What Hymns Do We Have in Common?

As an Assistant Editor of the forthcoming Lumen Christi Hymnal, my main responsibility was the initial “build” of the hymnal: choosing those hymns that would best serve the needs of the hymnal’s projected constituents.

As any Music Director knows, this is not an easy process. For different people, different hymns are important and meaningful. For rather a long time, we’ve had something of a “do it yourself” religion, with a sense that “one song is as good as another”–as long as it feels right.

A story: Once when I was a Music Director, I was contacted by one of the ladies in a senior’s lunch club. Speaking for the group, she said that they all agreed that they wanted to hear “the old familiar songs” at Mass again. I answered that I wasn’t opposed in principle, but I would need a list of the songs they meant. I expected that she would mean some of the more casual songs from the 80s–the 35 year old songs we sang in the “contemporary” choir. But as things turned out, there was almost no common ground among the group. There was only one hymn that they all agreed they missed, and asked that we would sing it from time to time.

The hymn was, O Lord, I Am Not Worthy–the very last title I expected!

Eventually I became responsible for choosing the hymn tunes as well, which is often conventional enough, but sometimes interesting. Once I was in an English chapel outside Rome on Christ the King, and we were all set to sing Hail, Redeemer, King Divine. I knew that one, I thought, and didn’t think to practice until our group rehearsal. Turns out “everybody” in England sings the hymn to the excellent but challenging tune King Divine, just as “everybody” in the U.S. sings it to St. George’s Windsor–and as I write this I’m well aware that someone will protest that they sing it in the U.S. to something completely different!

So if you were going to make your own list of “songs everyone knows,” what would it be? Any thoughts?

18 Replies to “What Hymns Do We Have in Common?”

  1. Such a list would be very short, IME, outside of Christmas carols, (and last year I discovered a group of 12 year olds who did not know O Come All Ye Faithful…)

    Holy God We Praise Thy Name
    O God Our Help In Ages Past
    Immaculate Mary (although then there's the problem of the accent in "Ave")
    Holy, Holy Holy
    Praise To The Lord

    Those are the only ones I would risk a bet on — I've been in parishes where Alleluia Sing To Jesus (HYFRYDOL) and Bowing Low (St THOMAS) were unfamiliar to anyone under fifty.

  2. Not to muck up things, but a "definitive" list can be skewed according to the experiences of the DoM's tenure(s) in how many ever parishes s/he's served. For example, a Richard Proulx might have had a tenure at Chicago of nearly 40 years. It would stand to reason that over those two generations, his list of core or indispensable hymns would be much larger than another church whose directors were changed with much frequency.
    In my case, I've done a spreadsheet of nearly 800 hymns, rated A-F for their worth in my estimation, mindful of the congregation's acceptance as well. Even if all of the A's were not core or indispensable, my list would be vastly different than other parishes.
    Speaking of Proulx, I believe he actually issued a recording album of the so-called Twelve Greatest Catholic Hymns through GIA back in the 80's or so. Ger's tunes are all present there.

  3. Charles,

    I'd be very eager to see the a's here, as much as you don't mind sharing. Thanks!

  4. I haven't revisited/revised it in a couple of years, and I have a huge funeral as well as classes Thursday.
    So if you were going to make your own list of "songs everyone knows," what would it be? Any thoughts?
    I can do that as the spread sheet also has very short reasons for each example's grade. But I don't want to encourage any more flame wars that result in rhetoric such as found in the discussion over at the forum that dismisses a given "song" as "crap," offered by more than a few otherwise respectful commentors. I think regular Cafe people have a recent track record of how I summarize via the OCP Letter articles. But I don't want to encoutage excoriation because I acknowledtge that a Bob Hurd tune is, in fact, a song that everyone knows.
    Good topic, stay tuned.

  5. Might it be easier to make a list of hymn tunes that people know? Though we would like to think that the music serves as a vehicle for the words, for many of our people it is the tune that they remember first. When I came back from England many years ago I introduced Forrest Green for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in place of St Louis. The tune "strengthened" the words and saved them from the Victorian orientation. Even a hymn like "Let All Mortal Flesh" can be re-positioned to an entrance hymn by using Westminster Abbey.

  6. Kathy, here's my take on it. Cultural nostalgia is quite possibly one of the most driving forces that control what people "like". So much of the time what they grew up with is the thing that they like, regardless if it's bad (relatively) music. In so called "tradtional" circles there are hymns that I would have burned with a vengeance had I first heard them but I'm not Nicolo Montani neither am I the Doctor so I can't even go back in time and correct a lot of that. But nostalgia seems to control a lot of what people perceive as being good liturgical music.
    That being said, changes in music that are organic and conform to liturgical rules are always good. Are some more popular than others? Obviously that's true. But the nostalgic footprint (that which had a lasting effect upon someones musical taste) is going to be a BIG factor.

