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.