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Modern Liturgical Music

May 28, 2014

Resolved:

As Roman Catholics observe the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” it seems an appropriate time to consider ways contemporary liturgical music supports the word proclaimed and preached. Contemporary liturgical composers and lyricists have done a great service to the church by cultivating “easy access to Sacred Scripture…for all the Christian faithful” (No. 22). They have sowed the word in the hearts, minds and memories of the faithful by uniting scripturally based texts with memorable melodies.

— From an article by Fr. Robert F. O’Conner, SJ, on the state of Catholic Church music in the US today.

 

In his article the author makes it clear that he is specifically discussing Church music written since 2000, so basing comments solely on music written in the 70’s will be missing the point.  (I think the first couple of iterations of modern music are worth considering, but the author is making the point about the most recent generation of works.)

I actually do not have a dog in this fight:  I am not familiar with recent compositions as the music director in my parish is not well versed in modern church music and tends to play “old” standbys (along with the various baroque pieces which are her real love).   The author does not cite any specific examples so references and links to recent hymns (the good, the bad and the ugly), would be appreciated.  But I am very interested in what folks have to say:  what is good and what is bad about the latest church music?  What are the criteria that should be used to judge it?

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46 Comments
  1. May 28, 2014 5:53 am

    For me, one criteria of modern music is how easy it is to sing. Last year, I went to sit shiva for an acquaintance. I arrived shortly before the evening prayer and the Kaddish. I was struck by how, even though I don’t know anything about Hebrew or Jewish liturgy, I was able to start humming along after a few minutes. I don’t know how that translates to modern church music, since it isn’t chant. But since the church wants the laity to sing, there is something to be said for simple chant melodies.

    • Jordan permalink
      May 29, 2014 5:57 pm

      re: emmasrandomthoughts [May 28, 2014 5:53 am]: But since the church wants the laity to sing, there is something to be said for simple chant melodies.

      Successful English language adaptations of the graduale simplex exist (Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers is a great example). Still, I have only encountered the Simple English Propers at local “high church” parishes’ Ordinary Form Masses. I don’t understand why more parishes of all levels of “churchmanship” aren’t making an earnest effort to integrate at least some of the English simple Gregorian propers into their Masses.

      Why do most American Catholics not have the chance to sing the Mass propers according to Gregorian tunes, despite the availability of Gregorian settings in the vernacular? I am convinced that many clergy and lay church professionals still believe that the assembly/congregation will not sing if the music does not resemble pop music in tempo, time, and instruments played. This is a dangerous fallacy. In my opinion, Catholics don’t sing because we are conditioned to not do so by culture. Our silence is not because many hymns sound like the love child of America and Joni Mitchell. Perhaps it is better to present Scripture through chant, and allow persons to learn by listening rather than by singing. The postconciliar/postmodern liturgical professional obsession with sung participation should be left aside in favor of a passive but intellectually engaged didacticism rooted in Catholic plainsong history and the liturgical sensibilities of many Catholics.

  2. May 28, 2014 1:23 pm

    You asked for comments on Catholic church music. By way of background, I have sung with a seminary Schola Cantorum, a 35-voice mixed church choir in Florida, and 2- to -3-person “choirs” in West Virginia. I am presently cantor in my faith community, and one of only two men who sing at our Saturday liturgy.

    For my money, most Catholic hymns are awful. Even as a boy soprano in elementary school, I knew that the music we were asked to sing was mawkishly sentimental and theologically “squooshy” although I didn’t even know those terms in Fourth Grade.
    Vatican II freed Catholic musicians to write new songs for us to sing. The result is a very mixed bag, indeed. The music is seldom designed for congregational singing, and the lyrics often sink from near poetry to mere doggerel. If you want to truly good congregational hymns listen to John Wesley and Isaac Watts. Those guys wrote for the people and the content of their hymns is solidly biblical.

    Contemporary protestant song writers have morphed into New Age styles more suited to Beyoncé or Josh Groben than to a worshipping congregation.

    Two examples of Catholic hymns that are problematic:

    “Be Not Afraid” is one of my favorite hymns. We sang it at my father-in-law’s funeral. But no congregation ever sings this music the way it was written. Who even knows what a double-dotted quarter note is? I have spent years learning to sing this correctly.

    On June 22, we will sing “Gather Us In.” While this is one of the more singable hymns in the repertory, the poetry is mundane at best. What exactly does “Give us the courage to enter the song” mean?

