Reviewing W4: Hymns and Mass Settings

I was reading the review of Worship 4 at PrayTell. James Frazier gives the tome high marks. Because I haven’t seen it yet, I’ll confine my comments to his review, and some thoughts about publishing.

Perhaps the time was “right” for Worship 4 from a sales perspective. I heard of a lot of parishes dumping their permanent hymnals because the Mass setting section was out-of-date. Few enough parishioners sing from the Mass section of a hymnal anyway. And given those ubiquitous MR3 cards, I’m not sure hymnal pages are put to good use in that way. I’d rather have an extra piece of good music than the new Confiteor.

One issue: hymns. Mr Frazier is most definitely pro-hymn:

One of today’s most well-regarded composers of “contemporary” music once said that four-square hymns are not appropriate for Catholic worship. I still wonder at the myopia of this statement. It implies that authentic reform in the West must follow a set of rules different from inculturation everywhere else in the world. Hymns, he would have us believe, are for Protestants, not for Catholics, even though sixteenth-century Anglicans and Lutherans were working with essentially the same Roman liturgy in their day that we are today. Why was hymnody OK for them but not for us?

I’m not sure “hymns-inappropriate” is necessarily myopic. Hymns include very good music, and I would miss some very good music if I wasn’t singing hymns. But hymns aren’t absolutely necessary. I do think GIA has gone overboard with its focus on hymns, polluting good considerations from the original Gather edition and trying to shoe-horn psalm settings and other song forms into a hymn-box. My sense is that Catholic music is diverse enough and unsettled enough that we can tolerate “intros” and other forms of musical intonation that aren’t hymn-tune introductions.

My own sense is that the antiphon-plus-verse format of both the St Louis Jesuits and the traditional propers are more familiar (today) and likely more fitting for many congregational singing moments, especially when people are in processions. Hymns have their own place, even at the Eucharist. My own sense is that 25-40% of a parish’s repertoire could be hymns. But I also believe that it’s possible to have an excellent liturgical music effort without a single strophic hymn.

Now, before I have organists jumping down my throat on this one, I will say that repertoire should always be driven by the pastoral judgment. If I were serving a community with a strong organ tradition, and that sang, say, 200 hymns and 40 songs, it would not be my mission to wean them off “Protestant” music. And possibly to the shock of my alienated friends in CMAA, I will gladly concede that songs in the “proper” form, even the propers themselves, are a quite fine way to sing the Mass, so long as everybody’s singing.

Mr Frazier doesn’t like the eight Mass settings. I don’t either, but for a wholly different reason.

But the greatest fault of the Mass settings lies in the predominance of sing-song, facilitated in many cases by the slavish use of 6/8 and 3/4 meters, often with cloying sixths and thirds.

I’m familiar with three or four of the W4 selections. None of them grabbed me.

If the time was right from a marketing perspective to sell a whole bunch of hymnals, it is totally wrong from a ministry perspective to include Mass settings in them. As I said at PrayTell, even the St Louis Jesuits in the 70’s knew better. Published congregational music must be assembly-tested–at the very least in the composer’s parish. Ideally in a few other places, too.

Printing eight mostly-untested Mass settings in a hymnal projected to last ten-plus years is a disservice. Wiser would have been a slightly less expensive and thinner hymnal, and/or an option to include two or three sets of Mass setting cards to supplement W4. That’s not to say that the W4 Mass setting composers haven’t done fine work. I would like to see these Mass settings tweaked a bit here and there to reflect a more “natural” voice of the assembly. I recently sang the revised Mass of Creation. It’s an improvement, as I would expect.

I don’t agree with Mr Frazier that a preponderance of “sing-song” is a composer’s problem. I think the fault lies with musicians–even excellent ones–who decline to put the same musicianship into the weekly congregational repertoire as they might with special music.

I say this as a person who has often played the Mass of Creation or a setting of Psalm 27 or 103 or 23 mostly on auto-pilot. I find that when I’ve had time to think about how I might play a chestnut–maybe I’m adapting to a young cantor, or a new instrumental arrangement, or even a new parish, I can often be open to new ways of presenting music.

I think many of my colleagues at the piano or organ could use a little verve and imagination when we’re playing the same old piece of pew music for the 100th or 500th time.

Anybody else get a peek at Worship 4? What are you seeing?

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About catholicsensibility

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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One Response to Reviewing W4: Hymns and Mass Settings

  1. Christian Cosas says:

    GIA handed out complimentary assembly editions at the NPM Convention for their showcase today. I haven’t had a chance to take a look at it yet, but I promise to let you know what I think. Maybe on the flight home tomorrow…

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