Choosing Bricks, Part the Last

In the Breaking Bread hymnal section denoted “Gathering” there are many songs whose musical and lyrical content has and will continue to be debate fodder from the “aptus” qualification. Of the more recent additions in this decade, again I defer to Janet Sullivan-Whitaker’s “HERE AT THIS TABLE,” the title of which might cause apoplexy to not a few folk. But given the preponderance of triple metered, sing-song offerings most typified or vilified by Haugen’s “Gather Us In,” I feel a true gravitas in her original text (aided by her son.) And that is solidly set to a compelling melodic and harmonic architecture that happens to also suit a congregation’s alto/baritone singing range.

She also deftly uses two distinctly different motifs for certain verses, both of which have cadences with great inertia back to the refrain, particularly in vss. 3/5 that uses a hemiola as they are intended: for propulsion. I don’t relegate the text to the Entrance procession exclusively. I’ve employed it at the other two on occasion. In the same section, Michael Joncas’ “WE GATHER HERE TO WORSHIP” (with Vicki Klima) seems to mitigate the contention that “gather songs” are inherently insufficient in expressing worship towards God by clearly defining the purpose in the first verse’s opening phrase, “We gather here to worship You, O God.” T

his is also an original text that, if nothing else, outlines the structure of the liturgies within Mass. The melody does not evoke the common notion of Joncas cum Sondheim, but falls into the recent trend of many composers to stay formulaic, strophic and often pentatonic.

In the next section, “Communion,” I would give brief mention of Fr. John Schiavone’s “AMEN: EL CUERPO DE CRISTO” as its text and melody present an authentic and orthodox “feel” to a bilingual song. And, as many have found out over the last decade and a half, Hurd’s UBI CARITAS has a stand alone integrity as well as it provides the opportunity for young people and adults to “step up” to the plainsong version in the hymnal.

In perusing this year’s issue, I was greatly perplexed by the inclusion of Steve Angrisano’s paraphrase of Ps.34, “Taste and see.” I know that it presents a clear nod to the LifeTeen demographic, but the syncopation off the page is pure helter skelter, it yanks the singer off the beat so unremittingly!

How many modern settings of this psalm can one publisher afford to include out of respect for the composer’s Q rating, yet not give space to chants published in another organ, “Laus et Tibi?”

On the other hand, a tonic of relief is the inclusion of the great “I RECEIVED THE LIVING GOD.” It is purely pentatonic with one quarter note exception, and has the Southern Harmony credence “feel.”

I have just mentioned that for every new work implanted into BB and other subscription hymnals, it is likely that other things, worthier pieces are retired or never considered such as “Ave verum corpus.” But I would also mention that seminal works by early pioneers such as Lucien Deiss have fallen by the wayside, save for “All the Earth” or “Keep in Mind.” Of course, copyright issues likely are part of those omissions. But I would easily endorse losing “How great thou art” or “Companions on the Journey….” if some of Deiss’s early gems were given a resurrection in the 21st century.

I have avoided addressing the issue of employing true secular folk songs such as “O waly waly” or “Kelvingrove” as pleasant dwellings for new texts. But short of “Londonderrierre” (sorry, couldn’t resist) I think that folks ought to reconsider using every melody found in Stanford’s compendium of Britannic folk songs to couch “new” texts; Chris Walker’s appropriation of “Skye boat song” for a fairly benign Pentecost lyric seems particularly irritating to my tolerance levels. Sullivan-Whitaker’s “CHRIST BEFORE US” to “Suo gan,” is a much more substantial text.

In terms of original voices, I’ve already overstated my appreciation for Sullivan-Whitaker tunes. Her paraphrase of Ps.90, “IN EVERY AGE” I believe to be truly poignant. But just for balance, I don’t have the confidence in her original song “THIS IS OUR CRY” despite its very direct and didactic text and melody. Speaking of didactic, does including Carey Landrey’s “WOMEN OF THE CHURCH” mitigate something very un-PC by balancing “Faith of our Fathers?”

Benedictine hymnist Harry Hagan’s “THOSE CALLED BY CHRIST” set to “Detroit” is another worthy new text set to a melody Americana. In the chant emulation mode, OCP editor Barbara Bridge’s “WE WALK BY FAITH/IN TIMES OF TROUBLE uses “Jesu dulcis memoria” for the antiphon, and then a newer, more complex chant for the verses whose accompaniment is harmonically solid and unique.

With the brouhaha regarding some of the programming of former “St. Thomas More” composers for the upcoming papal visit to the UK, I would like to commend one hymn by Chris Walker for consideration: “LAUDATE, LAUDATE DOMINUM” has proven to this author a worthy successor to the Vaughn-Williams/Holst tradition of Anglican High Church hymns. His use of not so subtle modal shifts melodically propels the hymn forward. And Walker’s paraphrase of Ps.27, “THE LORD IS MY LIGHT” has much more heather and peat in its melody that anywhere to be found in his Celtic Mass.

In another part of the world, some folks have pondered the direction of Filipino contemporary liturgical song as having given way to saccharine tendencies rather glaringly. Of the contributions of Fr. Ricky Manalo, one I would like to mention that incorporates an Asian flavor in both text and melody is his “MANY AND GREAT,” an original song. And I, for one, regret the loss of his Maundy Thursday Introit “We shall glory in the cross” versus the version by Schutte.

Well, I’m not sure if I have adequately portrayed any specific methodology in these posts that clearly make the case that those pieces I have positively mentioned really constitute the sort of masonry envisioned by those who subscribe to the “brick by brick” reformation of our repertoires.

But what has been very obvious to me from conversations at colloquia and elsewhere is that CMAA members more likely than not still must deal with divergent interests and the ever-present dilemma of “personal taste” on a weekly and seasonal basis in parishes that have multiple Masses and a wide spectrum of musical resources, personnel and repertoire-wise. The one criteria that I, without fail, fall back upon is that a worthy hymn or song will demonstrate that immediately off the page by virtue of a worthy text and a melody whose integrity is obvious without harmonic adornment.

3 Replies to “Choosing Bricks, Part the Last”

  1. Charles, this series has been great. You have a gift for discussing this music with a serious and earnest tone that comes from a lifetime of dealing with all of its ups and down. This is extremely valuable. Your critique is much more powerful because of your heart-felt sympathy for the composers and publishers and your understanding for what they are trying to do. Speaking for myself, I can never hope to manufacture this same level of sympathy and understanding. Most all of this music comes across to me like a big blur of blah, and no matter how many times I've tried, I still can't manage to say intelligent things about it. In any case, I just want to thank you for your discipline and insight.

  2. Thank you for these posts. It helps to have some sense of how to choose alius cantus.

    Could you post about Lucien Diess? I see his hymns quite often in the Breviary, but don't know anything about him.

  3. "The one criteria that I, without fail, fall back upon is that a worthy hymn or song will demonstrate that immediately off the page by virtue of a worthy text and a melody whose integrity is obvious without harmonic adornment."

    Amen, brother!

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