Sunday, September 21, 2008

Time for a Moratorium on Thaxted

Every now and then, the temptation has arisen to write on this subject, and then my better judgment prevails and I refrain from doing so. But not tonight; my better judgment seems to have taken a nice long autumnal walk with a good cigar. I might join him later.

I remember as a teenager getting to know the Planets by Gustav Holst. One of the most popular and most fascinating movements of that work is Jupiter, a frenzied dance that gives way to a broad, soaring melody of such beauty that it could only have been written by an Englishman. This will send shivers down the backs of the most cold-blooded men.

Here's Charles Dutoit conducting it:

In 1921, Holst adapted this soaring melody for use with a piece of poetry written in honor of the British nation-state called "I Vow to Thee, My Country," which is, so far as I know, still quite a popular text to sing in those places where it is considered fitting. Holst named the tune Thaxted, after the village in which he resided for much of his life.

In America, Thaxted has taken on a life of its own as the tune to which the text "O God, Beyond All Praising" is sung. I have had heavenly experiences during the singing of this hymn. I recall one convention recital at which the organist--who loves to play hymns in what he considers to be a "German" style (It isn't; it's just way too fast, so fast that he plays Grosser Gott in 5/8 time.)--was pulled back in his tempo by 200 or so people singing at full voice. All this took place on a Romantic organ which is consonant with good English taste. It was quite a satisfying experience, one which I enjoyed from my perch as registrant on the left stop jamb of a fine German instrument in a reverberant space.

But now it's time for confession: I am utterly sick and tired of this hymn. It is dreadfully over-programed: it is sung for ordination after ordination, this big Mass and that big Mass. This hymn is on the ordo musicae, it seems, every time a full house is expected. Why is it that we Catholics like to take a piece of music, beat it to death for a few years, and then leave it to perish in the choir stacks?

There is a further problem: the way this hymn is rendered in America often makes it sound cheesy. The tempo is generally too fast, and many of the arrangements out there violate the sturdy placidness of Holst's work. I don't mean to say that the hymn should be sung softly, but rather that some of the brass descants (and I say this as a recovering trumpet player), etc, make this thing sound more like something from Broadway than something from England. The majesty is lost. This represents, in what some might call my myopically Euro-centric outlook, a degradation of the original work. This isn't to say that we shouldn't arrange pre-existing music; only that we should do so with that rarest commodity, good taste. I hasten to add that it seems to me that the manner of performance is as much a problem here, if not more so, than the various arrangements as such, some of which are capable of being rendered tastefully.

So there it is, friends. I have had it with this hymn. You may think I'm crazy, and that's fine, for you are entitled to your opinion. I am also entitled to mine. Now, I would never say that this hymn should be condemned to the dustbin of history, where it would reside in all eternity next to "Mother at Your Feet is Kneeling" and "Priestly People," but I do think it would benefit from a little break. How does ten years sound?

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