    I would go on, but I have not had a lot of time to research this response. I think you get the gist of what I am saying. Sorry if this sounds negative, but you asked for it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      May 28, 2014 2:20 pm

      No problem being negative. I would only note that the two hymns you cite are both over 20 years old, and perhaps older. Do you know any music from the past decade, good or bad?

    • May 28, 2014 2:55 pm

      “Be Not Afraid” is one of my favorite hymns. We sang it at my father-in-law’s funeral. But no congregation ever sings this music the way it was written. Who even knows what a double-dotted quarter note is? I have spent years learning to sing this correctly.”

      Good heavens, a double dotted quarter note? That’s exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about how a big part of the criteria for good music is how easy it is to sing, especially considering the vast majority of the laity, myself included, cannot sight read to save our lives. If we can read music, we spend about ten minutes a week on average practicing sight reading, so it had better be easy.

  3. Agellius permalink
    May 28, 2014 2:34 pm

    I was so traumatized by 70s music that I have been studiously avoiding parishes with modern music for years. So I have no idea what’s been written lately. : )

  4. Melody permalink
    May 28, 2014 6:43 pm

    Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but it seems like a lot of music composed since 2000 is missing in action. I know there is very little of it in use in our parish; but of course I already knew we weren’t cutting edge! The exception to that are the new Mass parts we all had to learn, in response to the new GIRM. I don’t have a problem with most of those changes, but I wish they had taken into consideration that some of them wouldn’t be easy to fit to music. I am thinking in particular of the “Lamb of God..” Our choirs had already learned a couple of new Masses, when the word came down that “Jesus, Lamb of God” had to be just “Lamb of God”. Which meant that lamb was three syllables; La-a-a-amb of God. Sounded like ba-aa-aa. which is maybe not entirely inappropriate.
    As far as newer hymns, the good, the bad, and the ugly; here are some examples. My prize for tooth-grinding lyrics goes to “Gather the People” by Dan Schutte. My un-favorite verse is verse 2: “Around this table we tell great tales, the wondrous stories of grace. We hold the mem’ry of Christ, the Lord, So we become what we eat.” One that both the choir and the congregation like, is “In Every Age” by Janet Whitaker. It is a couple of years older than 2000, but as I said there isn’t a lot to choose from. I think people find this song, based on Psalm 90, comforting. One that I really like, but which is a bit difficult for congregational singing, is “Cantate Domino” by Jan Michael Joncas.
    You asked what criteria should be used to judge music. I realize that I have said quite a bit about liking or not liking certain songs, and of course this isn’t the only criterion. But if people don’t like to sing particular song, all the good theology in the world isn’t going to make it meaningful to them. We should be mindful too, that music is a very individual thing, one person’s favorite may be another’s bane. I feel that church musicians should not cater to one type of music only; but try to have something for everyone.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      May 29, 2014 1:09 am

      Gather the People, Dan Schutte, 2004

      The publisher describes it as a spirited, syncopated entrance hymn. I love syncopation in Jazz; in church music, not so much. No scriptural references leaped out at me as I scanned the lyrics.

      In every Age

      Pretty, and I could see it as a communion meditation.

      I could not find a recording of Cantate Domino.

      With regards to your other comments: I would add that if a church musician tries to have something for everyone they should be ready to to expand their musical styles to match. Taking a song written in style X and playing it in style Y sometimes works but is often painful. (I am thinking of “Walkin’ in Jerusalem” a bluegrass classic, played in a 60 beats per minute, dirge style suitable for funeral music.)

      • James Sheehan permalink
        June 11, 2014 2:34 pm

        The lyrics of Schutte’s Gather the People are taken from St. Augustine sermon on the Eucharist.If a parish uses the song they could elaborate on the theology of Augustine.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          June 11, 2014 5:01 pm

          Thanks for the reference!

  5. Mark VA permalink
    May 28, 2014 8:24 pm

    What criteria should be used to judge the quality of contemporary liturgical music?

