Editor’s Note: Each contributor is reflecting upon Comparison of 15 Traditional Catholic Hymnals. Rather than rehashing Mr. Craig’s article, they were given freedom to “expand upon” this vast subject. Click here to read all the installments that have appeared so far.
READ WITH GREAT delight Daniel Craig’s article, because I share his great respect for careful hymn editors. Hymns are such a conspicuous and ever-present feature of the way people experience liturgy in a parish setting, even if they are secondary to the tradition of plainchant. Good hymnody marries memorable music with excellent poetry in a way that enhances both components. Mr. Craig’s review thoroughly examines the way several current hymnals accomplish this (or attempt to).
One important and underappreciated aspect of hymnody is the tendency of tunes to mutate and evolve over time. Music is a language, and as with all languages its pronunciation and usage change. Hymn tunes and styles of singing and accompanying are very different now from a mere 150 years ago, just as the texts are. To most modern listeners, the original versions of beloved hymn tunes (for instance, ST THOMAS) would sound strange and jarring. In creating a hymnal, the compilers must sift through countless variants, considering issues of fidelity to the source, appropriateness of style, compatibility with the text, singability by a congregation, and oral tradition of familiar tunes. All of that comes before even considering the harmonization!
“Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”
As an example, consider “Holy God, we praise thy Name,” which in many parishes is sung every single day. As is typical for ubiquitous tunes, this melody goes by at least five different names, and has been associated with many texts. Of course, in the Catholic tradition, it is linked almost exclusively with the Te Deum, and is widely used at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The tune originates in an Austrian Catholic songbook of the eighteenth century, paired with a metered text that paraphrases Augustine and Ambrose’s great improvisation. The German serves as a model for Fr. Walworth’s English—six-line stanzas that rhyme ABABCC. Here is how the original went:
There are some minor melodic differences from the modern version we all know, but the melody as a whole is recognizable, and you could easily sing the English words to this tune. Notice that each musical phrase begins and ends on the same notes as the familar version. More revealing are the large-scale differences. The AAB form (not to be confused with the text’s rhyme scheme) is typical of German hymns, whereas in this country the form is often rounded out to AABB by repeating the second half (we usually sing “Infinite thy vast domain” twice). The compound meter would also never occur to an English speaker; we have a strong preference for the last accented syllable of each line to fall on a downbeat. This kind of compound barring for tunes was completely normal in eighteenth-century German-speaking countries. And while this setting is lovely, the harmony and bass are as simple as possible (only primary chords with a functional rather than melodic bass), which would be a fault in a modern hymnal.
By the time of Lyons’s The Catholic Psalmist, from 1859, we have the modern tune paired with something like the modern text. The B section is still not repeated. But the melodic ascent in the B section has the skipping eighth notes that many of us know now. Such ornaments are frequent in nineteenth-century hymns, and modern editors tend to excise them, as they have a tendency to sound like folk music. Consider this example on the very next page:
I have never heard anyone sing eighth notes there. By the same logic, many editors remove the eighth notes in “Holy God.” These ornaments often lead to contrapuntal flaws, as shown here:
The contrary motion in version a is a natural way to approach this half cadence. Version b results in parallel octaves. Admittedly, I don’t think these octaves sound bad, as the underlying motion is still the one shown in version a. Indeed, one of the better modern harmonizations from the list of fifteen hymnals does exactly what is shown in version b.
In this case, the oral tradition may have won out. I have attended Benediction services where the organist steadfastly played quarter notes throughout (as was printed in the books in the pews), and the congregation serenely went on with these chordal leaps, often creating the situation in example b. This seems to go against the spirit of the act of communal singing. What is the right editorial practice in this case? I think a good editor, and indeed a good choir director, would take many factors into consideration.
I don’t have all fifteen of the hymnals in question, but of the ones I do have, it is interesting to see how the editors handle these questions. I think the choices in this hymn reinforce Mr. Craig’s assessment well, so I will mention only two in particular. The New Westminster Hymnal uses quarter notes and no repeat. This streamlines the tune and makes it more hymn-like—more similar to other tunes that populate our hymnals. Hymns, Songs, and Spiritual Canticles has the eighth notes and the repeat, which is written out in full with a deceptive cadence the first time, which gives a musical reason for the repetition. Marier’s harmonization in particular is daring and fresh (and with his usual impeccable counterpoint), which is perfect for such a widely known hymn.
All of these niceties serve a purpose—because of whom we are working for, we must work out every detail of our work on sacred music with great care and reverence. This applies not only to musicians, but also (and perhaps even more) to those who make the books we sing from. This is the theme I see running through Mr. Craig’s article, and may it be a lesson to us all to spare no effort on details.