Monday, June 10, 2019

What a Catholic Hymn Should Be

Over a decade ago, I read an article by Joseph Swain, “St. Mark’s—A Liturgy Without Hymns,” that profoundly shook up my way of thinking about music in divine worship. (Swain, by the way, is the author of one of the best books I’ve ever read: Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music. The price of this book has steadily gone down over the years, so it’s almost affordable now.) Swain basically says: Why do we think congregational hymns are so important, as if a liturgy could not be well conducted without them? Why do we have a narrow, univocal, and horizontalist conception of active participation? Our forefathers knew better: they thought of participation in a multi-sensory or synesthetic manner, as an entering into liturgical actions, movements, and symbols that unfold over the course of the rite and impress themselves upon us. Sometimes, as John Paul II once said, the best and most active thing we can do at a certain moment is look and listen well. Swain’s article gives a detailed description of how he saw a solemn (Novus Ordo) Mass conducted at San Marco in Venice. It was thrilling, it involved the faithful in all kinds of ways, but there wasn’t a single congregational hymn.

I suppose that not too many readers of NLM would disagree with this perspective. Most would probably also agree that vernacular hymns can and do have a place; however much we might debate what exactly that place is. The Anglican Ordinariate liturgies may freely help themselves to an immense patrimony of English hymnody. TLM parishes often sing vernacular hymns at the start and the conclusion of High Mass; between these pre- and post-liturgical hymns, only Latin chants, polyphony, and congregational responses are to be heard. The solutions that have been attempted in the Wild West of the Novus Ordo vary from alternating hymns and propers, to always pairing them (either the antiphon first and then a hymn, or vice versa), to finding hymns whose texts match the propers as closely as possible, and so forth. In any case, it seems that, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, hymns are here to stay.

Now, if we want the balance to tilt towards “for better” and “for richer,” we have to look at two things above all: the quality of the music, and the quality of the text. The music should be stately, well-crafted, soaring in melody but reasonable in range, rarely syncopated, and altogether lacking in sentimentality or schmalziness. The text, for its part, should be excellent poetry that actually rhymes, using proper English grammar and rhetorical tropes; it should be not only doctrinally orthodox (which rules out a great deal of the tripe sold by GIA and OCP), but vivid, robust, and insightful.

Two recent books analyze classic hymns that exemplify all these principles: Fr. George William Rutler’s The Stories of Hymns and Anthony Esolen’s Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church. For its part, the long-awaited Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal from the folks who run Corpus Christi Watershed is, hands down, the best Catholic hymnal ever to be published, in spite of the unfortunate choice of wording for the cover. [1] Its copious selection of hundreds of tunes and texts, including favorites, forgotten gems, and new commissions, all beautifully formatted and presented in a surprisingly compact hardcover volume, is not only unparalleled by any other current hymnal, but well exceeds that of any hymnal I have seen from any period.

In honor of the upcoming feast of the Most Blessed Trinity, I would like to share here a French hymn that I encountered in my visit to St. Clement’s parish in Ottawa. This is what a church hymn should be, if it is to be at all: noble poetry, dogmatic content, and sturdy, artful music that has a certain formality and dignity to it, rather than a meandering melody and emotionally manipulative clichés. Naturally, the translation does not have the poetic qualities of the original, but it does show the strength of the text (with the possible exception of the first line of the second verse, which still has me scratching my head).

1. O Trinity, who will be able to fathom
The sublime heights of Thine immense being?
May our faith, in its humble silence,
At least know how to adore Thy greatness.

2. Thou unitest three august Persons
In the unity of one single and same God;
Saints, at His feet lay your crowns—
Glory to Him alone, in every time, in every place!

3. Divine Spirit! O Son! and Thou, O Father!
You possess the same divinity,
The same riches, the same brightness of light,
The same power and the same eternity.

4. O Seraphim! You cover with your wings
The radiant throne of the living God,
And your songs of His holy Name,
Spirits ever faithful, make the skies resound.

5. Holy Trinity, attend to our prayer,
And be propitious to the wishes of Thy children.
Grant that here below, walking in Thy light,
they may one day ascend triumphant to heaven.


[1] The hymnal says on the cover: “Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal for Both Forms of the Roman Rite.” I know from experience that this language of “two forms,” a clever canonical fiction of Benedict XVI deemed necessary to deal with an unprecedented rupture in tradition, has begun to wear thin on both sides of the liturgical divide; those who are still principled proponents of the NO resent the idea that their liturgical books are not the definitive Roman Rite as apparently willed by the Council and Paul VI, while traditionalists, including most FSSP and ICKSP clergy and laity known to me, do not believe for a second that there are two equal forms of the Roman Rite. Their position is that of Msgr. Klaus Gamber: there is one authentic Roman rite, and there is a modern deviation from it which does not deserve the same name. It would have sufficed if the hymnal cover had said “for the Roman Rite” (leaving it ambiguous, and therefore acceptable to anyone in the debate), or even “for the Catholic liturgy,” which is broad enough to include not only the TLM and the NO, but the Anglican Ordinariate as well. Perhaps a future edition will modify the cover accordingly. I have spoken with priests and music directors who have said that the cover, by itself, is the reason they could not adopt the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal, though I would think that a color image printed on card stock and carefully glued to the cover might do the trick. It is such a fantastic hymnal that it deserves to be in the pews of every Catholic church.

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