Monday, July 17, 2017
A Treasury of Excellent Hymns
We have a treasury of excellent hymns, lying in a chest in an attic. Bring them down. This is not a matter of prescribing one style for everyone. There are two reasons why. The first is that those hymns we no longer sing represent a wonderful variety of styles already. There are the straightforward American revival hymns (“Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross”). There are haunting Irish folk melodies (the tune “Slane” for “Be Thou My Vision”). There are the poignant Negro spirituals (“There Is a Balm in Gilead”). We have medieval plainsong, featuring some of the oldest extant melodies (“Creator of the Stars of Night”); harmonization or Renaissance melodies by Johann Sebastian Bach (“Jesus, Priceless Treasure”); melodies specifically written for fine religious lyrics (“Lux Benigna” for Cardinal Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light”); lilting melodies from the Scottish tradition (“Saint Columba,” “Crimond,” and “Evan” for “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”); the powerful shape-note hymns from Appalachia; French carols; English anthems for the Church militant; texts whose authors range from the Church Fathers to the pious blind poet Fanny Crosby; melodies from the time of Ambrose to the beginning of the twentieth century, from every single nation in Europe. If someone rejects all of that, it is not because he does not appreciate “the” style. It is because he has a lust for destructiveness or because he does in fact want one style to prevail, the style of the jingling show tune, a style that has no place in the liturgy.
Some church choirs with a chokehold on the music protest that it takes them many long hours to learn a new hymn. That would be true only if they were singing in harmony, and most do not. It should take only a few minutes for anybody, in the choir or not, to learn to sing a new melody. The old hymns were written precisely for congregational singing. You do not have to be Beverly Sills or Mario Lanza to sing them. They are waiting; just as if there were a great wing of a castle that no one every entered anymore, filled with works of art by the masters. No doubt a painting of the Prodigal Son by Murillo or Rembrandt reveals its secrets only gradually, so that you can look at it for the fiftieth time and notice something that you had seen but taken for granted, such as why Rembrandt’s prodigal has a shaved head, or why there is a little white dog in mid-leap after Murillo’s prodigal, wagging his tail for joy. But those great works also appeal to us immediately, impressing us with their beauty and suggesting that there always will be more, and more, to see and to learn and to delight in. The great hymns are like the paintings in that way. They give us riches at the outset and yet have more and more to give, in abundance.
Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, pg.39-40