AM NO STRANGER to the typical musical situation in the Catholic Church. I certainly don’t want readers to label me as a nattering nabob of negativism (in the words of Spiro Agnew). Nevertheless, I think most readers would agree the current situation is heartbreaking. Goofy, undignified, secular songs are played during the Holy Mass, and frequently the texts are barely even Christian (much less Catholic). When I began working for the Catholic Church, my Pastor—who referred to himself as “the most conservative priest in the city”—urged me to play You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings after Communion. He told me it was his favorite COMMUNION MEDITATION SONG. (I refused to play it.) Through no fault of their own, some clerics have no idea what constitutes liturgical music. I hardly need to belabor the point; most readers are all too familiar with the situation.
Simple Music Done Well • I personally can’t stand hearing music done poorly. I suspect I got this trait from my mother. That’s why I regularly promote sacred music within reach of the ‘average’ Catholic cantor, organist, or choir. Something I’ve praised over and over is the “shared melody technique” pioneered by the Brébeuf Hymnal.
Not So Fast! • I have emphasized that “marrying” hymn texts with hymn tunes must be approached with sensitivity. At the same time: You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all the time. Different cultures have different traditions and expectations. For example, in Germany, the melody for O SANCTISSIMA is reserved for Christmas Eve. Needless to say, in the United States, we sing O SANCTISSIMA (with a text to the blessed mother) throughout the liturgical year.
Example A • Some pairings, in my humble opinion, are indefensible. Consider this example from the “Hymnal of Christian Unity” published in 1964 by Clifford A. Bennett and Paul C. Hume. The IMPRIMATUR (24 April 1964) came from the bishop of Toledo:
Example B • The following pairs a text by SAINT ROBERT SOUTHWELL—a brave Jesuit priest, brutally martyred by the Anglicans in 1595AD—with a melody that’s … well, you’ll see:
Example C • The third example comes from the SAINT PIUS XII HYMNAL, published in 1959 with accompaniments by Joseph Roff. I think you’ll understand why I consider this a “pernicious” pairing:
Example D • The fourth example comes from the “Saint Rose Hymnal,” with an IMPRIMATUR from 1 October 1938. It pairs a cheerful, sparkling, bright melody (“Cor dulce, Cor amábile”) with the hymn sung on Good Friday:
Example E • The following comes from the “Laudate Hymnal” published in 1942 by Father Green and Father Koch. They pair a traditional Marian tune with a Christmas text:
Example F • Finally, consider this example from “Saint Mark’s Hymnal for Use in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States” (1910) published in Peoria, Illinois:
Enough Is Enough • I could easily provide more examples, but hopefully you understand the point I’m trying to make. Some of the worst examples come from today’s legacy publishers, such as GIA PUBLICATIONS and OREGON CATHOLIC PRESS. Whoever edits those books seems to lack a basic understanding of linguistic register. For example, in this recent GIA hymn, the register is a total disaster. The GIA book mixes less formal language like “the Way we’re called” with more formal language like “the road you trod.” Perhaps they did that because they couldn’t come up with anything to rhyme with “GOD.” The rhymes are juvenile and predictable (e.g. “the Life, the Truth, the Way” rhymed with “for each new day”). The results are ghastly, and such hymns are almost never sung by anyone. Those familiar with the wonderful hymn Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven—with a fabulous melody by John Goss (d. 1880)—will most likely be offended by that pairing.
Time Heals All Wounds • By the way, human beings can easily become accustomed to something—even if it’s incorrect. For example, many Protestants grew up singing a hymn called Abide with me with a text by Henry Francis Lyte (d. 1847). The melody is called “EVENTIDE.” The problem is, the very first word is wrong. The correct pronunciation is “a-BIDE” whereas the tune erroneously places the accent on the first syllable. Those who like this hymn will never admit the accentuation is flawed—they will go to their graves defending it. They’ve sung it so often that it no longer seems incorrect (to them). Another example of bad accentuation found in a popular hymn would be: “O comforter, to Thee we cry” in Father Caswall’s paraphrase of Véni Creátor Spíritus. The melody by Father Louis Lambillotte (d. 1855) places the accent as if it were “comfor-TER,” but the correct pronunciation is “COM-forter.” Yet another example comes from a gorgeous hymn called When I Survey the Wondrous Cross with text by Isaac Watts. Consider the accentuation of the word “sorrow” in its third verse. [However, that’s not as noticeable since it happens during an inner verse, rather than the first verse.]