Monday, March 11, 2024

Parce Domine vs. “Hold Us in Your Mercy”: What’s the Difference?

The following is an edited and expanded version of observations shared with me by Mr William Weicher, who gave me permission to develop them here for the benefit of NLM readers.—PAK

A couple of years ago, I came across Cristóbal de Morales’ Parce Mihi, Domine. The discovery of this piece happened to coincide with Passion Week, and with a very sad death of a young man in my parish. So for many reasons it was one of those soul-stirring, stop-you-in-your-tracks pieces of sacred music for me. It was also another one of those sad “Look what they took from us” moments (as each new personal discovery within tradition tends to be).

But that was before I learned, recently, that there is a shared parentage (of a sort) between that wonderful piece of music and Gary Daigle’s “Hold Us In Your Mercy,” a now-classic bit of inane pseudo-folk hymnody that, once heard, can never be fully erased from one’s memory. Perhaps that is a small part of the function of Purgatory, at least for those born in our artistically challenged times: to cleanse our minds of suburban Catholicism.

In any case, I was curious enough that I took a closer look at the similarities and origins of “Hold Us in Your Mercy” and found that it a provided a good case study of not only the obvious contrasts between sacred and contemporary liturgical music in their quality and fittingness for liturgy, but also of how clearly the iconoclastic composers who write this stuff intended to make the music less sacred, while ostensibly “drawing from tradition.”

In the spirit of a case study, here are a few things one notices.

Melody: It’s true that the melody of Daigle’s piece is lifted from the ancient Gregorian chant melody Parce Domine—but only in part. First, the chant:

His first phrase is basically the same, but then in the contemporary hymn, it drops down a third, starting the melodic response on a lower pitch, rather than following the original melody for “parce populo tuo”:
Why do this? Why drop down like that, and borrow only the first few notes from the traditional chant? Well, because after paying empty homage to tradition, it “fixes” the melody by adding that “essential” melodic balance that the contemporary composer believes the listener needs to hear in order to “understand,” “access” or “be moved by” a melody. To the modern ear, that initial E minor phrase must go somewhere. So for that second “hold us in your mercy,” Daigle has to find a counter-balancing melodic line that allows him to pair it with some or another chord-laden human emotional drama, like a iv(7) (Am7). This is because, he reasons, that is simply how popular songwriting works:
By contrast, the Gregorian melody above, like all Gregorian melodies, stays in that elevated modal plane throughout.

Words: I won’t belabor this too much, but “Hold us in your mercy”—both the phrase itself, and the song as a whole—is effeminate and full of ambiguous feel-good imagery. It certainly strikes no penitential note at all, and that is clearly intentional. I do not know what it means to “hold someone in one’s mercy,” but it seems to have a certain “motherly” connotation. The rest of the lyrics also contain a series of addresses to the Lord. (“You who shared our life and labor,” etc.) There may be nothing wrong with meditating on some of these elements, but taken all together, the lyrics have completely removed every reason why we need God’s mercy—which is because we have sinned. That aspect, and the supplication it generates, is captured just a bit better in the original:

“By our sins we have offended thy clemency, O God; pour out on us thy pardon from on high, Thou Who dost forgive.”

Daigle’s new composition, on the other hand, suggests that we seek God’s mercy because… well, I don’t know why. Because God has shared in some of our experiences?

Performative affectation: This problem, like the earlier criticisms, holds for nearly all contemporary Catholic music. Here I will point to just one aspect: the solo cantor’s typical use of a thick vibrato, fit for Les Miserables. This kind of vibrato is so intrinsically tied to the performative problem that it’s as bad as the guitar and the microphone. (One sometimes hears a rich, warbly chant at the TLM, and someone has to find a kind way of telling the singer that this is altogether inappropriate. Vibrato has no place in either plainchant or polyphony.)

What bothers me the most about “Hold Us in Your Mercy” is that cheap nod to tradition mentioned above. One gets the sense that songwriters of this sort borrow these bits of tradition so that they can hide behind them when people criticize the profanity of their music. By the borrowing of a handful of notes, one might be lured into thinking there is real continuity between a traditional sacred treasure like Parce Domine and a contemporary ditty.

What we need is a full restoration of sacred music, nothing else, nothing less.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

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