerful chants and other music that we had fifty years ago.
This thread is ridiculous. Flat out ridiculous. You’re bitching about hymns that say ‘Follow Me’ or ‘I will comfort you”? For real?
What’s a hymn for?
I don’t think this will turn into a Catholic - Protestant fight. The problem is the same on both sides of the river.
Worked for me.
You want Hymns?
http://tinyurl.com/2qzdom (only a little heresy here!)
And my all time favorite, though not from the Mass, as I remember it anyway:
There's an entire volume of service music, which includes both chant tones and modern settings for the Ordinary. It's close enough so that the settings could be used for a Catholic service, too.
I would have to break my hundred-year rule in the case of some of the new hymn tunes in the Hymnal. Just one example is the new setting of "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy" No. 469 - text written by Frederick W. Faber, the English Catholic convert. I don't like the old tune, "Beecher", it's too square and clunky, but the new tune (which you can't find on the net because it's still under copyright), "St. Helena" by Calvin Hampton, is a perfect fit to the meter and the sense of the words. It's in 6/8 time and it rocks like the sea.
On the other hand, SOME of the new hymns are rotten in tune (usually because they're trying to include some ethnic music, e.g. Hispanic stuff which is too pop) or in text ("Earth and All Stars" is just as silly and ridiculous as any modern liberal trying to be all relevant could be). They have messed with the text of some hymns trying to bring them up to date, thank the Lord it's not "inclusive language" but you can always just sing the original words. You can't expect every number to be a hit, I suppose . . . .
But just stick your head into the bookstore of any large Episcopalian church or (especially) cathedral if you have one handy. You'll also be surprised at the lovely rosaries, icons, and other art they have on hand. They may be heretics, but artistically they are always in good taste, and many Episcopalians are just not-quite-Catholics. (We're probably going to see more of them swimming the Tiber as the ECUSA implodes. Better drop by that bookstore soon. . . )
You must not have heard “Be Not Afraid”. Aside from its doubtful place in hymnody, it’s a pop abomination.
I have no idea what melody you’ve heard it sung to but yes, I’ve heard it and I have no problem with it at all.
The melody is inappropriate for a Catholic hymn, as HH BXVI has pointed out, because it contains the emotional 'hooks' of a pop tune. It's also just not 'serious' enough musically for a hymn. For a song, o.k. if you like that style, but not a hymn.
But the words are a problem also, first because they don't serve the proper purpose of a hymn. Again, not all Christian songs are hymns. Second because they turn the focus away from God and towards the "I". Look at how many times the text contains the words "I" and "me". I know it's supposed to be God speaking, but when it's sung the congregation is singing. That's just backwards.
It's kind of frightening when you look at the productions specifically from OCP and the St. Louis Jesuits, and notice how many of the hymns are all about "I, me, me, mine."
Whatever the popular music idiom of the time happens to be -- whether Roman pagan songs, Italian opera, or Marty Haugen -- starts creeping into the hymns sung in church. After awhile the church says, "Enough! This is getting disrespectful!" and tosses them out and tries again.
The “I’s” in that are about God and that you can trust him. There is nothing even remotely pop about that song. I just called my 13 year old daughter down here and asked her if she remembered the song. She is not overly religious nor even remotely perfect. She was nervous to sing it outloud so she took my cell phone and recorded herself singing it. She remembered it. She would kill me if she knew I was telling you this but I need to. She didn’t remember it because it sounded like Christina Aguillera but because it meant something. It isn’t all about your preception. It’s a beautiful song.
Whether or not somebody likes it isn't really the issue. The music is objectively "pop" because of the structure - specifically: the chord progression (I could play it in my head, it's so typical), the syncopation of the first line of the verse, the steady climb upward in thirds, and then the resolution through a 7th to the tonic. That style (and specifically the cadences on "be not afraid" and "come follow me") is pop, not hymn. If you listen for it, you'll hear it in everything from Perry Como to an advertising jingle. But it ought not to be used during the Mass.
And as for the "I"s being about God, I noted that. Of course objectively that's obvious, but when you're singing it, it confuses the first person (the singer) with the Person who should be being praised. It's backwards.
We’ll get it right when the priest and the people face the same direction in a posture of jointly offering this unbloody sacrifice of Christ to the Father: in Christ, through Christ and with Christ. Until that happens...It’s all about US!
I think the "bitching" is not just about what these hymns say, but also about the fact the they have replaced other, more traditional hymns. The older hymns also say "follow me" but in different words and in a richer, more reverent and majestic manner.
