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

15 Replies to “Hymn Mania and Its Fix”

  1. That Exhibit A smells ripely of the work of someone who Composed From The Keyboard. It's common in contemporary liturgical music, but the problem goes back a few generations to a time when sacred music increasingly became composed by people who were keyboardists first and vocalists second (if that). They think first and best with their fingers (and feet), and think less about vocal context.

  2. It's not congregational music…all those staggered entrances, that soprano descant excursion at the end. There are reasons hymn settings are traditionally homorhythmic. I'm sure this sounds fine when well-done, but its probably rarely well done

  3. I smell newsprint.

    Liam, who I often disagree with, is perfectly correct.

    And the key! Fail.

    People do not sing because everything is pitched so low that the high notes are hard to sing!!!! Sounds illogical, but is true.


    Let's adopt Protestant hymns to be ecumenical to make them want to become Catholic! What a concept. A misguided one. But, let's show them how they're wrong. Eb….silly key, let's put it in C so it is easy to play and sing!

    Reminds me of the organist who transposed up on each of the four verses of God Of Our Fathers, set in their hymnal in F, leaving sopranos and tenors gasping and complaining, "We couldn't sing, you made it too high for us. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!"

    "I started in D."

  4. Does the phrase "Jesus, let us sing" appearing in Verse 1 of the Alto and Bass constitute vain usage of the name of the Lord?

  5. Does it occur to anyone else that no one, not even the publisher of Ex. A (And let's remember that TradPraise also exists in a hardbound edition,) is holding a knife to the DM's throat demanding "Sing this arrangement or die."? Just choose the other arrangement in PD or even in the other OCP product, ChoralPraise, in which "Lasst" is set quite nicely without the froo froo and with sweet sublime tenor line. As much as I want to endorse the main premise of the complaint, one has to look at the intent of the publsher project. TP was meant to "cover the waterfront," with three or four versions of each title ostensibly to appeal to churches with varying level of ensemble forces. That should tell the DM something right from the get go: this is about marketing. What's wrong with that is that to get to some of the finer offerings in the collection, as in the descant versions mostly, you are better buying the whole cow, so to speak, than paying for inflated octavo versions. Or you, again, can scrap one's interest in investing in a one size fits all concept and evaluate collections of hymns for their coherence and wealth of content.
    Regarding the word-count and hymn-stuffed issues- first of all, First Communions are not typical examples of normal programming. And, again, an adroit DM will, in fact, prepare an ordo of music that accomodates the extra paraliturgical fruit salad of such Masses where the organist is prepared to interlude, the director/cantor has a visual communication protocol in place to seemlessly end or extend a single piece of music tailored to the liturgical action, the choir/cantor can sing the Communio as the children first receive and transition easily to the primary Communion processional, etc.
    I am in philosophical step with the drumbeats that call and martial us to once again take up the merit and beauty of propers. That said, I don't believe this has to be couched in an "either/or" contest against hymnody in general or lay the responsibility for poor arrangements or programming at the feat of the "hidden hands."
    I'm constantly badgering pastors and bishops to step up to the plate and lead liturgically. I can't do that in good conscience if I renege upon my own duties to prepare our ordos and manage them deftly in real time. Now if this isn't happening at other local "First Communion" or Sunday Masses, I'm not going to point to Portland and scream like a pod person from "Body Snatchers," I'm more likely to strike up a conversation with the musician over coffee, somewhere more close to the scene of the "crime."

  6. Our first Masses using all the propers and Gregorian ordinaries were on Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. But We did include the refrain to "We Now Remain" (just the refrain-no verses!)before the Nos Autem was sung. The big music Mass had now receeded to reveal the depths and mystery of Christ at the Mass. The Gospel of he Passion became a monument, and the music bowed in obseince. I am encouraged by the staff and parishinors to conntinue singing the propers. I am excited that our schola was asked to sing the confimation liturgy using propers and chants.The sacro-pop trend is no longer an imperative even for this youth oriented Mass.
    The only objections to propers and chanting I see are from the big publishers. Virgil Funk recently threw the music of the new Missal under the bus saying that in theory the Missal's chant is good, but the assembly has already decided what it wants. 4 hymns. "the Bishops have offered music to be sung; the question is, will anyone sing it?"- GIA Quarterly.
    I have found the contrary to be more true than Funk's theory! As a "matter of fact" and experience: The assembly embraces the propers and chant much more eagerly than Funk may expect. It is the publishers who are addicted to the 4 hymn Mass not the assembly.

  7. In the interest of fairness, from Exhibit A, turn back one page and you have a very nice arrangement for keyboard, melody, a vocal descant and an instrumental descant. Turn the page forward and you have a simpler SAB arrangement. I find this book very helpful for its descants, and an interesting hymn arrangement here and there. If you want a straightforward SATB arrangement, this is obviously not the book for you…the publisher offers alternatives. I thank the composer for his work, which I have found to be enormously helpful. There are plenty of reasons to criticize the publisher, but this volume is not one of them in my humble opinion.

  8. I have found some instances where there are now more verses in the pew hymnal than in the choir book, but since the pew hymnal is printed annually, I think this is just responding to the desires of the marketplace for more verses. I can't think of any examples where there are extra verses in the choir edition that don't exist in the pew edition, but I could be wrong.

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