Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Hymns.


Another thing I've failed to get is the seething hatred that many 'traditional' liturgists have for hymns. You see it all over sites like NLM, where people are fine to blithely equate The Westminster Hymnal or The English Hymnal with Glory and Praise of RitualSong. They act as if the bad example of Catholic parishes therefore validates an illogical exclusion of poetry and music from the worship of God, as if the idea that because using musically poor,poetically poor, and doctrinally heretical texts at mass is wrong, it's therefor wrong to use texts of high musical quality, doctrinal orthodoxy and breathtaking poeticism.

Obviously that does not follow because the two do not correlate.

The idea that hymns do not belong at mass also finds little support in my mind. For one, it's demonstrably false that their use is a modern invention. It ought to be obvious to any Catholic that high mass before the council generally involved the use of congregational hymns, and that the low mass with hymns was quite popular. It ought to be known that there are references to congregational hymns in vernacular at the procession at the end of mass, and Latin congregational hymns during mass as early as the 18th century.

Nextly, one common argument is that the use of hymns at mass is an abuse, therefore we should not do it. The obvious flaw in this is that law and the rubrics do not necessarily govern what it right or proper, only what is permissible. They ought to recognise that 94% of the Catholic world is stuck with a rite of mass where it is illegal to genuflect during mass. They ought to realise that in the U.S., we're stuck with a Bishops Conference that authorised 'Sing To The Lord' and their other law and liturgical guidelines, where the use of guitars and other instruments is allowes and even encouraged. They ought to realise that we live in a church where the liturgical law allows altar girls and communion in the hand.
Will they continue with the argument that church law governs what is right and proper, or will they realise that even the law can be wrongheaded?

Besides, the use of hymns during mass is well attested to. One need only look at the many processional hymns of the middle and late medieval age, or the many sequences, the use of hymns during rites which happen during mass. (Like the blessing of the Holy Oils, when the hymn 'O Redemptor' is sung, or the veneration of the Cross when the 'Vexilla Regis' is sung, or even the Exultet (Which is, in fact, a hymn) Or the singing of the Veni Creator during masses of profession or ordinations.) All of these attest to the use of hymns in the roman rite, without mentioning the use of hymns during mass in the many other rites of the West.

Leaving off direct counters to arguments, I want to return to the theme of Philistinism that I already mentioned. The mindset that 'Lord Jesus, Think on Me' is of the same quality as 'Shine, Jesus Shine', or that 'Who is She that Ascends So High' or 'Maiden yet a Mother' is on the same level as 'Hail Mary, Gentle Woman', or that 'Hail, Sweet Victim, Life and Light' is the same as 'One Bread, One Body', for the simple reason that all of these are hymns.
No regard of quality of text or music is taken. No distinction between the majestic music of Bach,Terry,or Vaugn-Williams and that of the St.Louis Jesuits is made. In their mind, they are correct to consign the masterpieces of English literature and musical composition to the same level as the dry,vapid, and unpoetic lyrics and insipid saccharine tunes of modern hymns.
They are men and women whose logic would make the works of Van Eyeck to be of the same quality as the broken glass blank canvases of modern art, for the simple reason that both are artists.

And lastly, these are people who without knowing it, defy their own logic. What is the actual difference between a choir singing the Ave Verum Corpus or 'Soul of My Saviour'? What is the difference between them singing Monteverdi's 'Ave Maris Stella' or 'Hail, O Star that Pointest'?
Why can they sing a setting of 'O Esca Viatorum', but may not sing 'O Food of Exiles Lowly'? In all of these cases, the texts are the same, but those who would refuse hymns during the mass would allow the the first of each choice, but disallow the second. Were they to be logically consistent, they would have to disallow the singing of choral motets during mass (For motets are in fact hymns, not just by text but by their use and by definition of what a hymn is.)
Of course, they would have to turn their backs on thousands of years of Catholic tradition and practice, and expressed law allowing and even praising the use of motets, but that is their quandary, not mine.

As for me, I'll just await the beatific vision, hymnal in hand, whilst singing 'Heavenly Sion, mirror Shining' to Regent Square.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I'm trying to think of "non-liturgical" hymns in our customs. The obvious one I can think of is at the antidoron. In most churches, it is no longer done during psalm 33 in the Liturgy, (and in fact, it is a feat to find a parish where they even bother singing that wonderful post-communion psalm), but transpose it to the end of the Liturgy. Sometimes you'll find a hymn being sung here, and a few things have been composed for the purpose.

The other point is during the communion of the clergy. There's a short psalm verse provided to be sung during this time. Historically, the entire psalm was sung with the verse provided was an antiphonal refrain after each verse (the whole thing done between left and right choirs) but this usage is forgotten in most places, though there have been recent efforts at restoring it. As such, the single verse is chanted, leaving nothing appointed while the clergy partake. As the Byzantine Rite eschews silence, something is usually done as a space-filler: pre-communion prayers, a short homily, a reading from the day's synaxarion (martyrology), or sometimes a hymn.

Those are the only points that occur to me.