He’s preaching to the choir here. :-)
Some of the modern Catholic hymns are sappy social justice
guitar-strumming feelgoodism. They are from (Oregon OCP???).
The hynmals need to keep the old time hymns that are better grounded both musically and spiritually. And it wouldnt hurt to import Anglican hymns as part of that.
Wasn't there some concern about this during the Council of Trent?
A spurious story has Palastrina's Missa Papae Marcelli (written well before the Council) saving the day for polyphony music in the Church. Many of the bishops were concerned that this new style of chant was too beautiful for the Mass - that it would detract from worship.
I vote more Palastrina for the Latin Rite!
“I would have to break my hundred-year rule in the case of some of the new hymn tunes in the Hymnal. Just one example is the new setting of “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” No. 469 - text written by Frederick W. Faber, the English Catholic convert.”
In the 1982(which is what we use)?
It would be nice for the song to be written in the correct person. Why am I singing that people should follow me? I’m no one special. I am not the source of comfort, Christ is. Why should I sing that I will comfort you?
I agree with you, but I daresay don’t even try to argue with any of these folks, they think they are better than the rest of the schlubs who find anything worthwhile with any of this so-called crappy music.
Thanks for the suggestions!
Many people like the songs you have mentioned and there’s absoutely nothing wrong with singing them in church - but just NOT in a Mass. They’re not liturgical songs.
They’d be fine for, say, some kind of prayer service, or perhaps to preface the parish Bible study program, etc. But they’re overly personal and overly sentimental for use in a formal liturgical setting. Furthermore, many of them are actually soloist pieces and would sound much better if sung by an individual with the appropriate accompaniment than droned through by a congregation.
Something that sounds great when sung by Cristina Aguillera is not going to sound great when sung early Sunday morning by a roomful of people mostly over the age of 60. And I have noticed that men frequently refuse to sing these songs at all, probably because the words are so emotional and feminine.
So I don’t think people on this thread are condemning these songs, but instead are simply complaining that they don’t “fit” in the Mass. In the 19th century, Church authorities had to weed out many operatic-style songs that did not fit with the Mass (and it was the old Mass, too!) and some of the songs are still popular and still with us today - but not in the Mass. This is the same situation.
That's easy -- a her :)
But it also seems that with the elimination of a lot of the old "hymns" from the churches, the pews are now primarily filled with "hers".
LOL! You’ve got a point there!
I agree with you whole-heartedly. Most of the songs in churches today are so sappy and then I feel somewhat self-conscious because I’m not singing along with the congregation.
I leave the service feeling like I should have been standing on a mountain with a Coca-Cola in my hand, teaching the world to sing.
I can help this convert out!
The Mass is supposed to be sung. That is the priest, choir and congregations are supposed to sing or chant the prayers and responses of the Mass. Over the centuries, until the 20th century, this is how the liturgy was celebrated and there were no hymns in it. Hymns were added to the Mass during the first half of the twentieth century when many churches started celebrating “dialogue” Masses (which were in Latin), in which the prayers and responses were spoken by the priest and the congregation.
The use of hymns became even more popular after Vatican II and in most places hymns have replaced the singing or chanting of the parts of the Mass, which was not something that the Council Fathers had wanted. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy decreed that Gregorian chant was to have “pride of place” in the liturgy but it gave permission for other forms of music to be used as long as they were truly sacred and liturgical. Well, the rest is history as they say. The liturgists and music experts dumped Gregorian chant faster than you can “St. Louis Jesuits,” and they introduced traditional Protestant hymns and soon after, folk songs and much new, but banal, music into the Mass. And Fr. Longenecker is right. Many of the contemporary songs that are used in Mass are not only too hard for congregations to sing, they are doctrinally unsound.
There is a solution, of course, and that is for parish music directors to re-introduce Gregorian chant into the Mass. It can be done and it should be done in Latin. Chant is not too hard for people to learn and bringing it back into the Mass would do much to restore the beauty and solemnity of the liturgy. After all, the chant is the liturgy sung: it is the words of the liturgy put to music and, therefore, the most appropriate form of music to use during the Mass. Chant promotes a greater participation of the congregation in the Mass and it eliminates the need to sing hymns. And, just as an added bonus, it would mean the end of “guitar” Masses or “folk” Masses.
Historical question: wasn't the Mass silent in Ireland, from Cromwell's time, I guess, since saying/attending was punishable by death, so they had to keep a low profile? I think I read that had a big influence on the American chuch.