VER THE YEARS, numerous articles have treated the question of “Voice of God” hymns (songs). The typical example is Suzanne Toolan’s I Am The Bread of Life, where each member of the congregation adopts the “voice of God” singing phrases like, “And I will raise you up on the last day.” Some claim these songs are acceptable because Gregorian chant occasionally employs the “voice of God.” Others disagree, since a Schola Cantorum singing verbatim Biblical verses (especially in Latin) is not the same as every member of the congregation using the “voice of God.”
There is also the question of the quality of so much contemporary hymnody. I’m not a poet, so I need to be careful what I say. However, so many contemporary hymn texts are what I call Rhyming Dictionary hymns. They’re uninspired, and (what’s worse) I always know in advance which word will be used to complete the rhyme. It’s as if the author relied heavily on a rhyming dictionary to write these texts. I feel that poetry should not be so predictable.
Professor László Dobszay has given the final word on “voice of God” hymns in this brilliant article. To some extent, he also treats Rhyming Dictionary hymn texts:
EITHER CAN WE disregard the form of the texts. The Introit of the Ascension begins thus: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into Heaven?” Whom do we hear speaking in this chant? It is the speech of God, of course, and then of the Church — but in the words of the angels. This is a chant of representation. And we have already seen Christ speaking in the Easter Introit, “I am risen and am still with thee …” […]
All these examples have one thing in common. In them, someone speaks. Now, when we listen to a strophic hymn, this precise effect of locutio directa is diminished, indeed disappears completely. When we sing even the finest hymns, we feel they are the compositions of a poet — it is the poet who speaks in these chants. And that difference is a consequence of the form. There, the flow of thoughts, the length and linkage of phrases, the selection of words is defined and determined by the poetic form, by its rhythmic structure and rhyme. The poem is artefactum, an artificial construct, artistic opus. And when the result is not of the highest quality in either its theological or poetical dimension, then we sense even more vividly that the necessities of the poem direct the thought, rather than vice versa. One need not at all despise sung poetry in hymns, even those of extra-liturgical origin, in order to recognize that hymns can never be such speech-like texts as one finds in free biblical prose.
Since the chants of the Mass proper, with but few exceptions, are based upon biblical texts they are, again with but few exceptions, manifestations of a “spiritual speech” rather than “poems.” Finding their own pleasant articulation, they proceed with the naturalness of speech; the singer can take it on his lips as speech delivered in a special way. This is what Ewald Jammers meant when he affirmed that “Man does not ‘compose’ music to God’s word; instead, he pronounces it. And he does so at worship by speaking not in the language of the Everyday, the language of the marketplace, but rather in a solemn singing voice.” Psychologically, the prose form always approximates speech more closely; when pronouncing a text of this kind, we feel more easily that we are praying. This is not to say that prayers in strophic form cannot be uttered with a prayerful mentality. But even then, there always remains something that makes us feel we are speaking “in quotation marks.”
Of course, for good Church music to come back, we need to accept the fact that the congregation is not required to sing everything at Mass. We need to once again become comfortable with the congregation actively listening as a choir or Schola sings, as the Second Vatican Council ordered. I hope to address some of these issues in a future blog, which I plan on giving the (provocative) title Leave Me Alone.