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Good Hymns, Bad Hymns
Inside Catholic ^ | December 5, 2009 | Todd M. Aglialoro

Posted on 12/05/2009 5:32:26 AM PST by NYer


Two years ago,
the USCCB released a document of revised guidelines for liturgical music titled "Sing to the Mountains" -- er, "Lord." In its 88 mostly tepid pages are found a meditation on the scriptural and theological foundations for the use of music in worship, notes particular to the celebration of special rites within the Mass, and handy tips for ordained and lay liturgical ministers, such as the suggestion that cantors "possess the ability for singing and a facility in correct pronunciation and diction."
 
And, as with so many products of committee, its prescriptions perform a two-step waltz: leading with hard substance and following with squishy qualification. For instance, in liturgical settings the pipe organ is to be preferred -- but cymbals, harps, lutes, and trumpets are good too... unless you want to strum guitars and beat drums, which are also okay, "according to longstanding local usage," so long as they are "truly apt for sacred use." Who decides what's apt? We are not told. Maybe it's something you only know when you see it.
 
Anyway, I come neither to praise nor to bury "Sing to the Lord," but to consider one of the items over which it asserts oversight: that stock component of modern liturgy, the hymn. Specifically, I want to figure out what makes good hymns, and what makes bad.
 
In this area I'm an avowed moderate. Some Catholics argue strenuously that entire styles of music, or instruments, or languages, are in themselves unsuitable for liturgical use. But I'm not so absolutist. In this I might be mistaken -- and I'll get the emails to prove it -- but regardless, right now I want to leave aside broad distinctions and look at hymns themselves. Why is it that some songs, as "Sing to the Lord" put it, add "greater depth to prayer, unity to the assembly, or dignity to the ritual," whereas others just make you want to jam a key in your ears?
 
It can't all be a matter of personal preference, can it? Then we'd all be adrift in a sea of relative tastes, beyond the help even of a USCCB document.
 
And I don't think it all boils down to identifiable factors like creeping inclusive language, which can sap even good hymns of their poetry and scriptural fidelity; or to the proliferation of compositions seemingly designed not to be sung, and then artlessly performed using instruments and vocal inflections more suited to Open Mic Night than Holy Mass. So, as an admittedly average man in the pews with no special training, I examined what I thought were good and bad hymns and tried to come up with elements common to each. I found four.
 

1. Good hymns focus on God; bad hymns focus on the self.
 
One of my favorite English hymns is the old standby "Holy, Holy, Holy." It's both a theocentric and theological song, addressing God and invoking Him as Trinity, Pure Perfection, and First Cause of creation. To sing it is to make beautiful the doctrines of the Faith and, perhaps just as importantly, to put aside the self and dwell for a few moments on the divine nature.
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
Contrast those lines with the insufferably solipsistic "Here I Am, Lord," which, after first inviting us to sing as God in the first person ("I the Lord of sea and sky"), gets even worse, becoming celebration of the presumptive obedience of the congregation, dripping with mock humility.
Here I am, Lord; Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.
Bad hymns are egocentric, forever occupied with "I" and "we" -- and not in a penitential way ("forgive me") or in a cry of gratitude ("I thank you, Lord"), but rather with a vibe of self-congratulation. Here we are, Lord, doing your thing. Ain't we special?
 

2. Good hymns use words and themes from Scripture or Tradition; bad hymns use words and themes from 1960s psychobabble.
 
Every good hymn doubles as a Bible lesson, or as an encapsulation of some patristic or otherwise traditional theme. Its author looks for inspiration to the Gospels or Psalms, or to the Church's spiritual legacy. But this quality transcends "traditional" musical styles: One of the more rousing tunes from the folk-oriented Holy Is the Lord catalogue draws directly on Revelation 7 for its signature verse:
Salvation belongs to our God
Who sits upon the throne.
And unto the Lamb
Praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
Honor and power and strength
Be to our God, forever and ever.
In sharp contradistinction to these clear, powerful, God-breathed lyrical phrases are the words of bad hymns, drawn from Hallmark cards and Stuart Smalley skits, trading the real profundity of Christian mysteries for cheap slogans:
We come to share our story
We come to break the bread
We come to know our rising from the dead.
 
See, in this space, our fears and our dreamings . . .
Give us the courage to enter the song.

