Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hymn Mania and Its Fix

The four-hymn sandwich doesn't discombobulate the liturgical structure, though it does deeply injury the liturgical intent. By replacing the actual words of the Mass, the propers, with some random poetry drawn from someone else, it does indeed cheat the people, as the Vatican said in 1969. Still, it can work from a structural standpoint, which is one reason that it lasts.

But there are occasions when it is pushed to the limit, as when the crowds are so big that one hymn is not enough to take up the entire liturgical action. Since most modern choirs don't have motets prepared, most organists (or guitar players) have no solos to play, and Psalm singing is an unknown art to most Catholic musicians, what are the musicians to do? Well, choose another hymn.Or two. Or three.

I attended such an occasion the other day - it was first communion - and the choir solved the problem by piling up hymn after hymn after hymn. There were a total of seven hymns sung in the course of a single Mass: one for entrance, two for offertory, three for communion, and one for recession.

Leave aside the problem of style; they were all essential indistinguishable variations of the Ecleasy Listening form we all know too well. The real question is: what message does this send? Well, I counted the total number of words sung in these non-liturgical hymns. The total was 1,650 words. Then I counted the words in the appointed readings of the day. The total was 530.

So if we care about the words at Mass, we have a clear case in which the optional hymns have dominated the message. Three times as many words came from random outside hymns than the scripture itself.

I didn't count the words of the homily plus the order of Mass, but I would guess that if you add them, you would end up with equal content overall.

Now, this is interesting to me. We've just been through a 30-year struggle for a new Missal with endless meetings and struggles over the question of what should be the texts spoken and sung at Mass. That makes sense because this is serious business. And yet who is paying attention to the hymns published and selected by the choir? Clearly, this aspect of Mass is very nearly equally weighted in terms of the message that people hear. And yet, there has been very little focus on this at all.

Truly, most of these hymns constitute not an extension of the Mass texts but an interruption of them -- or worse, they are a replacement for them. It strikes me that it would be a perfectly reasonable legislative change that would mandate that the propers of the Mass must be sung (or spoken). In other words, if people just have to have their hymn fix, the choir should earn the right to sing a hymn by first singing the propers of the Mass. This is not an extreme proposal. It would fix something fundamental. Pastors can and should implement this on their own.

As a final note, let me complain about something that has been driving me nuts for years. A certain publisher out there has manage to nearly destroy ever traditional hymn in the books by provide arrangements that are completely unsingable by any standard.

My choir sings Vitoria, Sweelinck, Byrd, and Tallis, but finds the arrangements given for traditional hymns to be incomprehensible, not to mention completely ineffective. It's bad enough that these companies insist on copyright protecting hymns that are otherwise in the public domain, which is why they re-write them in the first place, but can they not have the decency to publish something that can actually be sung?

Here is my exhibit A