    I would recommend following the lead of St. John Cantius, Chicago. In my view, their approach to liturgy (which prominently includes music) is spiritually and intellectually rigorous – no flabby fluff. A bright happy star, in an otherwise uneven liturgical firmament:

    http://www.cantius.org/go/music/category/overview_sacred_music/

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      May 29, 2014 1:24 am

      With regards to musical style they go hard for Gregorian and polyphony—fine. Personally, I really like Gregorian but find polyphony too ornate. But it is hard to see based on the principles they enunciate for music (for Novus Ordo masses) why modern music, if it does what is claimed in the original article I am quoting, would not satisfy them as well:

      http://www.cantius.org/go/music/category/rubrics_of_liturgical_music/

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      May 29, 2014 1:37 am

      Actually, going through their stuff more closely, I found a very nice quote from JP II that I think captures the challenges of creating church music very well, though the jury is still out on whether modern church music has met the challenge. Perhaps only time will tell: 110 years ago, Pope Pius X was condemning Italian church music in the “theatrical style”—which probably includes the now beloved Requim by Verdi.

      “It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy.… Renewed and deeper thought about the principles that must be the basis of the formation and dissemination of a high-quality repertoire is therefore required. Only in this way will musical expression be granted to serve appropriately its ultimate aim, which is “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful”.”—Pope John Paul II—Chirograph on Sacred Music, 12 (November 22, 2003)

  6. Ronald King permalink
    May 29, 2014 7:47 am

    I do not pay much attention to the music unless it stimulates me one way or the other. At our young people Mass the music resonates with the rhythm of my formative rock’n’roll years with a couple of selections which sound a little like Fleetwood Mac–post formative years. However, my favorite tune is Ave Maria which I heard for the first time when I was hitching home from football practice in late summer of ’64 and I was given a lift by a man in a black Cadillac. He told me to listen to the most beautiful song he had ever heard so I did and he was right. The heart is what moves me.

  7. Roger permalink
    May 29, 2014 8:35 am

    Like most commenters I don’t know much of the post 2000 music – thank God for that!

    I believe what Cardinal Arinze wrote about the appropriate liturgical music is spot on:

    “Regarding music in the liturgy, he said, “we should start by saying that Gregorian music is the Church’s precious heritage. It should stay. It should not be banished. If therefore in a particular diocese or country, no one hears Gregorian music anymore, then somebody has made a mistake somewhere.”

    However, he continued, “the Church is not saying that everything should be Gregorian music. There is room for music which respects that language, that culture, that people. There is room for that too, and the present books say that is a matter for the bishops’ conference, because it generally goes beyond the boundaries of one diocese.”

    What should not be the case is “individuals just composing anything and singing it in church. This is not right at all – no matter how talented the individual is. That brings us to the question of the instruments to be used.

    “The local church should be conscious that church worship is not really the same as what we sing in a bar, or what we sing in a convention for youth. Therefore it should influence the type of instrument used, the type of music used. I will not now pronounce and say never guitars; that would be rather severe. But much of guitar music may not be suitable at all for the Mass.

    “The judgment would be left to the bishops of the area. It is wiser that way.”

    He continued: “People don’t come to Mass in order to be entertained. They come to Mass to adore God, to thank him, to ask pardon for sins, and to ask for other things that they need.

    “When they want entertainment, they know where to go, e.g., the parish hall or a theatre – presuming that their entertainment is acceptable from a moral theological point of view.”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      May 29, 2014 11:01 am

      Two comments: I am more than a little surprised that no one commenting here is familiar with the topic of the article I started this post with: church music written after 2000. This seems to be saying something, but I am not sure what.

      With regards to Gregorian chant: as I said before, I do like it. But it is worth remembering that as a musical tradition it nearly died, and much of what we have was preserved in a tiny handful of places and recreated in the 19th century. So the efforts to give it pride of place seem a bit ahistorical to me.

      • May 30, 2014 6:37 am

        “Two comments: I am more than a little surprised that no one commenting here is familiar with the topic of the article I started this post with: church music written after 2000. This seems to be saying something, but I am not sure what.”

        It isn’t so surprising, in a way. There isn’t any way of publicizing new hymns so that the average person in the pew will know about them. I have never seen a list purporting to identify the best new hymns of the year. I have never seen a CD or music collection of “The Best New Hymns of the Last Ten Years.” Of course, I have never looked for either such things, but at the same time, I doubt they exist. Does any hymn publication, including Oregon Catholic Press, identify and publicize new hymns as specifically that, new?

        The only way that I know of to identify hymns written within the last ten years is to read the date at the bottom of the hymn. But who can remember that for more than 30 seconds? I suppose I could go to a parish or cathedral during an non-Mass time and copy down the names of all the hymns listed in the books dated from the year 2000, but I’m not going to do that.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          May 31, 2014 2:29 am

          One way to identify new hymns is simply that they are new: for the most part, I can tell a hymn is old because I remember singing it in college/grad school/when I had my first job. I would expect that part of a music director’s job is to review recently published music, and I would bet that most of the liturgical publishers have catalogs and websites that make this easy to do. So why aren’t they adding it to the repetoire?

