Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bad Hymnody

Today in church we sang one of my least favorite hymns in the entire world, Marty Haugen's "Shepherd Me, O God", that one with:

God is my shepherd,
so nothing shall I want,
I rest in the meadows
of faithfulness and love,
I walk by the quiet waters of peace.

And, in the next verse:

Gently you raise me
and heal my weary soul,
you lead me by pathways
of righteousness and truth,
my spirit shall sing
the music of your name.

After being subjected to the hymn of explication and allegorizing, sung with the musical notes of loyalty and gentleness, accompanied by the piano of fidelity and hope, I always wish neckties were a handier way to strangle oneself than they actually are. At least it's not technically wrong about anything; this is indeed one way you could read Psalm 23. One way you could read it without being forced to sing it heavy-handedly as if it were the only thing to be had from it. You could substitute all of the abstract nouns, Mad Lib style, without seriously changing the song, so it's even worse than just an over-allegorizing hymn: it's an over-allegorizing hymn that makes the allegory empty and meaningless. You could just as easily sing:

I rest in the meadows
of honesty and truth,
I walk by the quiet waters of hope.

you lead me by pathways
of gentleness and faith...

Or anything else at all. It reminds me of the (much prettier) Bette Midler song (actually Nanci Griffith, but Bette Midler made it very famous), "From a Distance", which would not fundamentally change if you substituted "on the TV" for every instance of "from a distance":

On the TV the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
On the TV the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.

I'm pretty sure I've seen that program. And I'm very sure that, somewhere out there, someone's life just suddenly makes so much more sense at the words, "God is watching us...on the TV."

The pinnacle of poetry is that every word counts, so it's not surprising that a sign of weak lyrics is that the words don't matter. This isn't a problem if you're singing "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"; it's a little more problematic when you're singing a hymn.


  1. My shorter, less patient take on this: Coolio gets closer to the truth of the thing than Marty does. Not a good sign for a "composer of sacred music."

  2. MrsDarwin10:34 AM

    This was one of the several sad selections at the First Communion Mass this weekend. I was sitting behind a lady who wasn't Catholic, and viewing the whole proceedings through her eyes, I writhed throughout most of the Mass. I think, if I were not Catholic and sitting through such a Mass, I would wonder why the Catholics were ashamed of beauty and anything that seemed to have any historical antecedent. The hymns were weak, the service music unimpressive. Especially in these liturgies at which we can be expected to have non-Catholic visitors, why can't we put our best on display, instead of our worst?

    The kids came up after Communion to sing a song of thanksgiving (my daughter didn't actually know the song since we weren't in classes this year), and I was moved almost to tears by the banality of this totally forgettable piece. "...And though we are so many here today, we all are one..." I can go into any classroom and teach any child who can sing English to sing Gregorian chant, but here was an example of the strange paradox of children being presumed too stupid to learn Latin, and yet being expected to sing from memory an unfamiliar song instead of a classic hymn.

  3. branemrys3:35 PM

    I think a lot of the problem is that all the most people listen to or even write today is casual but insincere, so it lacks all the beauty of true formality and respect and yet also lacks all the beauty of being the sort of thing that anyone would sing directly from the heart. So the only thing that can possibly salvage it is someone who can sing anything and make it sound good. But this is an awful situation for public music like hymns.

  4. MrsDarwin9:27 PM

    I think you're right, because the point of hymns is that they are the original "popular" music; the populace sings them. And since the abilities of the populace vary considerably, the hymn itself needs to have weight and depth.

    The best hymns, and all Gregorian chant, can also be sung a cappella and sound just as good as with accompaniment. I once had to sing a mass unaccompanied because the organist had a last-minute emergency, and had to switch out the Gloria -- the Gloria! -- because the arrangement we normally sing simply has no musical logic without the chords to make sense of the melody.

  5. Itinérante1:47 AM

    I am a little bit confused (maybe I am ignorant) but are not all the songs we sing at Church from the Church fathers' prayers or strict Pslamody?

  6. branemrys8:13 AM

    It depends on things like the particular rite, what the bishops allow or don't allow, and what people have developed the habit of expecting. In Europe and the Americas, outside of Eastern Catholic or specifically traditionalist parishes, the requirements are usually interpreted very loosely, so you can get very different things, and things that the rite allows sometimes -- like substituting a colloquial hymn for other music -- are done almost all the time, as if they were standards rather than exceptions.

  7. Timotheos10:11 PM

    Wait a second, I though that Marty Haugen hymns had been banned recently by the Geneva Convention…


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