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Why Traditional Hymns are Superior to Modern Ones

by Dr. Anthony Esolen

This article is reprinted from the online edition of Crisis Magazine, with the kind permission of John M. Vella, Editor.

Angels I'm sometimes accused, when I write about bad hymns, of wanting to impose a single style upon everyone. I find this strange. It's like saying that all classical music sounds the same, and that Bach, Brahms, Dvorak, and Debussy are all the same. I point out that the hymns in a good hymnal were composed over a period of 1,600 years. I say that their melodies come in a staggering variety: medieval chant (e.g., The Golden Sequence), German chorale (e.g., Christ Lag in Todesbanden), American revival songs (e.g., "Great Is Thy Faithfulness"), English anthems (e.g., Silver Street), French carols (e.g., Quem pastores), and so on. A folk melody from Ireland is not the same as one from Wales, let alone Poland.

That said, some features are common to all good congregational hymns. These are determined by the matter at hand, just as you make a table out of wood and not grass, because of what a table is and how we use it.

A congregational hymn is for the congregation. Its music is written so that the congregation will want to sing it and will be able to do so with ease. This includes men, women, and children — from basso profondo to treble. Since they are not trained singers, the intervals should be easy to negotiate, the range should be comfortable, the key should not be too high (both men and women are shakier on the high end of the scale), the rhythm should be straightforward, and the melody should be, well, something you could hum after you hear it a couple of times, because of repetition (e.g., Lasst uns erfreuen, the tune used for "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones"), or variations upon a theme (e.g., Ash Grove, the tune used for "Let All Things Now Living").

Most contemporary hymns fall afoul of one or more of these desiderata. Please, we're talking about hymns for a congregation, not Gregorian chant, or polyphony. I mean hymns for everybody rather than just a few voices, usually female, merely going through the motions — everybody should be singing from a full chest and a full heart. You say it's impossible? You can't get the men to sing? On the contrary, even in a Catholic church, I've known what it's like to sing out fully, because all the men around me were doing the same. Nobody stuck out like a bullfrog under the stage of Madame Butterfly.

Soloists like to show off their talent. But the end goal, for a hymn, should be that the leader's voice is merged in the overwhelming sound of the congregation. This sound should make the roof tremble. If that's not happening, something is wrong. Maybe the congregation is unused to singing. Maybe the men — it's usually the men — are stubborn, or embarrassed, and consequently they don't want to let themselves go. But it's more likely that the music is ill-chosen, and the presentation of the music discourages the people, especially the men.

Thomas Day, in Why Catholics Can't Sing, says that when the cantor has a microphone, and the volume is turned up, the sound will overwhelm everyone else. All you hear is the soprano or tenor, and the people sense that they ought to keep clear of the performance. That's if they can find their notes at all — which is difficult, when the cantor is a soprano, because of that Bullfrog Syndrome. The problem grows acute when the melody is that of an off-Broadway musical, which needs to be crooned or sung for stage business, or if its oddball intervals and beats are reminiscent of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story, or if it is meant to showcase a strong voice, with notes held longer than untrained voices are able to sustain, as in the awful "One Bread, One Body."

If you read music you can tell at a glance whether a hymn is for a congregation or a soloist. See the dotted notes and long ties all over the place? See the skitter of note-lengths, from sixteenths to wholes tied to halves, or something? See the leaps hither and yon (in "On Eagle's Wings," for example)? A congregation is not going to sing those. It doesn't happen. Some people give it a try, but most people give up, or never even try. They're not entirely wrong; the music isn't written for them.

Choirs sometimes insist that they must stick to the usual ten to fifteen songs which they sing over and over all through the year because they don't have the time to learn more. That's another sign that no one understands what congregational singing is, and that the songs they are singing are not meant for a congregation. I've seen old Protestant hymnals, in tiny churches in rural Canada, that don't even print the musical score, because the congregation couldn't afford it. But there are hundreds of songs in such hymnals where the melodies are merely indicated by a label: Mendon, Salzburg, or Old 124th. Those people knew those hundreds by heart.