      • Melody permalink
        May 30, 2014 4:39 pm

        Re: Gregorian chant; there is hardly ever a discussion of modern church music in which usually several people suggest that the quality issues would be solved by a generous application of Gregorian chant. One could almost make a drinking game out of it. I’m not intending to pick on anyone in particular, but it reminds me of a school lunch dietician saying, “You kids are sooo going to like the addition of kale and quinoa to the menu. It’s so much better than the garbage you think you like.”
        Seriously, I’m not against chant; we use a sprinkling of it in our parish. However, the pieces I like the best, sequences such as Lauda Sion and Victimae Pascale Laudes, which actually have a melody, are deemed too difficult, especially since they are used only once a year. The usual run of chant suffers a lot from monotony, and if we overdo it, people are sure to mention it.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          May 31, 2014 1:59 am

          The Gregorian Chant drinking game: this has potential! :-)

    • trellis smith permalink
      June 2, 2014 11:59 pm

      I have never cared for Arinze’s propositions in most areas of thought, so I’m not surprised that his approach to music is equally authoritarian and uninspired. Few clerics are experts in music and when many attempt to inflict their theology unfortunately insipid music is the result.True experts in music and excellent musicians are rarely elitist and find excellence across all genres and times. The instrumentation is rarely relevant as to whether the music is liturgical. American Catholic liturgical music has long been know to descend from the Irish clerical establishment’s disdain for music along the same lines as this cardinal.

      • Jordan permalink
        June 3, 2014 12:47 pm

        trellis smith [June 2, 2014 11:59 pm]: American Catholic liturgical music has long been know to descend from the Irish clerical establishment’s disdain for music along the same lines as this cardinal.

        The 17th and 18th century Irish lived under harsh penal laws (unsuccessfully) designed to destroy Catholicism, so it’s not surprising that they did not develop a strong tradition of hymnody. Contrast this with the Germans and Poles, which developed a strong vernacular chorale tradition. I love Low Mass, so now you know which side of the family I gained my liturgical preferences from :-)

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          June 3, 2014 3:09 pm

          This thesis was advanced in the mid 1990’s in a book entitled “Why Catholics Can’t Sing.” Interesting premise, but truthfully I was never sure how much credence to give it.

        • trellis smith permalink
          June 6, 2014 1:46 pm

          This may well have been the origins of the lack of liturgical music as enunciated in that book,, but there is something else at work as I mentioned as Irish music really informs the modern music scene and plenty of time has passed for a correction and resurgence.

  8. May 31, 2014 2:46 am

    I would be very surprised if there were all that many parishes using hymnals that would include any music from the past ten years; there’s considerable lag on these things. My parish, which itself is less than ten years old, uses an English hymnal edition published in 1996. (The Spanish hymnal might be a 2011 edition, if it’s not the 2001 edition, but we only added a Spanish mass about two years ago.) Most of us probably won’t even be using hymnal editions that would include music that recent for another five to ten years. And, of course, very few songs in the hymnal are ever really recent, even if they are new to the hymn series. Even the contemporary music mass I occasionally end up at if I don’t make Sunday morning shows the lag; its main hymnal is from 1999, and none of the songs in the supplement that I could remember turn out to be later than the late 90s.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      June 1, 2014 5:25 am

      True, using hymnals will slow things down. But at least in the Midwest, it is common for a parish to buy missalettes that also have an extensive music section, or even a special seasonal hymnal. I would have thought that these would contain more modern music.

      • Melody permalink
        June 1, 2014 1:59 pm

        Our parish uses the OCP Music Edition, which is paperback and changed every year. Out of 441 songs, about 45 have copyright dates of 2000 or later. That’s about 10%, which seems reasonable, considering the large body of material written before that which is still in use. I think Brandon is right that there is a lag in these things, which is not necessarily bad.

      • June 1, 2014 5:06 pm

        That’s a good point. My parish also has the missalettes with music, although the latter is never, to my knowledge, used. Out of about 250 songs, not counting Gospel Acclamations and the like, there were 10 that had original copyright dates post-2000.

