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CNP Feedback - Jesus Christ Is Ris'n Today... Today... Today... Today...

Q. Dear CNP:

The pastor in my parish claims that numerous surveys have shown that parishioners don't mind if the same hymns and/or songs are sung week after week. During Easter, for example, he insists on hearing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" every Sunday of Easter ("When else will we get to hear it?"). Does this jibe with any of your research or experience? I'm a choir director and have been involved in church music for decades but have never been polled about church music, nor has my parish ever bothered to survey the people, except to find out if they prefer the choir or the "folk group."

Hit over the Head with a Hymn

A. Dear HHH:

Thank you for your interesting question regarding the repetition of hymns.

At the outset, let me say that singing the same hymn every week of Eastertide is downright ridiculous, for a number of reasons.

  1. My guess is, that you're only singing one or two verses as an Entrance Song. This is bad policy concerning hymn singing [see Sing Them All!]. 

  2. The Church herself, in the prescribed liturgy, is not that rigid or monotonous. The Introits for the Sundays of Eastertide are all different, although each does end with an "Alleluia." Blasting one theme at people for seven weeks is not what the Eastertide liturgy is about. We obviously don't read the Resurrection Gospel of Easter Sunday for seven weeks — no, there are other themes, events and topics to explore. 

  3. The comment "When else will we get to hear it?" may be pertinent, since we generally don't sing Easter hymns outside the season, but there are certainly many more hymns than just this one to explore during the seven weeks of Eastertide [which happens to be the longest of the seasons of the Liturgical Year]. I'm afraid to ask what the pastor wants during the four Sundays of Advent, of worse, during the very short season of Christmastide (sometimes no longer than about two weeks). Please tell me he doesn't want to sing "Silent Night" at every Mass during Christmastide!

I don't know of any survey or study that substantiates your pastor's viewpoint. Candidly, I think he's either making things up or grossly misunderstanding what legitimate repetition means (which may have come up in a survey). He seems to be presuming quite a bit in stating that "parishioners don't mind if the same songs are sung week after week." Seven Sundays of even my favorite hymn would get tedious [and I'm not making any generalized assumptions — that's my real opinion]. Think for a moment of the ramifications if one didn't like the hymn! Mind you, "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today," is a great hymn; but, musically speaking, it has a wide range as hymns go, and it's got some rather tricky melismas to sing (especially at a brisk tempo). It may not be everyone's cup of tea.

But having said all this, your pastor may have a valid point submerged under a great deal of oddness. Repetition is very important in helping people to learn and love and embrace music. If we program too much varied music (and we musicians can be guilty of reacting to our own boredom level and not the people's), then it's very difficult for the music to "sink in" sufficiently. There needs to be some repetition throughout each season, and from each season to season throughout the years. Heaven forbid you're still singing a "four-hymn sandwich Mass" at your parish, but if you are, that means thirty-two hymns from Easter to Pentecost. Thirty-two different hymns would be devastating to the congregation's learning and retention!

Here are my proposals:

  1. Eliminate some of the hymns! Now is the time, when we're looking afresh at liturgy with the new English translation, to divest our Roman Rite liturgy of some hymns, a genre that doesn't even belong there at all [see What Would I Like to See?, point #2]. Try singing an Entrance Antiphon (which could be the same throughout the season) with different verses each Sunday for the cantor and/or choir. We use this format at Communion time, where during Eastertide we sing the first two phrases of the tune Salzburg as the antiphon, with the text, "Praise the Lord, whose love divine, Gives his sacred Blood for wine, Gives his Body for the feast, Christ the victim Christ the priest." The cantor sings verses of various psalms (Psalm 66, Psalm 118, etc), using the original psalm tones from Communion Psalms for the Liturgical Seasons. You could be even more radical and let the choir alone sing the entrance music occasionally. Yes, believe it or not, this is completely legitimate [see GIRM #48]. A well prepared Introit (in Latin chant, English chant, Latin psalm tone, or English psalm tone) is actually really more in line with Roman Rite liturgy than a hymn. Those who would jeer at this simply don't understand the liturgy the way it is in the books (as opposed to the faulty way it's been practiced in the U.S. for forty years). 

  2. When you do sing hymns, choose them from a rather limited number of standards. Avoid every inclination to be "avant-garde" or "cutting-edge" with the people's music. Stick with standard hymns that have endured ("Praise to the Lord," "O God Our Help," "Immaculate Mary," "Now Thank We All Our God"). Establish a written out parish repertoire of hymns. Again, try to avoid the "songs" and ditties that are ubiquitous in the famous paperback hymnals from the big publishers. Many of these are of poor quality [see Where Is Duke Street?] — why waste people's time learning rubbish. Many of these are "transient" and won't pass the "survey test" from the publisher — the song you worked so hard to teach the congregation may be missing from next year's collection. Here's a list from which you might choose your repertoire: Core Hymnody. You could probably be happy with no more than 100 hymns for the year, repeated year after year. 

  3. Strike a balance between freshness and repetition. How do you know where that should be? If the music director and your most musical choir singer are approaching boredom with the hymns, that's good! If the least musical among the congregation is struggling occasionally to grasp new music, that's good. If you're satiating the musically elite, you're going to leave the vast majority in the dust. If you're placating the least common denominator, you'll bore anyone with musical sensibilities to tears.

In all of this, don't lose your head. Be reasonable — use common sense. The path to good liturgy is almost always the via media, the "middle way." Avoid those nasty extremes, where people with locked minds and granite agendas live. The liturgy is beautiful, sacred, noble and inspiring. It's not as hard to clothe it with grace-filled music as many seem to think.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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