How could they have managed this? Well, you should be able to pick up the melody of a good congregational hymn right away, and then, with a little jogging of the memory, continue it on your own. Think of the Irish air Slane (used for "Be Thou My Vision"). It doesn't use repetition, and its lilts are often a bit surprising, but the whole melody is coherent. Each part reflects the others, and the whole ends in a way that is characteristic of the Irish: three straight tonic notes. If people can pick up Slane, most of the other melodies will be easy by comparison. That includes medieval plainsong, with its typical movement up or down by only a note or two, as in the haunting and lovely Divinum Mysterium (used for "Of the Father's Love Begotten"), but also songs with fourths and fifths, as in the anthem Salzburg (used for "Songs of Thankfulness and Praise"), or the brooding Negro spiritual "Go Down, Moses."

That being the case, should the choir be visible, making gestures to instruct the people when to jump in, or providing an example of what they ought to be doing? Maybe at a riverside or around a camp fire, or for an altar call, when people assume that everybody sings, because otherwise there would be no reason for them to be there in the first place. Not, I think, at a Catholic Mass. Put the cantor squarely in front of the people, and it will tempt both. The cantor will be tempted to perform, and the people will be tempted to let him do it. We should not be watching a performance.

The choir should have our backs: we should be rushed along into singing, as from a current behind us and above us. The congregation must increase. If the congregation is not increasing, let the choir decrease: let them assume that they are getting in the way of the congregation, that they are hogging the music, or turning Mass into a show, or choosing poor hymns. Maybe the people are not accustomed to singing at all. Then let the pastor accustom them. his is not a new thing in the world.

Then we come to the instruments. Why should the organ be the premier instrument for congregational singing? Can't a piano or a guitar work as well? No, they can't. The reasons are obvious. Around that camp fire, you want the guitar and not the organ. You're singing folk songs, everybody is within a few feet of you, and so it's not hard to pick up the tune and find your note: it's what Joe is singing right next to you, or what Melanie is singing on the other side of the fire.

But in church this doesn't happen. The interior space is far too big, and the acoustics turn guitar-chords to mud. It won't help if the guitarist is miked up, for then it will be loud mud. But even if it weren't so, the guitarist is ill-suited to lead the congregation, because he is not playing the melody. He's playing chords; he makes a lead soloist necessary. So once again we are in the realm of a vocal performance, with all the troubles that entails.

The pianist does play the melody, but the piano's range is severely limited for singing hymns in a church, whereas the organ was invented for the church. Justly has it been called the king of instruments. It best imitates the sound of a full symphony: woodwinds, strings, horns, and the human voice. It can give us the sweet and gentle songbird, and the roaring lion. It can give us polyphony, with the organist playing one melody in strings, with one hand, and a different melody in horns with the other. It can fill the interior of a church and make the walls and dome resound. The sheer variety of its sounds and their quality, with tones and overtones aplenty, and many notes played simultaneously and without diminution, allow any human voice to find its place. The bass hears his note, and so do the tenor, the alto, and the soprano. The bass need not fear the bullfrog when the pedals are grumbling, and the soprano need not fear the songbird when the flutes are flying high.

When you hear an organ, you will think of church, just as when you hear the tolling of a carillon. Other instruments recall other things. The piano recalls a smoke-filled tavern or a symphony hall or a chic restaurant. We hear a saxophone and we think of the blues. It's idle to insist that it need not be so. In an alternate universe, perhaps it would be possible, but not in this one. It's also idle to say that we need not have the bodily reactions that we do have for certain kinds of rhythms. Some mimic the beat of the heart at rest or full of joy. Rock and roll drums mimic the thrust of the body in sexual ascent and climax. For other kinds of creatures, in another universe, it might not be so. For us, in ours, it is.

One last point. It's not true that people won't sing unless you give them the same songs over and over. Boredom is disheartening. And if the songs are of the same character — if the emotional and spiritual palette is limited to pink and yellow, the pink and yellow will cloy, and people will lose interest. They may wonder whether harping on joy all the time is a sign that the joy is a contrived and forced cheerfulness. It's true that you can play a wide variety of songs on any instrument. It's not true, though, that the same emotional range, for a large interior space, and for a song to be sung by hundreds of people all at once and at the top of their voices, can be captured by any one instrument as well as it can by the organ. Better to sing a capella than to use instruments that do not fit the place or the purpose.

But this brings me to the content of the hymns — from how we sing them, to what we sing.

Article written 11 December 2018

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer-in-residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.

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