Attention Kathy Pluth: Can You Please Explain the Theory and Practice of Hymns?

Kathy, I could have sent this in a private message or an email, but I’ve decided just to post it, because I suspect that others have the same issues I have.

Here’s the problem: despite being raised in a sea of hymns, singing gazillion of them in the course of a year, I fear that there is a vast amount I do not understand. There seems to be this whole school of understanding concerning the structure and history and practice of hymn singing. No one ever taught it to me. Singing hymns is different from understanding them. I’ve got vast holes in my knowledge. I’m hoping you can fill some in with a simple post that tells me (and others) what is necessary to know.

Some background. Like most people raised in the Baptist world, I associate certain words with certain tunes. When someone changes them, I get annoyed. I sang this stuff all my life, and then, once becoming Catholic, I was happy to eventually discover chant and the whole world of the propers.

I was happy to bail out of the hymn thing completely. However, the so-called hymns of the current Catholic world as most people know it seems to have nothing to do with the hymns you find in the pew rack at, say, the local Presbyterian Church.

Part of me thinks I would be happier with the older hymn culture than I am with the newer culture of the folksy ditty but I can’t say for sure. Mostly, I was thrilled to discover than hymns as I knew them really have no integral place in the liturgy (leaving aside exceptions that everyone knows, such as Sequences or Recessionals, etc.)

And yet, I’m fully aware that hymns aren’t going away for Mass. They are essential devotional material that means a lot to people. I’m also aware that the Divine Office uses hymns. Plus, there are many occasions when hymns are just fantastic: private gatherings, home use, prayer sessions, etc.

Here’s what I think I must have missed along the way. It seems, based on what you have written on the Cafe and elsewhere, and probably what every hymnologist takes for granted, is that there are hymn texts and hymn tunes and these are separate entities. This is not an accident. This is how the development occurred. And will continue to occur.

I would like to know more, so that I can replace my biases drawn from my youth with a more sophisticated understanding.

Can you answer some basic questions?

  • Is the association that people have between certain texts and certain tunes purely cultural and regional?
  • When people have variously written hymn texts over the centuries, are they designed to fit into a number of different tune packages?
  • How many different meter structures are accepted as part of hymn convention?
  • I’ve heard you speak of “long meter.” What is that and what are the names of the others?
  • Where do the tune names come from, and is it ever the case that a settled hymn tune is written with no text?
  • How many hymn tunes are now accepted as part of the common and stable repertoire in the Christian world?
  • Did hymns really originate in the Divine Office and spread out from there during the Reformation?
  • Can you give a quick summary of what has happen to hymns over the last thirty years? How in danger is the settled tradition?
  • What is the most compelling reason to get busy and preserve the hymn tradition as it was known, say, mid century? What do you think is at stake? How do we know that we aren’t just reviving a thing of the past for no particular reason?

No rush on answering all this stuff. I’m out of the country for a few days in any case. But I hope that at some point you will consider taking some time to school me in the ways of the hymn so that I can understand more than I know now.