  7. I wuold guess that 'Christ, be our light'; 'Here am I' & 'Eagles wings' are the classic hymns that all RC's know.

  8. 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind' set to Parry's fine tune 'Repton' (adapted from one of his oratorios) is consistently voted the nation's favourite by viewers of the BBC's 'Songs of Praise'. Once quintessentially Anglican, it now seems to be equally popular with Catholics.

    I had to find 'On Eagle's Wings' on YouTube, as it is never sung in England. 'Here I am, Lord' does, unfortunately, crop up with nauseating regularity.

  9. Speaking for my part of the country, I'd guess these hymns were known by most everyone:
    Immaculate Mary
    Praise to the Lord
    Here I am, Lord
    Gift of finest wheat
    Faith of our fathers
    Hail, Holy Queen
    Holy God, we praise thy Name
    Be not afraid
    On eagles' wings

  10. At home now, wll figure out how to post my rather lengthy list when I get to the office.
    Intereting commentary, cantus, but I cannot tell if you're sympathetic to Montani or not. He figuratively burned so many predecesssors, and then had the audacity to put his own romantic lather into his own and others' works in the St. G.

    What else I wonder about, in light of the two comments by John Q/John N, is whether it's possible to remove our personal biases when Kathy asks what "everybody knows and sings?

  11. Charles, Yes, my comment was intended to the negative, sorry for not being clear. Montani enjoyed lot's of power as the editor of so many publications, he pushed aside any competitors that had music to offer (in some cases quite a bit better work than his one in my NBHO) We have a saying in our choir about certain Montani arrangements, "they've been NAMed".
    My final straw with him was when I started becoming a music editor and I realized that Montani changed some of Palestrina work, in some cases changed to make it sound "romantic (….as in it was written in the Romantic period)". To me the pride and audacity of a man is too much who says, "Yeah, Palestrina didn't make this 'good eanough', I can make it better". That just peeved me to no end when I realized that one.

  12. As I've mentioned, my list is quite extensive and somewhat contentious for likely more than a few folks who visit here.
    So, it can be viewed now at my blog. I'm going to put the URL link in this combox, but if Richard's disabled URL's, just search Musica Optima Donum Dei, and the post "The A Team" listing my selections is first in line.

  13. Rick, I'm with you. Though I appreciate the flexibility (1-4 voices, etc) of the St. G hymnal, the audacity factor is real. Perhaps it can serve as a cautionary tale for other editors and would-be composers that lack training and/or a fresh and timeless impulse. Stay within your expertise, and don't get big-headed. Just because it's better than tons of junk out there doesn't mean it's good enough. The pile of mediocre church music is as high as the Tower of Babel, I'm afraid.

    When I find something serviceable, and potentially lovely from Montani, I figure it's only just to tweak it back to its original shape.

    I feel a post coming on about this…

  14. Mary Ann, thanks. It's the nostalgia factor, I've seen people with the best of intentions proclaim that they like the most saccharin and shallow crap. I'm a convert, I came into the church without prejudice, pre-conceived notion, and nostalgic catholic upbringing (small c intentional) that means that I have no emotional baggage when it comes to Ordinary form mass, Latin mass, and so called "traditional" music etc.. When people have an emotional response to music that is purely emotional I highly encourage them to go and listen to that music OUTSIDE the liturgy where such music belongs.
    So many popes, so many councils have told us what is supposed to be at the center of the mass. Chant first, Polyphony second, hymns next. I've seen no official church documents that change that order.

    As for me and my choir, we shall obey.

  15. Nostalgia is not all bad. Etymologically it is longing for home. Many people have been alienated by music they don't feel belongs to them; thus nostalgia for the familiar. This suggests a responsibility for musicians–replace old familiar music only gradually and with things that are unquestionably excellent, for they will have to last a long time, if they take at all.

  16. Dr. Mahrt, agreed, my comment is not for those whose nostalgia makes them long for Victoria, or Palestrina it's for those whose nostalgia makes them long for Eagles Wings, or Be Not Afraid, or any of the muck of the last 200 years (obviously not all is muck but Eagles Wings didn't just pop out of thin air).


  17. Ger, hence my advice to build choirs with really strong TB sections. Also, when performing hymns/songs/ordinaries, if possible confine the melody to the men, altos sing alto and sopranos sing either/both descants or the tenor line 8va. The bedrock for congregational support (besides the organ) is the men.
    We've actually had folks sitting in areas where they can't see us in the transept come up after Mass and say "You have women in choir? We thought it mostly guys."
    And when the tessitura of a tune like Toolanbread calls for mighty (but not Bertolucci) tenors, insure that they don't use an "Irish, sweet" tenor, but a rich tone. Crooners will lose the folks immediately.
    And we can hear the guys in the pews. Mostly the chants, though, as they have some sort of swtich go on. Now if I could get our priests to chant orations at every Mass save the early Sunday.

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