3. Good hymns treat transcendent concepts; bad hymns treat immanent concepts.
 
A good hymn, like good spirituality or theology, is marked by a tension between heaven and earth, by a both/and character that is at once richly temporal and richly eternal. Often it moves thematically from creation to heaven, from earthly to eschatological -- as in "How Great Thou Art," the verses of which begin with praise for the divine presence in the beauty of the world, progress to Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, and conclude with a joyous anticipation of the Second Coming.
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!
But a bad hymn is liberation theology set to music: a celebration of the eschaton's immanence. And guess what? We're the ones gonna make it happen -- whether it's building the city of God, or bringing peace to the world:
Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
With every step I take,
Let this be my solemn vow:
To take each moment and live each moment
In peace eternally,
Let there be peace on Earth,
And let it begin with me.

4. Good hymns employ sacred diction; bad hymns employ vulgar diction.
 
I'm using the words "sacred" and "vulgar" in their root senses here: sacred as in "set apart," and vulgar as in "popular" or "common." This distinction is, of course, part and parcel of the wider battle over liturgical language; that is, whether it ought to be distinct from everyday diction, or reflective of it.
 
Bad hymns have us mouthing the same banal expressions we might use to greet the grocer, plead with our kids, or write a report for the boss. Like "God Made Us One Blood," which keeps all firmly planted in the world:
We turn to you, God, with our thanks and our tears
For all of the families we've known through the years
The intimate networks on whom [sic] we depend
Of parent and partner and roommate and friend.
But good hymns fall into the "set apart" category. They pull us out of the common vocabulary and phraseology of home and work, of the sports pages and the eleven o'clock news, and elevate us to the plane of Thy and Thou,of Cherubim and Seraphim, of tricky-but-satisfying rhymes and anachronistic usages. This, of course, is one argument for using dead languages in liturgy -- their very sounds and cadences serve to elevate and transport, independent of the words' meanings. But English can do it, too. Would such a mouthful as this ever lead our attention to any place but the altar?
Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.
Perhaps this element of diction is the central one. Documents like "Sing to the Lord" return always to the theme of aiding worshipers' participation; hymns with sacred diction directly enhance our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass by reminding us that, for a time, we have left the ordinary world behind, and entered into a holy presence where common words are inadequate.
 


TOPICS: Catholic; Ministry/Outreach; Worship
KEYWORDS: catholic; christianmusic; hymns; music; worship

Todd M. Aglialoro is the editor-in-chief for St. Benedict Press/TAN Books, and a columnist and blogger for www.InsideCatholic.com. This column originally appeared on December 19, 2007.

1 posted on 12/05/2009 5:32:29 AM PST by NYer
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To: netmilsmom; thefrankbaum; markomalley; Tax-chick; GregB; saradippity; Berlin_Freeper; Litany; ...

Readers have left 30 comments, so far, at the above link. This is one topic that always generates great discussion.


2 posted on 12/05/2009 5:34:11 AM PST by NYer ("One Who Prays Is Not Afraid; One Who Prays Is Never Alone" - Benedict XVI)
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To: NYer
Uh-oh. One of the more dangerous topics, although this writer is concentrating on lyrics rather than form.
3 posted on 12/05/2009 5:42:49 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: NYer

Good hymns are ones that the general public can actually sing and make them sound decent- bad hymns are ones that require a professional voice to order to sound like anything.

“veni veni Emmanuel” is a good Catholic hymn as it covers a very modest range of notes, is easy to learn and has a slow enough tempo that the non-professional singers in the pews are able to keep up with it.


4 posted on 12/05/2009 5:46:19 AM PST by I_Like_Spam
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To: NYer

As an evangelical Protestant, I still tend to forget that the Roman Catholic Church has its congregation singing hymns at times. I thought that congregational hymn singing was the venue of Protestant churches alone. Anyhow, can anyone out there tell me when the Roman Catholic church began this practice? My Roman Catholic friends say about 10 years ago. Is that true? The article was an excellent one on a subject that is still hotly debated in Protestant circles. So much of the contemporary worship style found in evangelical churches is comprised of second rate songs instead of the glorious historic hymns of the Church. It is interesting to see a Roman Catholic on board with this discussion.


5 posted on 12/05/2009 6:06:01 AM PST by sueuprising
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To: sueuprising; Desdemona
I still tend to forget that the Roman Catholic Church has its congregation singing hymns at times.

As far as I can recall, this practice began, following Vatican Council II. That would be 40+ years ago.

