Some New Hymns: Why These?

The CMAA page of English Hymns in the Commons has some interesting work. Please have a look and tell us all what you think of the texts. Jeffrey touted it on his latest post on his new blog asking why Catholics keep singing poor music. I’ve visited this page before, but took a closer look this morning.

It fascinates me that the movement that touts the sung propers to the near-exclusion of everything else (unlike the GIRM) would gravitate to the hymn form instead of the antiphon-plus-verses structure. It might look more like the St Louis Jesuits and most contemporary fare, but let’s all concede that structurally, contemporary music is much closer to the stated ideal for the Eucharist than hymnody.

At the very least, I would think reform2 hymn writers would use an antiphon from the propers, then offer a metrical version of a psalm text. That could be developed into a repertoire that would overtake the dominance of hymnody in non-contemporary circles.

So I looked at a promising title like Vincent Uher’s “Bright Torches in the Darkest Night,” but was way disappointed:

Bright torches in the darkest night,
The saints of God as lights yet shine.
Lord let our witness rise with theirs,
And through their prayers give grace divine.

A dimly burning wick were we,
But now our faith fills with thy fire.
For thou art all consuming love
Thy perfect will our hearts desire.

Unite thy saints through every age,
And cleansed from sin lift us above.
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
One God in glory, one in love

A nice thought: saints are torches, but we are dim candles. I don’t know that light rises as much as it spreads, but I would have hoped that the image continued at the end of the first verse instead of that questionable phrase suggesting the saints as a source of grace.

Second verse distraction: the  singular wick and the plural “we.” Third verse distraction: “cleanse,” a water image, instead of keeping the fire burning. I would have liked to see the thread of this hymn developed a bit more: four or five verses and the incorporation of something of the title’s metaphor in the final doxology.

Kathy Pluth has a catechetical hymn that starts:

O taste and you will see
the goodness of the Lord:
humanity, divinity,
the Body and the Blood.

I’ve never liked the “preachy” texts, be they “The Mass Is Ended” or “Anthem.” At the very least, the assembly could be singing first person plural. Oh, wait. That would make the words about “us.” I see why this text is sung from the point of view of the cantor or choir.

And later on:

To those who would be filled,
this food is life indeed.
To give it Life Himself was killed,
and we from death are freed.

Some concern about what gets capitalized and what doesn’t. I’m more concerned about the texts being pretty heavy with “small” words. Could we “show” instead of “tell”?

This material is decent enough, but not up to the standards of today’s published hymn texts, work by people like Genevieve Glen or Ralph Wright or other post-conciliar folks. The tunes are probably a little better than texts at CMAA, but overall, you’ll get what you pay for. The CMAA material is free. And you have to probe to find a questionable theological expression. And with four-part harmonizations, it doesn’t look like Gather or Spirit & Song. And maybe that says what it’s supposed to say.

Commentariat, please look over the texts and let’s see what you think. My intent here is not to pile on Mr Uher or Ms Pluth. Will crowding out the publishers and their editorial committees give us a larger body of mediocrity? Or does the cream have the chance to rise to the top? Do you see any cream in the CMAA Commons?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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11 Responses to Some New Hymns: Why These?

  1. TF says, “A nice thought: saints are torches, but we are dim candles. I don’t know that light rises as much as it spreads,…”
    *Todd- about the first phrase analysis, was there a bit of snark in the “but we are dim candles? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that wasn’t your intent. To the second statement, is it really much of a stretch for an astronomer to image light as a waves that do indeed “rise”? Fire spreads, light transmits.

    “…(B)ut I would have hoped that the image continued at the end of the first verse instead of that questionable phrase suggesting the saints as a source of grace.”
    *You have rightly chided me over the years for not thoroughly reading or comprehending small points. Perhaps this is an occasion to return the favor. Uher’s text in the third line of the stanza is irrefutably a petition to the Lord to offer us grace through our intercessory relationship with the Saints. There’s no suggestion at all that saints are progenitors of grace imparted.

