Greetings + Mom on Hymns

divine-mercyHello from Father Trying-to-Survive-Today-without-Losing-It.

The sun shines, the Lord rose from the dead. I’m heading back home from the mountains soon (to Martinsville-Rocky Mount). I look forward to celebrating Mass, with the facebook livestream, for the feast of Divine Mercy, at St. Francis and St. Joseph.

A lot of people have slightly different ideas about what is going on with your unworthy servant. My plan is to continue to do my pastoral duties, as I embrace any canon-law process regarding my assignment. I will do everything I can to keep everyone informed, as things unfold.

I appreciate the phone calls, texts, messages, and e-mails. I really need all the prayers and support.

…My dear Lutheran mom has written an essay for us, about hymns.

momAbout Hymns and Hymn Singing

On this year’s Good Friday, no one heard the Passion Chorale sung as part of a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. No one heard the Passion Chorale in a Bach organ prelude. Most important, on Good Friday 2020, no congregation sang the hymn, “O sacred head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down” — the Passion Chorale.

The Passion Chorale tune comes from the 16th century, the words from the 17th century. In the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach gave the tune a four-part harmony and it became a Lutheran Good Friday hymn. For 250 years, Protestants have sung “O sacred head” on Good Friday.

Martin Luther, a musician who played the lute and sang tenor, started the use of hymns in worship. In the earliest days of Lutheranism, you could tell the difference between a Lutheran worship service and a Catholic service not only by the prominence of the sermon in Lutheran worship but also by the great amount of congregational singing. Singing was a passion with Luther. He wrote at least forty hymns and taught his congregation how to sing them. Luther knew that music strengthened individuals and comforted them; he also knew that when individuals sing their faith together, they express the voice of the Christian community.

JS BachBach deepened the Protestant hymn singing tradition. He gave congregations the hymns that he harmonized, known as chorales, and he connected the chorales to the Gospel lesson for the day. For every Sunday of the church year, Bach wrote a cantata, a work for voices and instruments performed in the Lutheran liturgy after the reading of the Gospel. He would often insert a chorale with words that directly connected to the Gospel lesson.

In his cantata chorale, “Sleepers wake,” for example, a watchman sings, “The bridegroom comes, awake, your lamps with gladness take.” What is the Gospel for that Sunday? It’s Jesus’ story about the bridesmaids who weren’t prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. The congregation would have recognized the chorale when they heard it – it was a hymn they loved. Through it they would have heard the Gospel lesson a second time.

Thanks to Luther and Bach, we Protestants see ourselves as hymn singers in worship. We understand that the hymns connect to the Gospel and the sermon, and we know that hymns express the faith in a way that spoken words do not.

After my sister’s memorial service, a friend told me that the most moving part of the service was the congregation’s passionate singing of the hymns, one of which was “Now thank we all our God.” This, too, is a chorale, its words and tune dating to the 17th century, its four-part harmonization written by Bach around 1735. I’m not the only Lutheran to know the hymn’s words by heart, including the last verse: “All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven . . .

cindy and mom
The sisters. Cindy on the right. She died in 2012.

Why do we know the words of hymns by heart? We know them because they repeat Christian truths. You can show this with any hymn; I’ll show it here with the hymn, “The Church’s one foundation.” About the Christian church this hymn tells us 1) that it is the creation of Jesus Christ; 2) that it is united everywhere throughout the world by “one Lord, one faith, one birth; 3) that it is united with God and with those who have died before us. The hymn doesn’t replace sermons and discussions about the nature of the church; it illuminates those sermons and discussions in a memorable way.

For any hymn to be worth singing in worship, its words must be poetic. Look for poetic images direct from scripture, as in “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,” from Revelation 4:1-11, in “Holy, holy, holy,” a hymn about the Trinity. Poet and hymn-writer Isaac Watts recast Psalm 90’s picture of the mystery of time. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” These are the words of verse five of Watts’ most famous hymn, “O God, our help in ages past.”

Unfortunately, recent Protestant hymnals contain quite a few hymns without poetry. These hymns have old, beautiful tunes with new, clunky words. This is a sad development in the Protestant hymn-writing tradition.

In the poetic hymns, words are set to music that is both beautiful and expressive. Jesus’ crucifixion calls for the somber notes of “O sacred head.” In the hymn “Sleepers, wake,” the watchman’s words are sung on three ascending notes that suggest the sound of a town watchman’s voice. For Easter, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain proclaims the day’s extraordinary joy with three crisp, identical major-key chords. The music is by the nineteenth century British composer Arthur Sullivan, who wrote hymns in addition to the music for the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The hymn’s words are by the eighth century St. John of Damascus. The first stanza begins and the last stanza ends with the same words: “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness; God hath brought his Israel into joy from sadness.”