6 posted on 12/05/2009 6:09:31 AM PST by NYer ("One Who Prays Is Not Afraid; One Who Prays Is Never Alone" - Benedict XVI)
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To: NYer

I wouldn’t mind the flower-child, feel good songs so much if they were sung OUTSIDE of Mass ONLY. Not in the church - maybe in the school or church hall. At Mass, I want my mind & spirit lifted, not my hands-a-clappin’!


7 posted on 12/05/2009 6:12:21 AM PST by NewCenturions
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To: NYer; sueuprising
I still tend to forget that the Roman Catholic Church has its congregation singing hymns at times.

As far as I can recall, this practice began, following Vatican Council II. That would be 40+ years ago.

Um, well, I'm not really sure, but considering that a good number of the hymns from the German hymnals were composed in the 18th century, I'd say the practice has been around for a while. In this archdiocese, I hear tell that there was hymn singing before Vat II - and hymnals that predate it can still be found in the choir lofts. There's some great material there, too.

Hymn singing has always been around in some form, maybe not all the time, though. What hasn't is the congregation joining in the Mass parts themselves, unless one of the 16 standard chant Masses were used. In the English speaking world, those have been ignored and they're really not that hard. Where you need people who know what they are doing is the special occasion Mass. That was the real realm of the pro-level choirs.

8 posted on 12/05/2009 6:22:16 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: NYer

Anything but 7-11: Seven words sung eleven times.


9 posted on 12/05/2009 6:25:14 AM PST by randita (Chains you can bereave in.)
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To: I_Like_Spam
bad hymns are ones that require a professional voice to order to sound like anything.

Bad hymns are bad hymns. Pro-level voices, phrasing and all that jazz don't change that and frequently can't make it sound any better. Some ephemera is just that.

10 posted on 12/05/2009 6:26:22 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: I_Like_Spam
“veni veni Emmanuel” is a good Catholic hymn as it covers a very modest range of notes, is easy to learn and has a slow enough tempo that the non-professional singers in the pews are able to keep up with it.

Depends on the tempo the organist sets.

11 posted on 12/05/2009 6:28:30 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: NYer

I generally agree with the author on every point except the last one. I don’t find anything elevating about the use of Elizabethan era English when addressing God.


12 posted on 12/05/2009 6:46:29 AM PST by Varda
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To: NYer; sueuprising
Okay, so I checked with the local memory for all things pre-VatII and that source says that “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” was about all that people sang. I guess since it's the recessional for Benediction. But, it's amazing how many people know so many other hymns and chants even though they weren't in the choirs.
13 posted on 12/05/2009 7:23:27 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: Desdemona; I_Like_Spam
“veni veni Emmanuel” is a good Catholic hymn

Depends on the tempo the organist sets.

At our church this one is sung with guitars. My husband calls it the "Bonanza" version.

14 posted on 12/05/2009 7:29:28 AM PST by workerbee (If you vote for Democrats, you are engaging in UnAmerican Activity.)
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To: workerbee
At our church this one is sung with guitars. My husband calls it the "Bonanza" version.

Technically, it's a chant and should be sung a cappella. You might mention that to whoever does the music planning. It's easy enough, the pitch won't drop.

Sometimes, I wonder where "musicians" heads are.

15 posted on 12/05/2009 7:33:27 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: NYer

There are no “Good” hymns.


16 posted on 12/05/2009 7:37:14 AM PST by trisham (Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.)
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To: Desdemona

Too many of the musicians, IMHO, believe Mass is just an opportunity to show off their “range”.


17 posted on 12/05/2009 7:38:47 AM PST by workerbee (If you vote for Democrats, you are engaging in UnAmerican Activity.)
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To: NYer

Bad hymns are published by Oregon Catholic Press.

That is all.


18 posted on 12/05/2009 8:15:06 AM PST by markomalley (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus)
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To: workerbee
Too many of the musicians, IMHO, believe Mass is just an opportunity to show off their “range”.

There is that, particularly among the set that has no other outlet. Sad really, when with a bit of work, they could increase their competence and lose some of the need to show off.

19 posted on 12/05/2009 9:02:32 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: trisham
There are no “Good” hymns.

They're all bad?

20 posted on 12/05/2009 9:03:15 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: markomalley
Bad hymns are published by Oregon Catholic Press.

GIA publishes their fair share.

