Anthony Esolen: Poetic Traditional Hymns Put Alternatives to Shame | Crisis Magazine (with comments)

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I have taken one small liberty, in substituting a more specifically Anglican image!

“Come on, priests, musicians, and singers. Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read. You need not feed on slop all your life long when you might enjoy real meat and potatoes and vegetables. And sometimes—more often than you suspect—you might feast like kings.”

Source: Poetic Traditional Hymns Put Alternatives to Shame | Crisis Magazine

A typically excellent treatment of the subject, by the inimitable Professor Anthony Esolen.

“Not every carpenter in 1800 could make tables fit for Windsor Castle. But he made what would stand the test of time, because it required great skill and practice to make any kind of table at all. The sifting would already have occurred when the man was a boy, learning the feel of wood and tool.

“So, too, with the old hymns. A person would have needed certain skills not only to write a good poem in meter and rhyme, but to write any such poem, and he would have been accustomed to writing such poetry from his youth. Poetry was a big part of the ordinary person’s life. For some people it was only the poetry in folk songs and hymns, but for literate people—and I am not talking about college graduates—it was far more…

“Modernism is nearly synonymous with disruption from and dismissal of the past. The modernist says the clock’s hands have turned, that there’s no going back, and we must look to the future. Its results have been meager, and at worst a spree of destruction. I am not speaking merely of quality. Whole genres of poetry, to name one branch of art, have disappeared.

“This is not to say that modernist poets write poor dramatic monologues, poor epics, poor songs, and poor narratives; they do not write them at all. Poetry has shrunk to the confessional or political lyric, usually in free verse. Never in human history has poetry meant less to the ordinary man. It is a tree torn up by the roots.”

Click through and read on for more! It’s well worth it.

Of course, having identified and described the problem, the next issue is figuring out what to do about it. Professor Esolen’s recommendation – “Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read” – is an excellent place to start! But how to get people to actually do that is a bit more of a conundrum.

As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And you can lead a writer of “worship songs” to classic hymnody, but you can’t make him appreciate it, still less internalize its lessons, in such a way as to enable him to write in the same tradition… or at least, it doesn’t seem so.

It also helps to come from a faith tradition that actually is a faith tradition. Far too much of what passes for Christianity today is in point of fact what Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner refers to as “jesusy” worship “experiences.” (He also refers to a lot of it as “masturbatory worship,” calling it a “self-worshiping, self-referential, nearly auto-erotic pursuit.” I don’t think he’s far wrong, but I’m trying to be nice.)

For a church – or a would-be hymn-writer – to have an authentic faith tradition, they have to be part of an authentic faith tradition: and for that, you need something like the Anglican tradition. Or the Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or (God help us… after all, I am an Anglican!) Presbyterian / Reformed traditions: traditions that have developed over the centuries, even the millennia, of the Christian era.

You won’t find it in the “community church” model, which almost seems to take pride in not being part of any tradition, which seems to practically glory in being cut off from the past (which, of course, is what inevitably happens when you hitch your wagon to the “contemporary” star).

There are a few such churches that seem to be trying to graft themselves back onto the Great Tradition, and I wish them all the best! But they are still relatively few and far between, and they’ve got their work cut out for them.

And of course, far too many of those who are members of churches that have historically been part of the Great Tradition have, for the last four or five decades (or more), been doing their best to cast off those connections. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have nearly all seen a steep decline in membership.

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But I digress. The point – for the purposes of this post – is that to write hymns that have both theological and poetical depth, one must be steeped in both the poetical tradition and in an authentic, historical faith tradition.

It is said that the old Celtic Bards had to study for 21 years to become masters of their craft and trade. They had to learn not only the musical arts, but history, folklore, genealogy, myths and legends, and much more. Even law codes! Then and only then were they seen to be ready to ply the bardic arts.

Yet now, it seems, everyone who can string together a few lines of doggerel thinks they can write “worship songs” or “praise music.” Maybe we need a more Bardic approach to Christian hymnody! We had something like it once, though we may not have called it by that name: Tony Esolen explicates it, and the fertile soil in which it grew.

I pray we can get it back.

 

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Glories of the West: J S Bach Cantata – ‘Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir’ BWV 29

Source: J S Bach Cantata- ‘(Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir)’ BWV 29- all of bach | YouTube

This, and pretty much anything else written by J.S. Bach!

The “cover photo” is a bit unfortunate; the poor woman looks like she is in pain. But the music is utterly magnificent, as might be expected!