For me it’s been a continuing joy to sing beautiful hymns, Sunday after Sunday, with a worshiping congregation. I’m grateful to have spent my life in the Protestant hymn singing tradition.

Are the hymns mentioned in this post in your Catholic hymnal? If you find them, sing them soon!

Ann White

5 thoughts on “Greetings + Mom on Hymns

  1. I sang “O Sacred Head” – on Good Friday, at St. Francis of Assisi, before the crucifix! Couldn’t let the night pass without that iconic and soulful hymn!

  2. I sang and played “O Sacred Head Surrounded” as part of Fr. Mark’s Good Friday Facebook live stream at St. Joseph’s in Martinsville. The answer to your final question is yes, every hymn you mentioned is in our hymnal at St. Francis, and all but one are in our hymnal at St. Jospeh’s, and all are chosen and sung throughout the liturgical year. Thank you for taking the time to write this informative post Mrs. White.

  3. O sacred head is a beautiful hymn….was good to hear it played on the livestream too….

    Hang in there father mark.theres so many praying for you…. and so many who support you…
    God bless you both

  4. This is a fascinating essay. Your analysis of the way hymns influenced the believer and sustained religious sensibilities is something to which many can relate. In your remarks, however, you mention that Luther started the tradition of hymn singing in worship. You also point out that the amount of congregational singing distinguished Lutheran from Catholic parishes in the early years of the Reformation. The history seems more complex to me because there are a variety of views about Luther’s place in the story of hymnody & the extent of congregational hymn singing during & immediately after Luther’s time. There are scholars who argue that congregational & choral hymn singing predated Luther. Furthermore, there is documentation showing that early Lutheran hymnody was essentially choral not congregational.

    It appears that hymn singing was known in much of Europe including in Luther’s Germany long before the Reformation, but the extent seemed to vary from place to place. One well known example would be the prolific 12th c. German composer the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen who out produced Luther with over seventy sequences, antiphons, responsories, dramas, and hymns. Sequences were popular and were sung as hymns even outside of the liturgy. There are thousands of sequences dating from the medieval period that have survived and we still have five sequences in the Roman Missal today for Easter, Pentecost, Our Lady of Sorrows, & Corpus Christi. The Dies Irae remains part of the Requiem Mass in the Catholic extraordinary form. The documents show that this pre- “Lutheran” hymn singing was carried out in Latin, in hybrid combinations of Latin and the vernacular and in the vernacular alone.

    In “Music in the History of the Western Church” (1969), E. Dickenson points to P. Wackernagel’s 1867 record of more than 1400 German language hymns composed between the year 868 to the late Renaissance: (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43208/43208-h/43208-h.htm). Dickenson goes on to suggest that this does not include the many other premodern hymns presumed lost to history in the time before the invention of the printing press. Concordia’s Joseph Herl argues in “Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism” (2004) that medieval Germans would often substitute sung vernacular paraphrase for parts of the Mass ordinary and that German language versions of the Mass proper were popularly sung before 1500. Like Wackernagel, Herl documents a list of German language hymns dating from the 12th c. that were sung in church. Dom Anthony Ruff, OSB also agrees that vernacular hymns were sung in church during the Middle Ages (“Sacred Music & Liturgical Reform,” 2007). While all should acknowledge that Luther had significant impact on early modern hymnody and that he encouraged congregational singing it appears that Luther’s interest in congregational singing and choral hymnody had its origin in a preexisting central European tradition.

    Herl’s research also suggests that it took more than two centuries for congregational singing to take the place of choral singing in Lutheran churches. He argues that this took place over time and implies that this change was influenced, at least in part, by the Reformed tradition.

    Taken together the research shows that a tradition of hymnody existed in western Christendom before Luther’s time and that even among Lutherans, choral singing kept its pride of place for a significant time after the Reformer’s death and was supplemented by congregational singing later.

  5. Charles Reding: The nature of hymn singing in the Protestant tradition roots in Luther’s view of the nature of the church — different from the Catholic view — and Luther’s view that hymns were a form of God’s Word, through which God strengthened and comforted people. This operation of the Word came not only through ministers but also through the laity, as they sang in church and at home. See Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation, Harvard University Press, 2005.
    Ann White

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