A number of years ago, we looked at contemporary hymnals, mainly Glory & Praise. My premise was that one positive innovation offered by contemporary genres was a deeper connection to Scripture. Another was a recovery of the antiphon-verse format of traditional Gregorian chant.
In the mid-80’s, much was made of GIA’s offering of the third edition of Worship. I’ve never served a parish that used it, but I’ve always had a copy on my shelf.
Maybe the rest of the Catholic organist world has moved on to something new under the sun, but I thought it might be illustrative to review its hymns and songs. When I was on retreat this past week, it was used for a few Masses at St Martin’s Abbey. Paging through was a nice review in some ways.
My methodology here is simple. In chunks of about twenty-five, I’ll look at how the texts fit in these categories:
- mention of Scripture
- antiphon + verse format or stanzas
- how they address God (usually that will be second person “You” or third person “God” or “Him.”
- how they address people (“I” or “we” or “you”)
That last point is what got me thinking this week, a distraction if you will from thoughts of retreat. The hymn we were singing referred to worshipers as “you.” I found that distracting, like the hymnographer was preaching at me. (I won’t tell you who is was.)
I began with hymn #502, ” I Sing The Mighty Power of God,” the first one after the selections for liturgical seasons and feasts.
Here’s what I found as I surveyed up to number 526:
- nine pieces cited Scripture explicitly. Three were the shortest Psalm, the 117th. Interesting.
- two others were clear paraphrases, a spiritual “Go Down Moses” and a paraphrased Dakota Hymn “Many and Great” which owes much to Psalm 8.
- A few were honored texts from saints, like the Te Deum (“Holy God”) or the Liturgy of St James (“Let All Mortal Flesh”)
- As for structure, twenty-one were clearly hymns with stanzas, but one “All Creatures” sort of has a refrain.
- Three pieces had refrains/choruses/antiphons–however you want to call it.
- One was Taize.
One thing that surprised and pleased me was that seventeen of these pieces referred to people in the first person plural, like “Joyful Joyful We Adore You.” One text and writer I want to like offered “The Stars Declare His Glory.” That Timothy Dudley-Smith text is a skilled paraphrase of Psalm 19. The phrases are thoughtful and bring freshness to the Scripture passage. The writer moves freely from plural in the second verse (“The rising sun renews the race that measures all our days,”) and third (“A law of love within our hearts”) to singular in the last (“My Rock, and my redeeming Lord, in all my words and ways.”). Maybe that’s not bad, but it makes the categories a bit blurry.
Maybe most disappointing is that fully 16 of these 25 hymns do not address God directly, in the second person. They speak of God as “God” or “Lord” or the implied “Him,” as if he weren’t part of the conversation. Then when we sing of “Glory be to God in heaven, peace to those who love him well” in one verse, then “Only Son … Now with him in triumph seated–For your mercy, Lord, we pray” in the next, I wonder about the wordsmithing here. An otherwise well-regarded writer has mixed things up in a simple two-stanza hymn, and for what? Are we telling about God, or asking him something? Only three hymns jump between God as “you” and “Him.” The other six in this survey address God directly in the third person. Interesting that these were mostly older texts.
What do you think?
I miss Worship II.
Soapbox PS: Regarding “ODE TO JOY” – it’s a hymn felony to adjust the rhythm of Beethoven’s original melody. That is, to eliminate the anticipation of the first note in the last line. The whole thing pivots on that anticipation. It’s not like congregations can’t sing it.
“All Creatures of Our God and King” is an expanded version of the “Canticle of the Three Children” from the Book of Daniel, as well as being a hymn by St. Francis of Assisi.
The “Te Deum” is one of the Church’s great liturgical hymns, not just a saint text. Same thing with “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence;” except that it’s also quoting Habakkuk 2:20.
(Um, is it just me, or do hymnbooks tend to leave out a lot of Scripture citations from their notes? Not that I don’t like nice surprises when studying the Bible, but….)
I see that. Agreed. Thanks for the assist on this.
It occurs to me that a much-pilloried “They’ll Know We Are Christians” also cites the Bible, but I don’t think I would classify it as a biblical setting.
My criticism of “classical” hymnals, before and after Vatican II, would be the lack of reliance on Scripture. With a nod to Liam, I don’t know that Worship II would fare well on that point, but I could be wrong. If I inch up these 25 songs to 11 biblically-based, it still seems contemporary genres have it all over organ hymnody. G&P is well over 60%.
I should also mention that in context of a monastery that chants or recites twenty-some texts a day, that one or two hymns not based on the Bible are not as big a deal as at Sunday worship in a parish where the Mass is often the only time many (or most) Catholics are exposed to the Bible.