        I wonder if there’s also a problem with copyright here — the cost of putting together an anthology of music no doubt adds up quickly if you have to pay for any significant portion of it, and, except when people are already explicitly asking for a particular song, it might be hard to justify doing so when there are so many old standbys.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          June 2, 2014 12:34 am

          In our parish we don’t use hymnals—our music director puts together a song sheet for each week. (A terrible waste of paper, but that is besides the point.) She has some kind of reproduction license that lets her take music from a variety of sources. I can’t imagine it costs her that much to use any one particular hymn, but you may be right: switching to all new hymns might be a problem. On the other hand, a big publisher can probably negotiate a volume discount with a Catholic song writer, who probably does not have a lot of places to sell his/her music.

    • Agellius permalink
      June 2, 2014 10:45 am

      “Most of us probably won’t even be using hymnal editions that would include music that recent for another five to ten years.”

      This seems to point up the futility of trying to be “contemporary” with liturgical music. We need music that will still sound good 50 or 100 years from now, regardless of contemporary styles.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
        June 2, 2014 2:47 pm

        No, I think we need music that sounds good now, as well as music that will sound good in 100 years. There are certain older Marian hymns that make me cringe, but for May crownings I would include them because they sounded like the “right” kind of music to play to the older members of my Franciscan community. Fashions had changed and what was right and fitting for them was awful for me. This was not right or wrong, just a sign that musical fashions change. I am happy to admit (though unhappy in on some deeper level) that 14th century Lauda never made it into the “canon” of Catholic music and are now only appreciated by a small coterie of devotees of Medieval music.

        • Agellius permalink
          June 2, 2014 2:50 pm

          David:

          “There are certain older Marian hymns that make me cringe,…”

          I hear you, believe me. But I wonder if that’s because they were written according to the fashion of a particular age.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          June 3, 2014 12:05 am

          Indeed, it is. But my point was that for folks from that age, they were beautiful and meaningful and still inspire them. So I think it is possible and even good to have ephemeral church music, just as there have been other changes in church decoration and style.

        • Melody permalink
          June 3, 2014 5:20 am

          I confess to loving the old May procession hymns I learned as a child :)

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          June 3, 2014 10:12 am

          No worries: all tastes are just tastes!

      • Jordan permalink
        June 2, 2014 7:16 pm

        re: Agellius [June 2, 2014 10:45 am]: We need music that will still sound good 50 or 100 years from now, regardless of contemporary styles.

        It’s important to remember that postconciliar hymns are designed to be didactic more than aesthetic. The “catchiness” of the tune is designed to instruct the assembly in scripture. Yes, chant is scripture, but it’s purported by many to be an aesthetic not accessibile to an everycatholic today. I vehemently disagree, but so is the progressive zeitgeist today.

        David [June 2, 2014 2:47 pm] mentions the “traditional” (i.e. last two or three century-old) May Crowning hymns. I am convinced that the emphasis on scriptural didacticism in postconciliar hymns is a direct reaction to the usually non-scriptural or not-explicitly-scriptural basis of older hymns. The Lourdes Hymn, for example, praises the Mother of God as Queen of Heaven, but doesn’t offer instruction on this dogma and its scriptural basis. Perhaps at one time it could be presumed that most were well catechized and knew about the Queenship of Mary, but that cannot be presumed in a postchristian era.

  9. Agellius permalink
    May 31, 2014 8:57 pm

    “and if we overdo it, people are sure to mention it”

    This is the problem. We have changed the liturgy into a matter of market research. A huge mistake in my opinion.

  10. Melody permalink
    June 1, 2014 8:15 am

    “This is the problem. We have changed the liturgy into a matter of market research.” It’s nothing anywhere near as formal as research. Just feedback, standing around talking after Mass, or running into someone at the grocery store. We want feedback, it is helpful to us (when I say “we” I am just speaking of the choir group I am a member of, in our parish). Most of the feedback we get is positive and appreciative. We want to know if someone would like to hear a particular hymn, we will try to work it in where it is liturgically appropriate. The negative feedback usually takes the form of dead silence where there should be singing in the congregation, or a remark such as, “Well, that was different!” Sometimes it is a matter of people getting used to it. Sometimes it is just a dud. We don’t want, and our pastor doesn’t want, music to be something that is forced or inflicted on the congregation. Liturgy means “the work of the people”. We want them to have a vested interest in the music.

  11. June 1, 2014 9:02 am

    Ok, when I went to the vigil Mass last night, I looked through the hymnal, and I have a question.

    What is a new hymn?

