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Author looks at great hymns, and the stories behind them
BY Father George Rutler
Forty years ago, C.S. Lewis described most hymns as “fourth-rate poetry set to fifth-rate music.” Nowadays the situation is far worse, says theologian Father George Rutler. But it needn't be, given the Catholic Church's rich patrimony of hymns. Father Rutler is the author ofBest and Brightest Stories of Hymns (Ignatius Press), a collection of great hymns and their inspiring stories, from the early days of the Church Fathers up to the 20th century (see review, pg. 9). Father Rutler spoke with Register Correspondent Mark Brumley. The New York-based priest is also the host of a 13-part video series, Stories of Hymns, which originally aired on the Eternal Word Television Network. Recently, he spoke with Register Correspondent Mark Brumley.
Mark Brumley: Why a book on hymns?
Father Rutler: I wrote this book, unlike most of my books, as a kind of diversion. I began reflecting more and more on my anxiety about the poor quality of hymns in the Church. And I thought to myself that I had had the good fortune of being brought up with a wonderful repertoire of hymns — most of which are unfamiliar to Catholics. I was a convert and was brought up as an Anglican — Episcopalian — and I was a choirboy. Every week we had to practice these hymns. I knew so many by heart and most of them, certainly, are suitable for Catholic worship today. In fact, a great many of them are Catholic hymns that have been lost in the liturgical chaos in the Catholic Church. By a massive irony, they have been preserved outside of the Catholic Church. With very good translations, they certainly are recoverable. So the book just began as a kind of meditation about what I thought were my favorite hymns, and hymns of significance also to the Church. Many of them are familiar to Catholics already. Some were authored by Orthodox or Protestant writers, but are certainly Catholic in sentiment.
But your book is about more than hymns. It's the story of these hymns.
Yes. And these stories are about the authors of the texts, many times [about] the people who translated them into English. These are fascinating individuals themselves. It is also about the composers of the music.
What period are these hymns taken from?
The earliest hymns I cover go back to the 300s and go right up to the beginning of this century.
One thing that sets your book apart from an ordinary hymnal is that it has music and lyrics on one page and the story of the hymn on the other, facing page. That suggests that the story of a hymn helps us appreciate it and enhances its power for us.
Absolutely. As Christians and Catholics, we're related to all those who are baptized in the faith. To know that these hymns have burst forth from their own spiritual lives is an inspiration. To know how so many of these hymns were written at times of persecution. Or how many were written by people who were unknown in their own day, inconspicuous to the likes of the literary world. To know that some of them were written to champion the faith of the Church against heresies. Some of them were written by great saints; others by people with enormous failings. To know that some of them were written by people with tremendous talent — some of the most famous poets and musicians of all time — and that others were written by farmers, shoemakers. All of this, I think, should inspire the congregation.
What makes a song a hymn?
In musical literature, there are different forms of music: popular songs, symphonies, sonatas. What we call a song is a popular musical rendering in celebration or commemoration of some sentiment or an event; a hymn is a musical form for the praise of God. We have lost that distinction to a large part. One reason we have bad music in the Church today is that a lot of the new songs were written by people with no talent — that goes without saying — but also by people who didn't understand that the hymn form has its own unique style or architecture. It shouldn't change key often to make it difficult to sing; it should be in a singable register and also it should be accessible to people who are not professional singers. Nor should it be banal. The music should connote the mystery of the faith and the majesty of the faith.
In the late 18th century and 19th centuries the most popular cultural form was the theater, specifically, the opera. The liturgy of the Church was effected by that. And to a certain degree, the Mass took on forms of operatic music. St. Pius X, the Pope at the beginning of this century, tried to reform that. The Mass is not a show, not entertainment, not a performance. That's why he tried to recover Gregorian chant.
Much modern hymnody is basically pseudo-folk music, based on very superficial kinds of entertainment music, really designed to please the singer. But a hymn is directed to God. That's why it doesn't necessarily have to be all that catchy. The psychology of the hymn is completely different from the psychology of singing for one's own amusement.
Someone is liable to object that what we have here is a case of de gustibus non disputatum est. They will say that this is purely a matter of taste and that you're setting up your own personal likes and dislikes as a standard to judge hymns. How would you respond?
Well, I admit that I'm setting my taste up. But I have very good taste [laugh]. To say there's no difference between good taste and bad is to say that you're a barbarian. The Church has always encouraged art. In fact, it's sad to say, it's only in the last two generations that the Church has dropped the ball; the artistic patrimony of the Church has been discarded. I think now we're on the cusp of a recovery of that, but we're paying a very serious price for the bad taste which is endemic in our culture. The Church is supposed to set the standard. Unfortunately, on the local level, it has sometimes followed the mob. I'm not saying that we should only do what was done a long time ago. We have to be faithful to the sacred tradition of the Church by encouraging the best new forms of art — but the best. We have not produced good music; we have not produced good architecture. The facts are all around us. The popes at the golden ages of the Church have stood at the city gates and have told the barbarians to go away. And I'm afraid many of our leaders are afraid to tell barbarians that they are barbarians. That's not a pejorative, that's simply an objective statement. We have to convert the Philistine. And it has nothing to do with wealth or social position. As I said, so many of these [hymns] were written by very simple people, peasants, by working men and women, but who were consecrated to listening to the best they had been taught and passing it along.
