In Praise of Muscular Church Music

In Praise of Muscular Church Music October 31, 2015

This Sunday, the entrance hymn at all our Masses is a classic: “For All the Saints.” Most of us are familiar with the first verse or two—”For all the saints, who from their labors rest…” but rarely get to hear much more.  I was curious about the rest of the hymn and looked it up. Turns out there are several verses.

Let’s just say this is a song that has clearly worked out regularly at the gym:

3. For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
4. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
5. For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
6. For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
7. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
8. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
9. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
10. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
11. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

This clearly comes from a different era; Wikipedia notes it was first published in 1864. It’s muscular, and it’s fearless. I’d almost say it is triumphalist—not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is a hymn that proudly stands its ground. It’s almost epic.

It started my mind thinking about other robust hymns from our canon, like a personal favorite, “Praise to the Lord”: 

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Now to his temple draw near,
Join me in glad adoration!

Or the hymn we are using as our recessional this weekend, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”:

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
ye patriarchs and prophets blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
all saints triumphant, raise the song: [Refrain]

You just don’t hear music like that anymore, and people just don’t craft lyrics with that kind of triumphant, unapologetic, chest-thumping zeal.

Contrast that with, say, “Gather Us In”: 

Here in this place new light is streaming,
now is the darkness vanished away;
see in this space our fears and our dreamings
brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken,
gather us in, the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise at the sound of our name.

In a word: meh.

It seems to me as our churches have gotten plainer, our hymns have gotten smaller and the sentiments they express are ethereal, squishy and bland. Our musical diet has gone from steak and potatoes to tofu and kale.

Memo to church composers: We need music that rallies and uplifts. Give me a hymn that will raise the rafters, raise your blood pressure and raise the hair on the back of your neck.






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