    “This material is decent enough, but not up to the standards of today’s published hymn texts, work by people like Genevieve Glen or Ralph Wright or other post-conciliar folks. The tunes are probably a little better than texts at CMAA, but overall, you’ll get what you pay for.”

    *This is an amazing and, I think, very cynical conclusion, Todd. No one needs to remind you that our hardbound and pulp hymnals are rifled with texts (that we pay for heavily once or every single year) that are didactic homages to ourselves, to “Women of the Church,” to the Spirit of V2 in that we “gather and remember….our silent past, in church a voiceless throng,” and, oh, “yeah, Your grace is enough, yeah your grace is enough for me!” No, we’re not getting all that we paid for, we’re getting a bit more bathwater than baby, Todd. But I don’t feel it necessary for you to insinuate free equals lesser quality any more than I should bash OCP for some fairly obvious bone-headed editorial decisions over decades.

    • Todd says:

      Maybe. I don’t think the line about saints and grace is really such a problem. It seems a bit hypocritical for conservatives at CMAA to apply different standards, that’s all.

      I thought of the Easter Vigil, among other liturgies where light fills a space rather than rises to God. Smoke rises. Prayers rise. From their perspectve on Earth, astronomers experience light that “falls,” by the way.

      I like the image of torches and candles, and I rather wish Mr Uher had developed that with an image of the interior light of a church, or the surrounding of an assembly by saints in windows, perhaps also lit. I thought the text was okay, but it could have been so much more developed.

      I think we both realize the difference in music and text that has been composed together, and the acknowledged disconnect by design of many hymn texts and tunes. I’m no more inclined to agree with you on your quotes without music than I would be to criticize the echo in Wondrous Love of “O my soul.”

      More to the point, Charles, which of these hymns on CMAA’s Commons page would you recommend? I admit I only browsed about eight of them. Did I miss some really excellent stuff? I’m very aware of God’s frequent choice of the underdog, so is there a David or a Mary doing excellent work for CMAA’s hymn commons?

  2. Tony Barr says:

    Can’t agree more! I was studying the ‘call-response’ model in France in the mid-later 60s and saw not only the dynamism of the dialogue from of text, but also the interval technique of the music.

    But to give hymnody a fair voice too, around that time I began translating the hymn texts of Huub Oosterhuis and even at that early age I found a gold-mine of tetxs suitable for celebrating gathering, word and eucharist, and ‘dismissal’ which even to this day continuen to relegate most of English catholic hymnody to the dust.

    I learned a lot personally from Gelineau, Deiss, Huijbers in those days, and contionue to write texts which I perceive as next generation to Oosterhuis. WhetherbHuub would agree is another issue, but he and I have spent enough time together for me to know what I’m doing.

    I do not write theocentric texts. My texts begin with human memory, fears, longings. They are norurished by a hope, a dream, that because of our past, we do indeed have a future.

    I know, at the annual composers forum (hosted ny John Foley), I am regarded as ‘interesting’ by my fellow composers, and as ‘refreshingly different’ by others whose opinions I value (obviously!). But alas, the publishers have a different eye, and not necessarily te bottom line, and the marketability about ‘refreshingly different’.

    This issue, re. musical forms and text genres of worship, is most dear to my heart. I’d spend the rst of my life in dialgue within anyone who cares to engage me, as long as I can still take the garbage out on a Sunday night.

  3. Well, IMO, one “Mary” would be the aforementioned Kathy Pluth.

  4. Todd says:

    I’ve been more impressed with her recent work I’ve seen on her blog. The two examples on the Commons page, I found less artistic.

    In your opinion, what is her best hymn text?

  5. Many. I’m quite fond of her translation of “Adoro te.”

  6. Todd says:

    I did see this on her blog a few months ago. I would probably use it instead of the Hopkins translation. And my only quibble is the repeat of the rhyming word “believe” in the second verse–that seemed awkward.

  7. Pingback: Adoro Te « Catholic Sensibility

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