Music to Our Ears

Brightest and Best: Stories of Hymns

by Father George Rutler

(Ignatius Press, 1998, 235 pp., $15.95)

Father George Rutler is a master of English prose, an authority on liturgy, an amateur musicologist, and a repository of arcane historical data. No one is better suited to write this unique book, celebrating the history of 100 Christian hymns that strike Father Rutler as the “brightest and best” that the tradition of English hymnody has to offer. That's “English” both in language (even the Latin hymns presented here are in translation) and country of origin, as the anglophile Father Rutler weights his collection heavily toward what might be found in the hymnals of Victorian England.

And without apology. For the hymnals of that age were superior to the banality that abounds in the pews today. Father Rutler's book is meant to remind pastors and choirmasters that what can be found between the covers of Worship, Glory and Praise, or Breaking Bread does not exhaust the legacy of Christian hymnody. “The treasury of sacred song is meant to be plundered by the faithful,” Father Rutler declares in the opening line of his book, before observing that much of the song in Catholic parishes today is neither sacred nor worthy of being treasured.

One need not be a devotee of the old rite Mass or a musical aesthete to judge current Catholic hymnody to be in an appalling crisis. One must only have ears to hear, a minimal appreciation for poetry and a passing familiarity with Christian doctrine — three requirements that sadly seem to have been forbidden among the writers and editors of popular hymnals.

“It seemed to me that hymns might be better appreciated if we knew a little more about the stories behind them,” writes Father Rutler. It is likely that the editors who emasculate the hymns of old will recoil in horror at the histories that Father Rutler provides, honoring as they do the faith of our fathers (Faber's hymn is included here). The most recent edition of the Canadian Catholic Book of Worship renders the first lines of “Amazing Grace”: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ that saved and strengthened me.” The wretches who modified that classic are not likely to welcome Father Rutler's celebration of the hymns of old.

For the rest of us, however, Father Rutler's book is best enjoyed not as another entry into the polarized debate over liturgical reforms, but as a delightful romp through the history of great Christian hymnody. The guide dispenses his idiosyncratic commentary, his rococo phrases salted with wry humor. He introduces William Williams, “the Charles Wesley of Wales,” thus: “Born in Cefn-y-coed, he studied medicine at Llwynllwyd and served as an Anglican deacon in Llanwrtyd, showing that the Welsh make up in erudition what they may lack in vowels.”

The former Episcopal choirboy provides a whimsical selection of data, assuming a shared premise with his readers, namely: not only the major facts of history are important; the recondite details surrounding them are just plain fun to know.

“Saint Augustine may have heard this hymn, for it was almost certainly written by Saint Ambrose, the spiritual father of Augustine's conversion, although this particular hymn does not occur in the Liturgy named for the Bishop of Milan,” Father Rutler writes in his entry for “O Trinity of Blessed Light.” “As in the late 900s the emissaries of Vladimir, Emperor of the Rus, were dazzled to conversion by the splendor of the worship in Saint Sophia, and in the late nineteenth century the poet Paul Claudel was reconverted by the Song of Our Lady in her cathedral in Paris, so was Augustine ravished by the music he heard around the altar and throne of Ambrose of Milan.”

If that is off-putting, then the reader and Father Rutler ought to part ways, to the reader's detriment. For if he continues, he will in due course meet, among a parade of others, John Mason Neale, “the greatest hymn translator of the nineteenth century,” who produced the aforementioned version of Ambrose's “O lux beata Trinitas,” as well as the hymns translated into English as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Sing My Tongue the Glorious Battle,” and “All Glory Laud and Honor.”

“All Glory Laud and Honor” is typical of this collection. Rousing, easy to sing, and triumphal, it belongs with “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” (both included here) in that class of hymns that congregations love to belt out while the organist (literally) pulls out all the stops. A Palm Sunday procession without “All Glory Laud and Honor” is quite simply naked. Also found here are the perfect hymns for Advent (“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending”), Good Friday (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross), Corpus Christi (translations of St. Thomas Aquinas' hymns, “Adoro te devote” and “Pange lingua gloriosi”), All Saints (“Who Are These Like Stars Appearing?”), and even Mission Sunday (“From Greenland's Icy Mountains”), though it would be a courageous pastor who asked his people to sing “They call us to deliver/ their land from error's chain.”

Father Rutler's book is not a hymnal, but it does include the music for the melodies of all the hymns, and commentaries on the melodies themselves. It is striking how simple and memorable the melodies are (memorable because they are simple?), reflecting the age-old wisdom that hymns composed for congregations ought to be easy to sing. This book cannot replace a hymnal, but it would be a wise pastor (and grateful congregation) who directed the choirmaster to use it in determining the parish repertoire.

An unexpected delight of the book is the nuggets of autobiographical data included by Father Rutler, who acknowledges that he has otherwise “assiduously avoided writing autobiographical books or essays.” Here it cannot be avoided, for favorite hymns are tied not only to the tradition of the Church, but contain the echoes of one's own past. My own favorite appears here, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” sung as it was at my graduation from Queen's University at Kingston, a secular institution that still permits vestiges of its Presbyterian founding to survive. The hymn was written by Isaac Watts, and is sung to the melody “St. Anne,” composed by William Croft. The closing line of Father Rutler's commentary sums up the situation which caused him to write this very fine book: “Imagine how the effigies of Croft and Watts must have trembled in [Westminster] Abbey in supernal agitation as Elton John banged his lachrymose lament on a piano during the funeral of the Princess of Wales in 1997.” Perhaps a generous reader will send a copy of Brightest and Best to the dean of the Abbey.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian studying at the North American College in Rome.