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.