After our brisk discussion here and elsewhere about “You Are Near,” I decided to ask the composer himself for some background on the piece. He was kind enough to return my e-mail this morning and suggested I relay it to my readers. There’s a little bit on the genesis of the song, but also Dan Schutte’s own take on the use of the tetragrammaton, and some of the background on his use of the Jerusalem Bible.
I thank him for bringing some light to the discussion, noting two things that struck me. First, the use of Y— was intentional on the part of the JB scholars, but not without some thought. It was a more accurate (sound familiar?) rendering of the Hebrew original. Second, in the use of our acclamation Alleluia, or Hallelu-Yah, we’re already uttering a shortened form of the Name. Heh. Even the Latin is corrupted.
I offer the bulk of his e-mail unedited:
There certainly has been a flurry of discussion arising from the recent directive from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. And, as is evident on your website, much of it has been centered around my song, “You Are Near.” I suppose I should receive that as a compliment.
I wrote this piece in 1970, as a very young man. I’m afraid there’s no special story behind it. I do remember beginning it while on retreat and working on it for several months before I was satisfied. When I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1966, the Jerusalem Bible had just been published. It was the long-awaited project of some of the world’s most respected scripture scholars. The translation was modern, in the best sense of that word, and attempted to be true to the poetic character of the Biblical songs, especially the Psalms. I first learned to pray the Psalms from the Jerusalem Bible. And, like you, I turned to the JB translation in considering Biblical texts my compositions.
The JB team of translators decided to use the name “Yahweh” whenever the tetragrammaton YHWH appeared in the original Hebrew text. It was certainly not a frivolous decision on their part. It might be interesting for your bloggers to read what the Editor’s Forward in the JB says about their decision:
It is in the Psalms especially that the use of the divine name Yahweh may seem unacceptable – though indeed the still stranger form Yah is in constant use in the acclamation Hallelu-Yah (Praise Yah!). It is not without hesitation that this accurate form has been used, and no doubt those who may care to use this translation of the Psalms can substitute the traditional “the Lord”. On the other hand, this would be to lose much of the flavor and meaning of the originals.
As our communal, and my own personal, sensitivity grew in the years after the writing of “You Are Near,” we came to understand that speaking the name “Yahweh” out loud was not in keeping with our long Christian tradition, and was, in fact, offensive to Jewish sisters and brothers. So after 1973 I’ve not used the name “Yahweh” in my compositions.
I’m presently working to revise the lyric of “You Are Near.” I suppose that won’t keep people from singing it the way they have for 37 years, but I feel I need to provide an “official” revised text for use at liturgy. Of course, those who make musical decisions for worship could simply choose not to sing it. There are many beautiful, well-crafted settings of Psalm 139. But, as several of your bloggers attest, “You Are Near” is a beloved favorite of many people. I can tell you that over the years I’ve received more messages about “You Are Near” — people telling me how it helped them to pray when they couldn’t, or sustained them through particularly difficult times, or helped them in their grieving — than any other of my songs. I feel privileged and humbled to be a vehicle of music that brings people to God in this way.
Thanks for asking me to share my thoughts. It’s not exactly the story you may have hoped for, but I’m sure my words will spark more blog discussion.