Too Much Deutero-Isaiah?

Two of the curious comments I read on the CMAA thread discussing my review of Worship 3 were these:

One way in which I might want to qualify (Todd’s) claim about depth would be to note a lack of breadth in G&P’s Scriptural engagement: there seems to be a strong preference for Deutero-Isaiah and a neglect of many other parts of Scripture.

I heartily agree! Thank you for saying this so clearly.

Deutero-Isaiah involves what we read today as chapters 40 through 55 of that book, a rather lyrical section attributed not to the original Isaiah, but to a post-Exile prophet/poet associated with the earlier figure. The basic message is one of mercy and comfort (Cf. Isaiah 40:1): God has rescued and saved his people and now desires their healing, restoration, and salvation.

These sixteen chapters of Isaiah are remarkable in many ways. They include four “songs” that depict a Suffering Servant that looks very much like Jesus Christ. Other lyrical passages are employed in the Liturgy of the Hours as morning canticles. Two Easter Vigil readings are taken from this section of Isaiah.

Did this “second” Isaiah just make it all up, slapping a happy face on what was, at times, a grim message from his predecessor? I don’t think so. The call of Isaiah (chapter 6), the virgin conceiving (7), the people that walked in darkness (9), the stump of Jesse (11), the Messianic banquet (25), the desert in bloom (35), and a few canticles of praise (12 and 26) have inspired not only contemporary songwriters, but also figures like George Frideric Handel.

Are nineteen Deutero-Isaiah songs (and thirty from Isaiah total) out of 243* too much? It’s more than 17 attributed to Matthew’s Gospel. Not as many as 25 from John.

In defense of the St Louis Jesuits, Carey Landry, and Gregory Norbet: many other parts of Scripture aren’t the easiest to set to music, especially law and history. And it is true that significant contemporary songs like “Hosea” and “One Bread, One Body” and “I Have Loved You” and “Jesus The Lord” look to the New Testament and to other prophets.

No doubt these Deutero-Isaiah songs are solidly in the US post-conciliar repertoire:

  • Be Not Afraid
  • Come To The Water
  • Turn To Me
  • Though The Mountains May Fall

And possibly “Seek the Lord”, “Like A Shepherd”, and Dan Schutte’s two valley songs.

Has it changed in thirty years? When I checked OCP’s 2016, Master Scriptural Index, Deutero-Isaiah was on a par with Romans, 1 Corinthians, Revelation, and Mark. The other three gospels just about lapped it. The Psalms trumped everything.

So what does it all mean? My sense is that by post-conciliar engagement with the Bible, composers were more alert to the Psalms and lyrical sections like Isaiah 40-55, the Beatitudes, the Magnificat, the Philippians canticle and the like. Somehow, we are a product of our culture, and what drew people to “Comfort ye my people” and “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” spraked something when they composed and heard “You shall cross the barren desert” and “O let all who thirst.”

I guess you could wish that 70’s composers were better. Or that chant hymnals would out-sell piano-based volumes. You can also say that G&P is a bygone fad, but two things: detractors can’t seem to stop talking about it and the songs that have resonated the deepest from those collections are very much with us still.

* The total number of songs, hymns, and psalm settings in G&P 1 through 3

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to Too Much Deutero-Isaiah?

  1. Liam says:

    It’s something that I’ve noticed, but my main negative connection to it is what I consider to be an unfortunate practice of matching such a song to a proper reading of the day. Let me ‘splain: The revised Lectionary makes ample use of Deutero-Isaiah in certain times of the year – so there’s a temptation to program the song “Come To The Water” when that passage of Isaiah is the reading of the day. Programming “Blest Are They” when either version of the Beatitudes is the Gospel of the day. Et cet. PLEASE resist that temptation! It’s in the nature of a song to re-direct how we hear that scripture passage – it prejudices our hearing of. Not always for bad, mind you, but when that practice is engaged in (worse if it’s chronic), it has the effect of draining our ability to hear and reflect *with fresh ears and hearts* the Word broken open in the specific proclamation of that passage. My longstanding rule of thumb for programming was generally to avoid such linkages in programming of songs.

  2. Good points, Liam. OTOH, it is likely not the uncommon experience that when homilist failures to “break open” (how I dislike that) scripture exegesis, the only remedy for that, and a powerful one, is the “hymn of the day” option. Of course, contrary to Todd’s experience, I find the Propers often provide such amplification, particularly in the relationship of the Introit/Communio pairing.

  3. Todd says:

    I would agree on the programming note. I tend to look for what complements the Lectionary. Not what matches it. My problem with the unreformed Propers is not that they don’t “match” the Lectionary, but that in Ordinary Time, there’s no effort to hang near it, either.

  4. >I tend to look for what complements the Lectionary.<
    Todd, could you provide an actual example of such programming. No critical intent, just curious.

    • Todd says:

      Sure. This past weekend: O’Connor’s “Jesus The Lord” and not “Take Up Your Cross.” I didn’t use it, but Schutte’s “Only This I Want” because I see the connection of that full commitment to discipleship as the optimal response to the challenge of the cross.

  5. Thanks. I wonder if the notion of purposing hymns/songs for varied reasons isn’t a valid factor? Taking your example of last weekend’s gospel, isn’t there merit in employing the exhortation of Christ toward action a factor favoring “Take up your cross…..Take up our cross (Stephan)….Lift high the cross…etc.”? The two SLJ pieces are very powerful contemplations, the latter a virtual gem by which to package the Pauline text, but I see them as ancillary not corollary towards reinforcing and effecting the scriptural lesson. As a mnemonic device, if I were faced with a dilemma or test of will requiring me to “offer it up,” the accompaniment in my memory would likely first go to the action hymns before the contemplative. That’s just me. But again, I am not critiquing your methodology.

  6. Liam says:

    Btw, I should note that, because of the nature of the cursus of Gospels on Sundays of Ordinary Time (somewhat interrupted in midsummer harvest season in Year B, though the interruption is immediately preceded by a relevant Marcan pericope), there are groups of Sundays that have related periocopes. Here is a useful resource to take a metaview of each of the three years:

    http://www.rcia.org.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/A-Matthew.pdf

  7. Todd says:

    I used “Only This I Want” the week before. Yes, looking at whole stretches of Ordinary Time is quite helpful. If only we could convince more homilists of this.

    • Liam says:

      Lovely. I think OTIW is Schutte’s diamond. (Btw, have a lovely, dulcet, clean (no evident vibrato) soprano gently go up rather than down on “of the night” in the last verse. Does not have the right effect if done on an instrument. Shimmers if done with discretion.)

  8. Mary says:

    If you did a survey of the number of people who daydreamed and didn’t hear a particular reading when it was proclaimed, vs the number who had their perspective limited because a hymn that provides a particular view of a text is sung – which group would be largest? My hunch is the former, and for that reason I’d continue programming matching music at least sometimes. The week before or after is good – but only for the folks who are there every week. Don’t know about your corner of the world, but in mine there are many whose attendance is a lot more sporadic.

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