Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Anthony Esolen on the Hymn Problem

Our readers will surely be familiar with the writings of Dr Anthony Esolen, who teaches at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, from a variety of Catholic publications. Every time I mention the topic of Biblical translations and how awful they are, I link this article of his from 2011, in which he explains the underlying principles of Nabbish, the language in which the North American Bible is written. “If the reader wants to learn Nabbish ... he may ask himself, ‘What are the things that make poetry lovely or memorable?’ and eliminate them.”

In an article published two days ago at Crisis, “Novus Quodlibet: The New Whatever Liturgy”, he tackles, with his usual wit, the problem of the hymns, or rather, one of the problems with the hymns.

“If you go to Mass every Sunday and every holy day during the year, and if four hymns are sung at each Mass, this gives you the opportunity to sing over two hundred different hymns. Need I say that, outside of the Christmas carols and three or four old Easter hymns, the typical Novus Quodlibet church boasts a repertoire of eight or nine? The same, the same, the same, like the drip, drip, drip of cold rain, without meaning, without artistic coherence, and without any feint toward the whole of the liturgical year and the history of salvation. (my emphasis)
h/t Kathy Pluth
Many of them are narcissistic, rather like ‘I Feel Pretty’ from West Side Story. ‘Let us build the City of God,’ really? I cannot build the City of God. I can be made, by God, into a stone for the building of that spiritual city, but the action is his, not mine. ‘We have been sung throughout all of history’? I haven’t been sung even once in my whole life, and if I ever were to be, I would surely want to slug the singer. ‘Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord?’ Why, who ever would have thought!

But as the music, so the rest.”

Further down, he writes, “I am not suggesting that laymen should become liturgists. Was that not one of the plagues of Egypt? Most people are not great artists, or even good artists. The work is already given, and the task of the priest, who alone should determine what the ancillary people are doing or not doing, is to conform the praying of the Mass, in word, gesture, and spirit, to that work.”

How then, to make the liturgy back into something which forms the Christian faithful, clergy and laity, and not something which they are compelled to form, whether they will so or not?

First, it has to be recognized, and at a some point, officially acknowledged, that the nearly universal substitution of Gregorian chants by hymns is a betrayal of what Vatican II wanted. The Council wrote “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” That does not mean “other things being equal, except they never are...” The long-term goal of liturgical reform must always be a recognition that hymns are a non-traditional and inferior substitute for Mass chants.

Second, there needs to be a general bonfire of the vanities, the inanities, and the vacuities that currently dominate this particular musical form. As Dr Esolen says, “No need here to bring up, like ill-digested onions, the specifics.” Suffice it to say that based on the current repertoire in general use in English, a future blacklist of prohibited hymns will be very lengthy indeed.

Third and most important, each language needs a fixed repertoire of hymns that corresponds to the calendar of feasts and the liturgical year, and the use of that repertoire and no other must be mandatory when chants are not sung. The rubric in the book needs to specify, e.g. “On the First Sunday of Advent, if you do not sing the Gregorian Introit Ad te levavi, this is the only hymn which is allowed to replace it in English. On the feast of All Saints, if you do not sing the Gregorian Introit Gaudeamus omnes, this is the only hymn which is allowed to replace it in French.” Etc.

I do not propose that such a project can realistically be done right now, nor do I propose that when circumstances more favorable to a general reform come about, the project should be done all at once. It would be grossly unjust to fob off on ordinary Catholics in the pews yet another liturgical revolution for which they are unprepared and which they do not want. The only thing that would be more unjust would be to leave them to go on singing, or more likely not singing, the terrible music which dominates in so many of our churches today.

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