    Here is what I meant. I was checking the dates on both the music and the lyrics, and quite frequently there is a hymn with new music and old lyrics, or vice versa. It was rare to see a hymn with new music AND new lyrics in the hymnal.

    I saw one hymn with new lyrics, but the music was to Ode to Joy. Is that a new hymn?

    If someone writes new music to Pange Lingua, is that a new hymn?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      June 2, 2014 12:31 am

      New lyrics and new settings are not exactly new tunes. On the other hand, the Wesley brothers got a lot of mileage out of this. In the context of the original article, I would say new lyrics are more apropo.

  12. Julia Smucker permalink*
    June 1, 2014 3:50 pm

    Posts like these always make me think of Pray Tell, and unsurprisingly there is a post on that blog today that is apropos of this discussion:
    http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2014/06/01/hymns-these-days/

    I like the author’s point about good words for a hymn text being ones that are common to both everyday and mythic language, which he illustrates with a contemporary poem. Here’s his explanation:

    The poem is set in contemporary, rural America. The nouns of the first four stanzas reinforce that fact: truck, slippers, twine, pickup, shots. He is writing from Main Street.

    The early stanzas paint a fine scene, but it is the final stanza that makes the poem.

    He traces the bear’s no longer living skull
    with the living bones of his fingers
    and wonders by what impossible road
    he will come to his father’s country.

    Consider the nouns: bear, skull, bones, fingers, road, father, country.

    None of these words are antiquated. They are all part of our everyday syntax.

    Then why is this stanza different? Because these nouns are shared. They are words common to both to the syntax of everyday and the syntax of myth.

    Here is a crude experiment as proof: ‘and wonders by what impossible street’

    Street is strictly our word.

    Road is ours, but also belongs to the world of Beowulf, Odysseus, Jesus, and the Buddha.

    This is not the key to writing great hymn texts, but if new texts are to survive, they need to play their part in convincing us that the streets of our life comprise a way, and share a road.

    I will also reproduce my comment here as it fits the discussion:

    I am reminded of hearing one hymn writer make a comment in favor of using the word “bullet” in hymns rather than the more archaic “sword”. I countered that “bullet” is less sonorant phonetically (the centralized vowel on an accented syllable makes it an awkward word to sing), but I realized on further reflection that my instinctive objection went further: the word “sword”, despite or perhaps because of its absence from “everyday syntax” (the linguist in me would say “lexicon” here rather than syntax, but point well taken anyway), carries a symbolic potency that “bullet”, for whatever reason, simply does not have.

    I am not automatically for or against modern hymn texts; there are a good number I find moving (including several by the aforementioned writer), and a comparable number I find too prosaic. I remember once being particularly struck (not in a good way) by a line that began, “And often the reaction….” I don’t remember the rest, but I thought it sounded more suited to a classroom discussion than a hymn. A text should be accessible enough that we know what we’re saying, but there is also something to be said for treating hymnody as a form of poetry.

    A good example of both at once is “Hark! The herald angels sing”, which has a ring of poetic antiquity and is also a great improvement over the original line, “Hark how all the welkin rings”.

    Incidentally, David, I completely share your taste regarding syncopation (“I love syncopation in Jazz; in church music, not so much”). Much depends on context.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      June 2, 2014 12:45 am

      Thanks for the link to Pray-Tell Blog! They have some very interesting and nuanced discussions. With regards to the word bullet: it is both an ordinary word and it draws on a mythos. It is redolent of Westerns and war movies, both modern American mythos. An example of this is the Nickelback song “Side of a Bullet”

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        June 2, 2014 9:45 pm

        OK, I see your point to an extent, but this is a little different from congregational singing. I dare you to write the word “bullet” convincingly into a hymn text.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          June 3, 2014 12:17 am

          Alas, I have little skill at writing lyrics or I would take you up on this. I googled “christian hymn” and “bullet” and found several pieces of contemporary christian music with bullet in the lyrics, but none seemed to qualify as a hymn.

    • trellis smith permalink
      June 6, 2014 2:06 pm

      Please Note: Please delete preceding similar comment sent in error, the following is the correction.

      Just to have an opposing taste,,, syncopation and even jazz masses are not inimical to liturgical music… some beautiful South African liturgical music is nothing but syncopated and the Celtic Irish Wedding Mass by William Coulter incorporates a variety of Irish rhythms including a jig.

  13. Agellius permalink
    June 3, 2014 3:35 pm

    David:

    “But my point was that for folks from that age, they were beautiful and meaningful and still inspire[d] them.”

    Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. : )

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