Saturday, February 4, 2012

Of Thee I Sing

This evening I attended the vigil Mass at the local Novus Ordo parish and once again thought, No wonder Catholics don't sing if this is what they are given as hymn tunes.

The first hymn, "Let Us Go to the Altar" was based on the Psalm Judica me, Deus (Psalm 43, 42 in the Vulgate) and, surprising for a composition by Daniel L. Schutte, had a singable melody in three-quarter time. However, the musical phrasing and the text were not well matched, and there is little likelihood that anyone will hum the tune while doing chores. It wasn't exactly bad just not all that good.

For the offertory we sang "Seek Ye First" by Karen Lafferty. The words were a paraphrase of Matthew 6:33. I enjoyed the simple, pleasant melody, which far surpassed the typical "contemporary" hymn tune. By simple, I do mean simple; it reminded me of the hymns that the 1940 Episcopal Church hymnal classified as "for children." Still, a good choice given the limited choices in the hymnal (the name of which I must remember to write down next time) used at St. Joseph's.

Well, if "Seek Ye First" had lulled me into a false sense that maybe the music was improving, the post communion hymn jolted me back to the unpleasant reality of bad Catholic hymnody. "On Eagle's Wings" by Michael Jonas, has to be one of the worst hymns ever written. It is based on the Psalm Domine, refugium (Psalm 90, 89 in the Vulgate) and the words are a prose paraphrase of the original, and therein lies the first problem: what is point of setting a prose paraphrase to music when there exist many good rendering of the Psalm into English poetry? Then there is the music! Possibly someone who has studied voice seriously for several years could sing "On Eagle's Wings," I don't know. What I do know is that the typical congregation cannot possibly join in something with no clear time signature, an irregular meter, and an ever-changing melody time and tempo.

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