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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Where is Duke Street?

The Triumph of Bad Hymns

by Gary D. Penkala

An unfortunate shift has occurred in congregational repertoire over the last 20 years or so. "Standard" hymnody, once the core of the people's music, has become the fringe element, the so-called "spice" with which the progressive music director peppers his almost exclusive contemporary play-list. My idea of the hymn spectrum is that standard hymnody, perhaps from Worship III (e.g. "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," "Praise to the Lord," "For All the Saints," "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," "Holy, Holy, Holy") belongs squarely in the middle of the repertoire. Most of the congregational hymns should be drawn from such titles. To one side of the spectrum are the glorious and venerable Gregorian chant hymns [see CNP's Booklets of Chant]. To the other side are the fresh and invigorating new hymns of today [see CNP's Hymn Resource Collection]. To my great dismay, this seems no longer to be the case in many (most?) parishes. The popularist, folk-style hymns, perhaps from Gather, have become the "core" hymnody (using that latter term loosely). To the side once occupied by chant (which is totally ignored), the "with-it" music director now puts a sprinkling of "traditional" hymns, often still played on piano and guitar. To the other side, one finds radical new pieces, often with slovenly or heretical texts and music in the ubiquitous singer-songwriter form.

Because these "hymns" are sung and well known, music directors are eager to spend parish money for hymnals and octavos based on this repertoire. Publishers are eager to promote, solicit and sell the music to meet the demand. The ugly spiral has begun.

What passes for Catholic "hymnody" today is generally a low-grade, sub-par mixture of bad texts set to insipid music, or dull texts set to ghastly music. For the most part, the offending format and focus are the same: we sing "as God" or sing "about us."

Many contemporary hymns use what might be called a "Voice of God" format; in essence they use Scriptural texts that "quote God." This is very unlike any of the other congregational texts in the liturgy, which tend to be addressed to God. An important aspect of Catholic liturgy is the dialogue that exists: God speaks to us in the Scripture readings and in the homily. We respond in the prayers, acclamations and hymns at Mass. Certain hymns ("Voice of God" style) can violate this dialogue as the congregation not only listens to God in Scripture, but also sings God's part rather than its own. The informed music director will avoid this style as much as possible. Examples of "Voice of God" hymns:
  • Be Not Afraid (Bob Dufford)
  • Here I Am, Lord (Dan Schutte) particularly the verses
  • Hosea (Gregory Norbet, OSB)
  • I Am the Bread of Life (Suzanne Toolan, RSM)
  • I Have Loved You (Michael Joncas)
  • Table of Plenty (Dan Schutte)
  • Take and Eat (Michael Joncas)
  • The Supper of the Lord (Laurence Rosania)
  • This Is My Body (revised Charles Frischmann)
  • We Have Been Told (David Haas)
  • We Will Rise Again (David Haas)
  • You Are Mine (David Haas) particularly the verses
There's another style of music that tends to distort the focus in our liturgy. Many modern song texts have the people singing to themselves and about themselves. Being in the presence of God - and receiving that presence in the sacramental reality of the Eucharist - should lead us to thoughts of the Almighty. This deep sense of mystery and awe makes the banquet we share more than a social meal, more than a simple gathering of friends. Music that emphasizes "us" over "Him" runs the risk of shifting focus from the Creator to the created. Some examples of "us-centered" hymns:
  • Anthem (Tom Conry)
  • Christ, Be Our Light (Bernadette Farrell)
  • City of God (Dan Schutte)
  • Gather Us In (Marty Haugen) note that God is never mentioned in this text
  • Now We Remain (David Haas)
  • One Bread, One Body (John Foley)
  • Sing A New Church (Delores Dufner)
  • We Remember (Marty Haugen)
These two phenomena have entered hymnody only recently (within the last 30 years). Standard hymns tend to be fully "God-focused," for example:
  • From All That Dwell below the Skies
  • Glorious Things of Thee Are Apoken
  • Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
  • Now Thank We All Our God
  • O God, Our Help in Ages Past
  • Praise to the Lord
A great deal of the modern hymns in both the OCP Music Issue / Breaking Bread and in the J.S. Paluch Seasonal Missalette are in the "Voice of God" or "Sing of Us" style. A bound, standard hymnal (like Worship III) has much less of these type hymns. Although it can still be done, choosing good hymns from the OCP and Paluch resources is often quite a challenge. We orthodox music directors must make the effort, at least until the day when the majority of Catholic parishes actually respect their congregations enough to place a decent hymnal in their hands. To continue to sing about us in God's voice is to grow yet another generation with a musical heritage grounded in rocky soil.
When the sun rises and scorches the sprouts, they will wither for lack of roots.   Matthew 13:6

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