Rising from the Mire
Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church
By Anthony Esolen
Publisher: TAN Books
Pages: 296 pages (with accompanying audio CD)
Review Author: Andrew M. Seddon
I was raised in a conservative Baptist church before I became an Episcopalian — during which time I made multiple visits to England and worshiped in Anglican parish churches and cathedrals. One of the hardest parts about joining the Catholic Church was adjusting to the poverty of much of the music. Wasn’t this the Church of Byrd, Dufay, Lassus, and des Prez; of Vivaldi and Pergolesi; of Dvorak and Rheinberger? What, I wondered, had happened to the musical heritage of the Church, to the musical artistry of millennia?
Gone were the wonderful, theologically rich hymns. Gone were baroque and classical anthems. Gone were the glorious sounds of the organ. In their place were folk or contemporary compositions of little literary or musical merit — which few people seemed inclined to sing — accompanied by guitars and drums. As for the beauties of Renaissance polyphony, one might as well hope to see Charpentier or Monteverdi rise from the dead as hear one of their Mass settings or anthems.
Occasionally an old hymn — truncated to three verses and the words altered, vandalized in a way that might have made Geneseric proud — might be trotted out and the organ resurrected from its place of concealment, but how I missed the musical heritage to which I was accustomed! There were exceptions, of course, typically in cathedrals. I well recall a Mass by Tomás Luis de Victoria in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin; Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beautiful prelude Rhosymedre in St. Paul, Minnesota; and several Masses in Florida’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. But those occasions have been all too infrequent.
It is heart-wrenching to observe that as our culture has coarsened and degenerated, so has our worship. It is as if contemporary Catholic liturgists were determined to sink the Mass into the mire of the profane — or have it become like those Protestant services that are more rock concert than worship.
C.S. Lewis famously, if uncharitably, referred to Anglican hymns of his day as fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate tunes. Those “fifth-rate poems” were by Isaac Watts, Christina Rosetti, John Henry Newman, Charles Wesley, and many others who knew how to craft an artistically and theologically beautiful poem. Those “sixth-rate tunes” were by such British luminaries as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Gustav Holst, as well as such stellar names as Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Johan Cruger from the Continent. How would Lewis classify what we have to endure now?
Of course, not all parishes are the same. And I don’t wish to malign the choir members and musicians who do their best with what talent they possess. Neither do I wish to imply that all music written since Vatican II is worthless, or insult those (my wife included) who like some of those songs. But there is more to it.
Consider: Once upon a time, we might have arrived to worship and adore God to the strains of “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” or “O Worship the King”; expressed our love for our Savior in “Jesu, Priceless Treasure,” and our penitence with “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”; celebrated the Eucharist with “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing”; and returned to the world with “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” ringing in our ears.
Now, we have a “gathering song” such as “Gather Us In” with its ghastly attempt to rhyme “we are the young, our lives are a myst’ry” with “we have been sung throughout of all hist’ry,” putting the focus squarely on ourselves, as if all of time was waiting for our arrival. And what, pray tell, does it mean for us to ask for “the courage to enter the song,” if “we have been sung throughout all of hist’ry”?
And we affirm ourselves with any number of “voice of God” songs in which we sing God’s words as if they were our own. And being so affirmed, what need then is there for penitence? After that, we proclaim in “I Myself Am the Bread of Life” that “You and I are the bread of life, taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ,” because we “become for each other the bread, the cup, the presence of Christ revealed.”
And finally, after having replaced Jesus with ourselves, we depart to “Sing a New Church into Being,” conjuring up as we do so an image of dancing, jeans-clad, progressivist femi-nuns replacing the Church of Jesus Christ with something more “contemporary” and “inclusive.” I could go on.
The catastrophic decline of music in the Catholic Church has been thoroughly discussed as long ago as 1990 by Thomas Day in his book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, and by many others since then. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music” (The Feast of Faith, 1986), bemoaned the “increasingly grim impoverishment” that results “when beauty for its own sake is banished from the Church,” leaving behind “nothing but schmaltz for the general public.”
To counter the banality and even heresy expressed in some contemporary songs (they don’t deserve to be called “hymns”), and to introduce, or reintroduce, us to the artistry of great hymns, English professor Anthony Esolen has penned the excellent Real Music. Hymns, he explains, are “verbal and melodic icons of Jesus Christ.”
Esolen has sounded exactly the right note. What we sing at Mass is not to entertain us or elevate our self-esteem. It is to direct us toward the Transcendent, to point our minds and hearts toward God, which is why both the words and the music, and the instruments that perform the music, matter.
In the case of the latter, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” states that “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things” (no. 120).
To return to hymns: Readers of Touchstone magazine will be familiar with Esolen’s “Illuminations” column, in which he reflects on a number of hymns. In Real Music he has produced a volume of great insight and beauty. Dozens of hymns, drawn from both Catholic and Protestant sources, all doctrinally orthodox, illuminate the life of our Lord and the sacraments of the Church. Beginning with “The Psalms,” the chapters progress: “Who Is Jesus?,” “Who Is Christ?,” “The Nativity,” “The Cross and the Resurrection,” “Our Love for Jesus,” “The Holy Eucharist,” “The Holy Spirit,” “Penitence and Supplication,” “The Church Militant,” “Consolation,” and “The Glory of God.”
Esolen’s purpose is not primarily to criticize the state of current Catholic music (although he does take the occasional well-aimed pot-shot) but to edify, to draw out for us the glory, the magnificence, the wonder, the beauty of the treasures available to us in word and music. Esolen knows what makes for good poetry (and good music), and his own writing is at once clear and insightful, and at times poetic.
When so much of what passes for Christian music is man-centered, reassuring us how wonderful we are who do God “the honor” of thinking about Him now and again, reducing Jesus to a buddy (“just to follow my friend”), trivializing the reality of sin, obviating the need for repentance, and ignoring the difficulties of the path of salvation, the hymns Esolen has chosen to highlight do the opposite. They are consoling, challenging, penetrating, elevating, and enlightening. In them, he says, “human intelligence and the divine teachings are woven together in a sacrifice of praise, as Abel chose the best of his flock to sacrifice to the Lord…. Music and poetry help to form the Christian imagination, resonating in the heart long after we have left the doors of the Church.” To forget, ignore, or water down these hymns is to impoverish our worship and, in so doing, to impoverish our souls.
My criticisms of Real Music are few and minor. To refer to English composer Gustav Holst, a friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams and composer of “The Planets,” as a “German composer” is an error. Holst’s grandfather moved to England as a child, and Gustav himself was born in Cheltenham. And in the track listing of the accompanying CD, Vaughan Williams is repeatedly misspelled “Vaughn Williams.”
And how can one discuss that great hymn “For All the Saints,” for which Esolen presents the original, un-bowdlerized words, without mentioning Vaughan Williams’s marvelous tune “Sine Nomine“? To be fair, Esolen does characterize Vaughan Williams (my favorite composer, in case it wasn’t evident) as a “brilliant and theologically sensitive composer of sacred music.” Not bad for an agnostic who set George Herbert, adapted Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a large-scale “morality,” and composed such works as “Sancta Civitas,” “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and various anthems.
Real Music is a book to be read and reread for the many pearls it contains. If only we could return to singing the great hymns of the faith — and sing them with both heart and mind — perhaps we would witness not only a revitalization of the faith of individual Catholics but of the Church herself.
We might almost say, Lex cantates, lex credenda.
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