Esolen on Hymns
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,712
    Esolen is a pretty well-educated guy. Note that in this essay the underlying presumption is the "Four Hymn Sandwich"; otherwise good stuff here! (This has been edited for length. The entire essay is available at https://www.crisismagazine.com/2018/why-traditional-hymns-are-superior-to-modern-ones)

    I’m sometimes accused, when I write about bad hymns, of wanting to impose a single style upon everyone. That’s strange. It’s like saying that all classical music sounds the same; Bach, Brahms, Dvorak, Debussy, all the same. I point out that the hymns in a good hymnal were composed over a period of 1,600 years. I say that their melodies come in a staggering variety...

    That said, some features are common to all good congregational hymns. These are dictated by the kind of thing we are talking about, as you make a table out of wood and not grass, because of what a table is and how we use it.

    A congregational hymn is for the congregation. ... That means men, women, and children, from basso profondo to treble. Since they are not trained singers, the intervals should be easy to negotiate, the range should be comfortable, the key should not be too high (both men and women are shakier on the high end of the scale), the rhythm should be straightforward, and the melody should be, well, something you could hum after you hear it a couple of times, because of repetition...

    Most contemporary hymns fall afoul of one or more of those desiderata. Please, we’re talking about hymns for a congregation, not Gregorian chant, or polyphony. I mean everybody rather than just a few voices, usually female, going through the motions...

    ...Thomas Day, in Why Catholics Can’t Sing, says that when the cantor has a microphone, and the volume is turned up, that sound will overwhelm everyone else. All you hear is the soprano or tenor, and the people sense that they ought to keep clear of the performance. ...The problem grows acute when the melody is that of an off-Broadway musical, to be crooned, or sung for stage business; if its oddball intervals and beats are reminiscent of “I Feel Pretty” in West Side Story, or if it is meant to showcase a strong voice, with notes held longer than untrained voices will sustain, as in the awful “One Bread, One Body.”

    If you read music you can tell at a glance whether a hymn is for a congregation or a soloist. See the dotted notes and long ties all over the place? See the skitter of note-lengths, from sixteenths to wholes tied to halves, or something? See the leaps hither and yon (in “On Eagle’s Wings,” for example)? A congregation is not going to sing those. ...

    ...Well, you should be able to pick up the melody of a good congregational hymn right away, and then, with a little jogging of the memory, continue it on your own. Think of the Irish air Slane (“Be Thou My Vision”). It doesn’t use repetition, its lilts are often a bit surprising, but the whole melody is coherent. Each part reflects the others, and the whole ends in a way that is characteristic of the Irish, three straight tonic notes. If people can pick up Slane, most of the other melodies will be easy by comparison. That includes medieval plainsong, with its typical movement up or down by only a note or two, as in the haunting and lovely Divinum Mysterium (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), but also songs with fourths and fifths, as in the anthem Salzburg (“Songs of Thankfulness and Praise”)...

    That being the case, should the choir be visible, making gestures to instruct the people when to jump in, or providing an example of what they ought to be doing? .... Not, I think, at a Catholic Mass. Put the cantor squarely in front of the people, and it will tempt both. The cantor will be tempted to perform, and the people will be tempted to let him do it. We should not be watching a performance.

    The choir should have our backs: we should be rushed along into singing, as from a current behind us and above us. The congregation must increase. ...

    Then we come to the instruments. Why should the organ be the premier instrument for congregational singing? Can’t a piano or a guitar work as well? No, they can’t. The reasons are obvious. Around that camp fire, you want the guitar and not the organ. You’re singing folk songs, everybody is within a few feet of you, and it’s not hard to pick up the tune and find your note: it’s what Joe is singing right next to you, or what Melanie is singing on the other side of the fire.

    But in church that doesn’t happen. The interior space is far too big, and the acoustics turn guitar-chords to mud. It won’t help if the guitarist is miked up; then it will be loud mud. But even if it weren’t so, the guitarist is ill-suited to lead the congregation, because he is not playing the melody. He’s playing chords. He makes a lead soloist necessary, and once again we are in the realm of a vocal performance, with all the troubles that entails.

    The pianist does play the melody, but the piano’s range is severely limited for singing hymns in a church. The organ was invented for the church. Justly has it been called the king of instruments. It best imitates the sound of a full symphony: woodwinds, strings, horns, the human voice. It can give us the sweet and gentle songbird, and the roaring lion. It can give us polyphony, when the organist is playing one melody in strings, with one hand, and a different melody in horns with the other. It can fill the interior of a church and make the walls and dome resound. The sheer variety of its sounds and their quality, tones and overtones aplenty, many notes played simultaneously and without diminution, allow any human voice to find its place. ...

    When you hear an organ, you will think of church, just as when you hear the tolling of a carillon. Other instruments recall other things: the piano, a smoke-filled tavern or a symphony hall or a chic restaurant. We hear a saxophone and we think of the blues. It’s idle to insist that it need not be so. In an alternate universe, but not in this one. It’s also idle to say that we need not have the bodily reactions that we do have for certain kinds of rhythms. Some mimic the beat of the heart at rest, or in joy. Rock and roll drums mimic the thrust of the body in sexual ascent and climax. For other kinds of creatures, in another universe, it might not be so. For us in ours, it is.

    ...if the songs are of the same character—if the emotional and spiritual palette is limited to pink and yellow, the pink and yellow will cloy, and people will lose interest. ... It’s true that you can play a wide variety of songs on any instrument. It’s not true, though, that the same emotional range, for a large interior space, and for song to be sung by hundreds of people at once and at the top of their voices, can be captured by any one instrument as well as it can by the organ. Better to sing a capella than to use instruments that do not fit the place or the purpose.


    But this brings me to the content of the hymns; from how we sing, to what we sing. More to come.