Seriously, the last time I looked in an OCP music issue, there was a lot of decent stuff in there. That doesn't mean that it's programmed, but it's there, including a couple chant Masses that every country on Earth, except the US, knows. The thing about OCP is that they use a survey of music directors usage to determine what they put in the music issue, so, it's sort of rigged to include the tunes that are there. It doesn't matter if it's written for the voice at all.

21 posted on 12/05/2009 9:08:59 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: Desdemona; NYer
Can't disagree with any of this!

Good hymns focus on God -- theocentric and theological song, addressing God and invoking Him as Trinity, Pure Perfection, and First Cause of creation.
 
Good hymns use words and themes from Scripture or Tradition -- Every good hymn doubles as a Bible lesson, or as an encapsulation of some patristic or otherwise traditional theme. Its author looks for inspiration to the Gospels or Psalms, or to the Church's spiritual legacy.
 
Good hymns treat transcendent concepts -- A good hymn, like good spirituality or theology, is marked by a tension between heaven and earth, by a both/and character that is at once richly temporal and richly eternal. Often it moves thematically from creation to heaven, from earthly to eschatological
 
Good hymns employ sacred diction -- hymns with sacred diction directly enhance our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass by reminding us that, for a time, we have left the ordinary world behind, and entered into a holy presence where common words are inadequate.
 
 

22 posted on 12/05/2009 9:12:08 AM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: sueuprising

You should come to my church where everyone sings!

Even those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket — and that is OK.

“Lift a joyful voice unto the Lord.”

It doesn’t say a “good” voice, but a “Joyful” one.


23 posted on 12/05/2009 9:14:23 AM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: Salvation

One of the things that should be mentioned, is to not confuse a hymn with a song. Minor technical point, but a hymn is verse after verse. I’m not sure that the “bad” literature that so many people dislike falls into that category.


24 posted on 12/05/2009 9:16:14 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: markomalley

I agree with you in principle.

I would keep encouraging everyone to keep emailing them. In the new song book there are MORE traditional hymns.

The more people that ask for them — the more OCP will take out the old yuck and put in REAL hymns.

Just type OCP in yahoo search.


25 posted on 12/05/2009 9:17:37 AM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: markomalley

And believe me, I have emailed them again and again. Someone else pick up the musical baton please! FReep them!


26 posted on 12/05/2009 9:20:03 AM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: Desdemona

There are no “good” hymns.


27 posted on 12/05/2009 9:36:41 AM PST by trisham (Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.)
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To: trisham

It would be helpful if you could explain.


28 posted on 12/05/2009 9:44:09 AM PST by Desdemona (True Christianity requires open hearts and open minds - not blind hatred.)
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To: trisham

What my parish has done is we steal the evangelical’s and use their hymns along with the ‘proper book’. I’m quite fond of them for that reason.


29 posted on 12/05/2009 9:45:00 AM PST by BenKenobi
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To: NYer
So is "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" a good hymn or a bad hymn? It praises God but has much "me" in it.

To my ear it is a GREAT hymn. But then, I am not a "good" man let alone a holy man. Maybe a I have a tin ear spiritually.

30 posted on 12/05/2009 9:45:45 AM PST by behzinlea
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To: BenKenobi

Heh. :)


31 posted on 12/05/2009 9:47:36 AM PST by trisham (Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.)
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To: Desdemona
There were other hymns pre-Vatican II.

O Salutaris Hostia (at Benediction)
Tantum ergo (also at Benediction)
Mother dear, o pray for me
The Lourdes hymn
And others

Plus Christmas carols--Silent Night, Adeste Fideles, Angels we have heard on high, O come, o come Emmanuel, etc.

32 posted on 12/05/2009 10:36:50 AM PST by Verginius Rufus
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To: NYer

It goes back farther than that...But it was mostly entrance and exit songs.


33 posted on 12/05/2009 1:11:12 PM PST by TASMANIANRED
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To: NYer

One thing tyhat bothers me is that musicians are so easily bored. They keep trying new stuff. Even bad hims are preferable to ones that only the choir is familiar with. People can handle a song if they can get to practice it. After an “ACTS” retreat, about fifty guys sang a hymn acapella at our Church, Don’t remember the hymn, but hearing that many bass and baritone voices singing in time unison was great.


34 posted on 12/05/2009 8:58:31 PM PST by RobbyS (Pray with the suffering souls.)
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