Glories of the West: Rondeau from Sinfonies de Fanfares – Suite de Symphonies – Jean-Joseph Mouret

Source: Jean-Joseph Mouret: Rondeau from Suite de Symphonies (Trumpet and Orchestra)

Best-known to those of us of a certain age as the opening theme of PBS’s wonderful “Masterpiece Theater,” this is a splendid piece of music, played in a manner well-suited to do it justice. As one commenter put it,

“I always thought of this beautiful tune as being archetypically English, but I guess I gotta give the French full credit on this one!”

 

Glories of the West: Richard Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 – “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Thus Spake Zarathustra” – is a tone poem (also known as a symphonic poem) by Richard Strauss, composed during 1896 and inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise of the same name.

Source: Richard Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 | YouTube

The opening to this epic composition is perhaps best known by many as the score to the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In a way, that’s kind of a shame, as it is more than worthy of appreciation on its own: indeed, the entire symphonic poem is. But that opening is truly epic!

N.B.: I hasten to add that I am not a Nietzschean (although honesty also compels me to admit that his assertion that “what does not kill us, makes us strong,” has helped inspire me to persevere through some very difficult times in life).

However, this is darned fine music.

Glories of the West: Medieval Carols – A Holy Night (Album)

Source: Medieval Carols – A Holy Night (Album) | YouTube

I have been remiss in posting entries in this category, of late! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa… Here, in any case, is a wonderful selection of glorious seasonal music, from the medieval West!

  1. Hodie Christus Natus Est
  2. O Nobilis Nativitas/O Mira Dei/O Decus Virgineum/Apparuit
  3. Lux De Luce
  4. Alleluya: A Nywe Werke
  5. Verbum Supernum Prodiens
  6. Balaam De Quo Vaticinans
  7. Ave Maria
  8. Gabriel, Fram Heven-King
  9. Lullay: I Saw A Swete Semly Syght
  10. Prolis Eterne Genitor/Psallat Mater Gracie/[Pes]
  11. Vox Clara, Ecce, Intonat
  12. De Supernis Sedibus
  13. Omnes De Saba
  14. Puellare Gremium/Purissima Mater/[Pes]
  15. Lullay, Lullay: Als I Lay On Yoolis Night
  16. Tria Sunt Munera
  17. Orto Sole Serene/Origo Viri/Virga Lesse/[Tenor]
  18. Peperit Virgo
  19. Ecce Quod Natura
  20. A Solis Ortus Cardine
  21. Ther Is No Rose Of Swych Vertu
  22. Videntes Stellam
  23. Nowel: Owt Of Your Slepe Aryse

Jethro Tull: Fires at Midnight (Songs From The Wood, 1977)

“I believe in fires at midnight,

When the dogs have all been fed:

A golden toddy on the mantle,

A broken gun beneath the bed…”

I have always thought of Songs from the Wood as in some ways the quintessential British countryside album, and this song as the quintessential British countryside song. As such, it fits perfectly into the “Blighty Boys” concept!

It appears that, in some ways at least, the band itself agrees:

“Jethro Tull’s tenth album was inspired by Ian Anderson’s departure to a more rural environment in a transition which bore clear influence on the writing and recording process, with the band notably doffing a cap to British folklore and countryside.”

Songwriter and Jethro Tull lead singer Ian Anderson has also noted that the album was “for all the band members… a reaffirmation of our Britishness.”

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Te Deum – 5th Century Monastic Chant (Solemn)

This form of Christian chant – Gregorian chant – is, of course, of unquestionably Western provenance! As the notation on the linked YouTube page notes,

“Monks of the one of the Abbeys of the Solesmes Congregation sing this beautiful chant. The Te Deum is attributed to two Fathers and Doctors of the Church, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and is one the most majestic chants in the Liturgy of the Church. It is sung in traditional seminaries and monastic houses at the Divine Office and for Double feasts of the First Class, The Nativity, Easter, Corpus Christi, Epiphany, Pentecost and those which have an Octave. The solemn Te Deum is sung on all occasions of public [liturgical] rejoicing, in Traditional Catholic Churches.”

And in English translation, it is sung (or recited, in the Office of Morning Prayer) in not a few traditional Anglican churches, as well!


Nota Bene: The Abbey of Solesmes, under Dom Prosper Guéranger, was largely responsible for the rebirth and liturgical restoration of Gregorian Chant, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and remains the mother-house of a Benedictine community to this day (with several interruptions along the way!). For more information, check out this fascinating brief account of its history, or the Abbey’s own history page.


Here is the Te Deum in traditional English translation:

Te Deum laudamus.

WE praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud; the Heavens, and all the Powers therein;
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee;
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine adorable, true and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost the Comforter.

THOU art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints, in glory everlasting.

O LORD, save thy people, and bless thine heritage.
Govern them and lift them up for ever.
Day by day we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name ever, world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy be upon us, as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.

Here is an English-language plainsong (chant) version: