church Music – 3

OK. Now about the music for hymns. After analyzing the words we look at the music. The simple question is, “Is the music for this hymn accessible to the people, is it fairly easy to learn , is it singable for a congregation, is it of a suitable sacred style and does it lift the heart?

First of all, is it accessible? What I mean by this is that some music, though worthy, is too high brow, too antique or too much from an operatic or choral style to be readily accessible to a congregation. I would argue, for instance that the tune from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy–to which we sing the hymn ‘Joyful Joyful we Adore Thee’ is not a good hymn tune because, when sung properly you need a trained choir in a choral setting to really carry it off. When sung as a hymn it is simply exhausting and congregations already reluctant to sing are scared off. Other music is inaccessible because it is based on too complicated a form of polyphony or gregorian chant. Some is inaccessible because it is archaic or overly gloomy.

The second two points go together. Is the hymn tune singable and fairly easy to learn? A good hymn tune has a reliable dum de dum de dum kind of rhythm which is recognizable, singable and easy to learn. Hymns that fail this test were often written by singer songwriters as ballads or solo pieces. They may be very worthy as solos and contribute well to worship, but they don’t make good hymns. A song like Our God is an Awesome God has worshipful words which inspire, but the tune of the verse is virtually unsingable as a hymn. This is because the song was first written for a Christian pop band to sing with a soloist. That’s okay, but it doesn’t make a good congregational hymn. Another example of a good solo piece but a bad hymn is ‘Make Me A Channel of Your Peace’. The tune is irregular and wandering in order to fit the words of St Francis’ prayer. Good for a soloist with a guitar at a youth prayer and worship meeting. Not good as a hymn for a congregation. Many modern hymns fall into this category and people then wonder why no one sings. They don’t sing because it’s not a hymn.

The third point condemns most of the modern church music written today. The question is, “Is the hymn in a suitable sacred style?” Modern hymn writers, in an attempt to be relevant, and in ignorance of the sacred tradition write hymns in all sorts of contemporary styles. I have heard hymns sung during communion that sounded like love songs from Broadway musicals. I have heard hymns that sound like protest marching anthems, Elton John numbers, songs by Abba, sound tracks from musical comedies or just bland muzak. I’ve heard gospel blues harmonies, polka, country Western, jazz riffs and rhythm and blues numbers. I’ve heard psalms sung in a sultry nightclub style, an Ethel Merman broadway style and even some sacred songs crooned through a hand held microphone.

None of these styles evoke the sacred. They are entertainment based and are the absolute nadir of contemporary Catholic worship. The church has stated that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony are to be given preference. This is not actually difficult for ordinary choirs to achieve. It simply means going on a course and learning your stuff and rejecting the temptation to be relevant or cool or up to date. When we go to Mass we need something different from what we usually hear, not something the same. The worst thing about mimicking the worldly style is that few parishes have the resources to do it well so what we end up with is not only a pop band or a country western group or a broadway style musical set, but a bad pop band, country western group and broadway chorus. It is this lack of attention and deliberate rejection of any sacred style of music that is worst about our church music and it is something that very few choir directors and people in the pew have ever thought about one little bit.

Finally, does the hymn tune lift the heart?  This is, of course, more subjective. However it is true that hymn tunes with a certain rhythm and genius do inspire and lift the heart more than others. I will leave it to the more professional musicians to tell us why this is the case. I expect it has to do with the key the hymn tune is written in, the rhythm and the lilt of the tune. Whatever the reasons, we should discuss which hymn tunes actually lift the heart and inspire and make sure we use these along with words which communicate Catholic truth and turn the people to the proper worship of God.

Tomorrow I’ll finish with the question of whether we ought to have hymns at Mass at all.

  • W4KBM

    "Tomorrow I'll finish with the question of whether we ought to have hymns at Mass at all."Amen to that! I absolutely agree with your criteria for hymn choices, but I firmly believe that one of the bigger liturgical problems of today is the neglect of the proper chants (introit, etc.) for the mass. Even when sung in English to the Simplex version of the chant, they are beautiful and convey the theme of the mass and I feel that the laity are truly cheated when they are omitted. Of course, there is no reason that hymns and propers can't both be used like they are at St. Mary's.Also, a worthy tradition has been for the choir to sing the Vespers office hymn of the season as a recessional – Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli or Salve Regina depending on the season.

  • Karen

    Thank you for your discussion of hymns and Mass music. I think much–very much!–of the trouble with the modern hymns is caused by their being rough drafts, not finished works, which for some inexplicable reason got published much too soon. (Golden Word Syndrome and its close cousin Big Star Disease come to mind here.)I will admit, the reason I have no interest at all in joining my parish choir is because I wouldn't be caught dead singing some of the stuff they emit. And it's gotten a lot worse in the last year or so, I almost wonder if they're trying to use every single hideous thing in Praise & Worship at least once–is it a goodbye to the icky bowdlerized thing? One can hope.

