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.
INCE Mr. Craig’s excellent article comparing fifteen different Catholic hymnals seemed comprehensive, I hope the reader will permit to delve into the Why behind the What of hymns. The word “hymn” is one of the earliest music words in all languages. One of the earliest sacred hymns is the OXYRHYNCHUS HYMN, which dates from the 3rd century, and is probably the earliest christian hymn outside of the sacred scriptures. Only a tiny fragment of this remains, but it is possible to reconstruct the text:
Our faith is a singing faith—it cannot be stressed enough that our response to the gifts that Christ has bestowed on us is an expression which we return in praise through music. Our return is a singing thanksgiving, an offering of praise in response to Grace. As pope emeritus Benedict says in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy:
When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song. Indeed, man’s own being is insufficient for what he has to express, and so he invites the whole of creation to become a song with him: “Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds” (Psalm 57:8f).
This concept need to be restored to the center of our theology of worship, and it is clearly evident in the musical history of the Church…Indeed, the mind boggles when thinking of the vast catalogue of musical response that Grace has generated in the human heart. It is as if the incarnation has opened up a spring of praise in the human soul, which is still flowing, expressed everywhere humans gather in his name. As Saint John Paul II says in his Letter to the artists:
The Church also needs musicians. How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.
The great canon of hymnody of the christian church constitutes one of the greatest of treasures of our heritage… We have not the space to discuss much about this vast topic, but I will merely raise some salient points about it’s development.
E WOULD DO WELL to remember that many of the doctors of the church were also hymn writers. Firstly, we can name St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (St. Aurelius Ambrosius; c. 340-397), who is considered the first hymn writer of the Church. From his pen we have a number of extant beautiful hymns, including Veni Redemptor Gentium, a Christmas hymn (sometimes also used during Advent):
Come thou redeemer of the earth
And and manifest thy virgin-birth:
Let every age adoring fall;
Such birth befits the God of all.
Begotten of no human will,
But of the spirit thou art still,
The Word of God in flesh arrayed,
The promised fruit to man displayed…
Here’s a recording by a young lady (Soprano) in ninth grade:
His Memorial is on December 7th – so don’t forget to sing one of his hymns on that day!
Another doctor of the Church of great importance is of course, Aquinas. (Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274). While vast amounts of scholarship have been dedicated to the SUMMA, comparatively little has been devoted to his hymns. There are a number remaining, and certainly one of the most important is Adoro Te Devote, a Eucharistic hymn, and a treasure of Eucharistic theology; indeed most of his surviving hymns center around the Sacrament of the Eucharist. As well as being a hymn for adoration of the Sacrament par excellence, Adoro Te is also a hymn that represented—for Aquinas—a most personal response to Christ. The fine translation by Father Gerald Manley Hopkins, SJ, renders it thus:
Godhead here in hiding,
Whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows,
shape and nothing more.
See, Lord at thy service,
Low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder,
At the God Thou art.
The feast day of Aquinas is January 28th, so don’t forget to sing one of his hymns on that day!
In discussing this topic, we can see already that it is a misconception to say that “hymns are protestant.” Although our protestant brothers and sisters created many beautiful original texts, very often many “new” hymns were free translations or adaptations of early office hymns.
What Is A Hymn?
So we might now ask the question: “What is a hymn?” Although the word has had multiple definitions through the ages, one thing seems clear. The idea of a “hymn” is that the text is written in a metrical rhythm, so that the text can be sung over and over to the same tune. We see this structure even in the earliest office hymns, and this structure has endured down to every hymnal that we see in a church. And we should note another defining characteristic; Hymnody is NOT soloist music. It is truly a genre which was created and intended for “participatio” and evolved from this necessity (“form follows function”). We can open up any hymnal and see this… To illustrate this, I’m going to choose just one tune; HYFRYDOL (“Love Divine” — “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”); We note that right away, the first phrase is repeated, and only after the first phrase is repeated, do we have the other two phrases, and of course, we return to the beginning of the tune again for each verse. This brilliant invention was a boon to congregation singing. If you look at a standard hymnal, about 75% of the tunes begin with a repeated first phrase.
While it seems that many streams of chant were developing in the church in different geographical areas, it is evident that some of the canon of chant was intended for a trained choir—the more melismatic chants, and the “Jublius” Alleluia come from this repertoire, while there also existed a simpler more direct syllabic chant repertoire that was intended for the people—this is a later development. As Eric Routley says in his book The Music of christian Hymns:
The association of plainsong with metrical texts is then a later development which might be expected to have profound effects on the very nature of sacred music. The most obvious difference produced by a metrical text is where plainsong abandons the (syllabic) nature of chant and becomes “through composed.”
The other aspect in the development of the hymn tune was the singing of psalms to Gregorian tones. These tones, parlayed across the eight church modes (oktōēchos), by their nature had well defined beginning motives, reciting tones, and finals. These tones, of course were, repeated. This practice also shaped the development of the metrical hymn tune. Dr. Routley says:
“…it seems to have been found that a true melody, closing up the recitation and replacing it with a regularly-moving tune, was an agreeable advance on the chant style.”
Lest I digress endlessly, the point to be made here is that metrical hymn tunes were not a 19th century invention, but actually an early development growing naturally from chant. — And furthermore, it was connected to music for the Mass, and that due to a greater need for communal singing (as Dr. Routley says “a liturgical chamber music”).
As you might surmise, personally speaking, I’ve had a long association with hymns in my work. I recently released a CD on RosaMystica Recordings, of arrangements and compositions based on hymn tunes. For the CD, I was interviewed on the topic of hymnody, those interested can access the interview on my website.