Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The pendulum swings

After Vatican II, a lot of parishes threw out a lot that was good, beautiful and holy. The process continued throughout the 70s, 80s and even 90s, and many people have grown up knowing nothing of the beauty of the pre-Vatican II Mass, and having learnt very few, if any, hymns that were written before about 1970.

Some post-1970 'hymns' are absolutely dire. Some are trite and meaningless. Some have hopelessly unmelodious tunes. Some are actually heretical.

The pendulum has now begun to swing back, and many people are embracing the beauty and richness of the traditional form of the Mass. In so doing, some are rejecting anything that was written after Vatican II.

Now, I have lived in a number of different parishes - I moved house approximately once a year as a child. My mother is a church organist, and we used to help her to choose the hymns - always with a Missal in front of us to ensure that they fitted with the theme of the Mass. I spent many years as a member of a church choir, and for a large part of that time I was responsible for selecting the hymns for the Mass at which I played. I therefore have quite a wide repertoire of hymns, both new and old, and my favourite hymns include both old and new ones.

My experiences over the years have led me to the following conclusions:

1. What the choir wants to sing is not necessarily always what the congregation wants to hear

2. What the congregation wants to sing is usually what it knows well. Many people who enjoy singing hymns and consider that singing them is an important part of their participation in the Mass will be completely turned off by a Mass in which more than half of the hymns are unfamiliar. This means that music which is new to the congregation needs to be introduced gradually, and certainly not all in one go.

3. An average hymn which is sung by the majority of the congregation can be more meaningful than a beautiful hymn which nobody joins in with.

4. Some of the trite modern hymns are not heretical and express sentiments which actually fit quite well with the readings of a particular Mass. Some are even based on those readings.

5. We don't ban Humpty Dumpty because it's childish, but nor do we expect to hear it performed to an audience of adults at the Royal Albert Hall. There is an important place for 'children's hymns', but the main Sunday Mass of the parish is almost certainly not it.

I have happy memories connected with some modern hymns, and those memories mark some major points in my spiritual maturing (a process which is by no means complete). For instance, I remember learning 'Colours of day' when I was preparing for First Communion, and singing it with my class in a school weekday Mass. I remember the first all-night retreat I ever went on at the age of 15, which culminated in a Mass at dawn during which everyone lustily joined in with 'Our God reigns', and the emotions that this experience stirred in me.

I also remember hymns that I didn't understand at the time I learnt them - for instance, why did it matter that the green hill didn't have a city wall ("There is a green hill far away, without a city wall")?

I suppose what I'm saying (and I'm deliberately not linking to any recent posts I may have read poking fun at modern hymns, because actually a lot of what was said was very funny) is let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. And let's remember that our spiritual journey may not have ended with 'I have seen the golden sunshine', but that might have been an important step along the way, and perhaps we shouldn't be pulling the ladder up behind us and preventing other people from benefiting from the same stepping stones (hmmm, nice mixed metaphor there).


Mac McLernon said...

The "theme" of the Mass isn't supposed to be the readings... it's supposed to be the text of the Introit... which, according to the liturgical norms, should be sung.

BTW, it's nice to see you posting again!

newhousenewjob said...

Thanks - we've been away on holiday, and before that were a bit preoccupied, so it's been a while. The preoccupations remain, but the holiday is over, so I may be blogging a bit more often now.

I was being lazy, or using shorthand, or whatever excuse you like - I know it's not just the readings, but particularly for the offertory hymn it's desirable to pick up a theme from the readings.

Incidentally, I came across this, which contains quite a good idiot's guide to selecting music for the Mass: http://www.drgareth.info/MassPlan.pdf.

newhousenewjob said...

I have changed my post, though. Is that better?

Miss Ellen E. said...

Some of the points you made certainly resonate with me;

"I have happy memories connected with some modern hymns, and those memories mark some major points in my spiritual maturing (a process which is by no means complete)."

When our children were small, for example, I joined in enthusiastically with them in singing the 'children's hymns' and if they had actions, I'd be happy to join in too, to encourage them.

Now, I cringe, when I think of it, but it was right for me at the time and for our children. Our elder son now has a great love for the old traditional hymns - and anything sung in Latin - so it obviously didn't scar him for life!

I too, have grown to appreciate the older, more traditional hymns, some of which, being a convert, I was not brought up on.