Many people of a more traditional bent might say that while you have better taste than the choir director at their parish, you're still advocating much more than Gregorian chant. And they would see that as a problem.
First of all, whatever the standard is, it has to conform to the Church's standard of theology, which is an obedient act of the will directing the reason toward the truth. Now that sounds rather convoluted and complicated, but it means that our worship is based on love—love as an act of the will—and is based on truth; therefore, it involves the intellect. I would say that the vast majority of the modern repertoire is not expressive of true Christian love but is just sentimental and is the result of losing the intellectual comprehension of music. Consequently, the melodies have to be classical. But by that I do not mean old-fashioned; I mean conforming to the standards of excellence and not just pandering to the emotions. Plato, in ancient Greece, warned against music that just pleased the lower bodily rhythms. He was talking about what we might call rock music or rap music, and so on.
The words [of the hymns] themselves have to express the faith of the Church; they have to be theological. The way we pray is what we believe, so our hymns have to express these truths. Now the Church has maintained—and the Second Vatican repeated — that Gregorian chant or plain chant is the highest form which music in the Western Church has attained precisely because the music serves the thought, not vice versa.
In so much modern music you can eliminate the words and it wouldn't make any difference to people. But hymns of the Mass are intrinsic to the Mass; the Mass itself is a hymn. A low Mass, a said Mass, is not really the norm. So I am a great champion of Gregorian chant; what I'm writing about as hymns are those that can precede the Eucharistic worship of the Church or follow it as an act of thanksgiving. Or possibly, according to current rubrics, accompany the offertory; they should not replace the liturgical hymns — the Gloria, Kyrie, the Creed, and so on. And while Gregorian chant is commended in the highest way, it's not the only kind of chant; the Church has traditionally had many forms — the Ambrosian chant in the West being a conspicuous example and the Eastern forms of chant as well. But we have to remember that there are forms of worship outside the Mass and these hymns can accompany Eucharistic devotion, extraliturgical services, missions. One price we've paid in the liturgical chaos has been the loss of these various other services, devotions, and forms of worship.
How would you respond to the charge that the words of these hymns are outdated and that therefore to enter properly into worship they must be updated?
I'd say that, with all due respect, someone who says that is a slave of his moment.
Do we say that about Shakespeare?
The Church is supposed to raise people to the highest; of course we have to have simplicity, too.
Our Lord taught in parables, in very simple language. These are very simple sentiments, if we pay attention to them. But we have to teach, especially the young, and we have to raise them up to the glory of our patrimony. If we are not capable of entering or trying to enter into the psychology of our ancestors, appreciating what they said, we have cut ourselves off from the sacred tradition, of life, of the faith. We have isolated ourselves into one moment and that is the definition of the barbarian. Nothing beautiful is alien to a soul that loves God. We don't go into a museum and say, I'm not going into the Rembrandt room because that was from hundreds of years ago.
Of the hymns you've selected, which ones are people most apt to be familiar with?
I suppose some of the Eucharistic hymns, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” some of the Marian hymns, and certainly seasonal hymns, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for the advent hymn; “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the Christmas hymn; some of the Easter hymns and certainly the hymns of benediction, “Tantum ergo” and “O salutaris hos-tia.” There are a large number of hymns written by saints which are, curiously, actually more well-known outside the Catholic Church than inside the contemporary Catholic Church.
Why is that?
One reason is they challenge the superficial spirituality of much Catholic life today. Hymns that speak of sin, death, the Crucifixion, the sacrifice of the Mass, blood atonement, the angels and archangels, and, above all, hell and heaven. When Our Lord said to the crowd; “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you shall have no part of me,” most people walked away. Those were hard sayings. These great classical hymns contain a lot of hard sayings, and I think that's why some of them have been thrown out.
Where do you think we're headed with respect to Church music?
Well, I'm heartened by what's going on in Church architecture right now. I know some very fine young architects,
who are inventive and creative, but fully respectful of the patrimony of classical architecture. They don't seek to destroy the old and beautiful. Oliver Cromwell did that in England, you know — he destroyed churches. But at least he didn't charge parishes for it. We have a lot of liturgists in our generation who've destroyed churches and sent the parishes a bill, like the Chinese government officials who shoot political prisoners and make their mothers pay for the bullets! I think a sort of return may be happening now musically. I see more and more an awareness of the problem and a sense of what should be done. It's a shame we have to go to concert halls or buy CDs to hear music that should be sung in the Church, for which it was originally written. I hope that this younger generation, once aquainted with this heritage, will build upon it. You see, I wrote this book not simply to recover the old hymns — that's part of it. But I'm also doing it to imbue people with what great hymns consist in so that we can have more of them.
Father George Rutler
Personal: Born 1945; served as rector of an Episcopal parish from 1971 to 1978. Received into the Catholic Church 1979; ordained as a diocesan priest in the Archdiocese of New York in 1981. Now in residence at St. Agnes Church in New York City, where his preaching at the annual Good Friday service continues the tradition of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
Education: Attended Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, and Oxford University. Studied for the priesthood at the North American College in Rome, and holds degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian and Angelicum Universities.
Achievements: Author of some fourteen books, including A Crisis of Saints, The Impatience of Job, The Four Last Things, and Beyond Modernity. Serves on the boards of several academic institutions; travels widely as a preacher, lecturer, and retreat master; has recently completed documentary films in Rome and London. His most recent book (reviewed in this issue of the Register, p. 9) is Best and Brightest.