  • Liz

    One of the complaints we have lately is that we are getting a tremendous number of very, very Protestant hymns. Last week we got A Mighty Fortress is Our God (certainly the theme song of the Reformation) and The Church's One Foundation (written against Peter as the rock). Our current missalettes are just full of this sort of thing. We used to have hymnals that had more traditional Catholic music. The current one is mostly a mix of Michael Joncas, Marty Haugen, Weston Priory, et al and Protestant hymnody. I think the cradle Catholics don't much notice, but as converts we really do. Also we've switched peculiarly from mostly Grail psalms to NAB psalms, just in time for the lectionary to start using the Grail psalms exclusively. Not only that, but most of the songs have also been politically corrected, no "men," "brothers," etc. allowed.Could we please have real Catholic music??? How long is it going to take for OCP to get on board with the reform of the renewal.

  • Paul H.

    Fr.,Thank you for your thoughtful comments on this important issue. As a seminarian, I fear that seminaries are not adequately preparing priests to do a good job with parish music. My local seminary–one of the more "recovered" ones in the U.S.– is probably exceptional in that it has a schola that sings gregorian chant from time to time (once a month). But even so the normal practice for daily and Sunday Masses is to have 4 hymns and no chant whatsoever. (Many of the hymns are good, though some aren't.)I would imagine that a proposal to sing more chant at seminary Masses would be met with resistance: singing chant is seen as impossible for the typical parish. "We should rather," the argument goes, "be prepared for the kind of music that WILL be sung in our assigned parish–not the kind of music that OUGHT to be sung there." Of course, with that attitude, the sad state of the liturgy in the U.S. will never improve. Yet even good seminary professors and rectors respond that there are other subjects which must take priority over chant: "there is hardly time for adequate training in theology and catechesis as it is; how can we be expected to squander precious credit hours on teaching the Church's beautiful but obsolescent music form to seminarians?"How important do you think it is to promote gregorian chant and polyphony in the parish setting? Should it be set aside for the time being so that more pressing issues (e.g. catechesis) can be addressed, or is the beautiful and reverent celebration of the Liturgy central to solving the Church's current crisis? Also, do you have any suggestions for how I, as a new seminarian who knows how to sing chant, could help?God bless you, Father!-Paul

  • kkollwitz

    Based in large part on singability I like the composer Isaac Watts. Watts made it his business to produce hymns with lyrics and tunes that an average congregation could both sound good singing and also understand.He wrote Joy to the World, When I Survey The Wondrous Cross, and O God Our Help in Ages past.

  • Anneg

    Amen, Fr. This weekend for Mass with started with "All are Welcome", ended with "Let There Be Peace on Earth" with garbage in between. I'm trying to figure out how to print and distribute these articles without getting kicked out of the parish. I'll keep praying. AnneG

  • Anneg

    One cynical comment, I believe that lots that gets passed off to us in the missalettes are there because the publisher owns the rights and can fill the book cheaply. It is a business decision, not a liturgical one.

  • Babs

    As an 60-year-old cradle Catholic, I have to say that my recollection of singing chant at Mass, is that the congregation didn't. I was in the choir from 4th grade on,and I remember that the choirs sang the ordinary parts of the Mass — the Kyrie, Gloria, etc. – sometimes in chant. And I sang many a Requiem Mass in chant. But I can't say that the congregation did so. The priest sang the introit, and other propers. I am of the opinion that while we certainly need more worthy music at Mass, and no heretical hymns, it must be a slow, steady process, with plenty of education of both the clergy, and laity. Introducing Latin without sufficient understanding as to its importance (and I have to confess while I love singing Latin, I'm not sure that I understand reclaiming it), will do more to alienate people, than bring them to a great love for the beauty of worship that is well done.I have a long history of singing sacred music,both in concert, and at Mass, but also appreciate some of the hymn styles that I've seen dismissed in this series of posts. Music of many styles can bring about the same feelings of ecstasy for some folks that chant does for others. I gave up singing with the choir years ago because I would not sing heresy, or poorly written music. I certainly won't sing it in the pew, either.

  • cricket

    Whenever we sing the Beethoven at church, I always sing in my pretend chairman:Friday shiner gooter funken,Tockter us Eleeeeeeeseeum.We're baytrayten fire trunken,Him leeshay dine hiiiiiiiilig tum.Dine a zobber bin den veeder,vosh dee mode a shtreng guh tile(t).Allah mention we're den brooder,Vooe dine sanfter Flooooooogle while(t).And I always start "Allah" a good beat before everyone else in the room.

  • Rachel Gohlman

    After 3 years, I quit the church choir. Why? Because when I suggested good, traditional hymns they always shot me down. I was regarded a “snob” because I asked that we do some Latin chant. I have been a Catholic for 5 years, in church choirs for 4 years and I still don’t know many of the basic Latin hymns.