Sunday, 15 September 2013

From bad to worse: politically correcting the hymbook

I have been promising myself this little rant project for some time and so this morning I borrowed a hymn book from (I did ask) and now I am sitting down to enjoy an objective moan (OK, maybe I will allow some subjective whining to creep in) about what they have done with the hymns. Our parish rejoices in Liturgical Hymns Old and New, the sequel to Hymns Old and New with Supplement which continued the trilogy begun with Hymns Old and New. The title is blatantly a rip off of the classic Hymns Ancient and Modern with monosyllables in order to make it easier for the people to understand. You see, I am getting annoyed already. Apparently (I quote from the foreword) 'the significant adjective "Liturgical"' is to do with 'the people...reclaiming the parts of the mass and the celebration of the sacraments that belong to them by wanting - as they should - to sing them'. Wow, I'm really starting to regret reading that page. Anyway, what I am about to say could probably be equally applied to most of the hymnbooks in current circulation. I should add at this point that Bruvver Eccles is doing sterling work on the subject of bad hymns, and today's rant is more about the updating of both bad and good.
The first section is Music for the Mass. This is now all completely out of date because we have a new, improved translation, although this isn't quite true as they do get credit for including the Missa de Angelis, Mass XVIII and Credo 3. However, they lose points for grouping together all the Kyries, all the Glorias etc which does lead to random picking and choosing of mass parts resulting in a lack of musical cohesion. Further points must be subtracted for including Agnus Deis with made up verses. What is it with making up words to the Agnus Dei? I know better than the Church and I don't think they've really got it covered with the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world?
This wasn't quite how I saw this post going. The next section is Hymns and Songs. I don't know if I know what the difference is, and I'm not sure they do either because there isn't a helpful little heading next to each composition saying which it is. Out of curiosity I've just looked these words up on (I have got an OED on the shelf but it's heavy) and apparently a song is 'a short metrical composition intended or adapted for singing, especially one in rhymed stanzas' and a hymn is 'a song or ode in praise or honour of God' which begs the question what are 'songs' doing in a book with the word 'liturgical' in the title?
What I was really going to look at was the way in which a lot of the hymns have been adapted, presumably to make them more 'inclusive', especially for people who can't pronounce their 'th's yet, for women, and because we are all one people and God can't show favoritism by conferring grace or blessings on any one individual over any other. There are problems with this, many of which can be illustrated using the updated version of My God loves me. This was not a great hymn to start with. It is never a good idea to set hymns to popular tunes (see the Hey Jude Kyrie). Maybe I am doing the editors a disservice. Perhaps their efforts on this hymn are to discourage the singing thereof. In this case, changing the first line to Our God loves us was a stroke of genius, making it tricky to locate if you rely on the alphabetical order of the hymnbook (although the inclusion of both options in the index makes me question their motives). Basically what they have done is replace all the singular pronouns with plural pronouns, hence my God becomes our God and he loves us not me. And here are the problems:
  1. Musically speaking, 'us' is not a great word to have on the end of a line. We can sing my God loves meeeeeeeeeeee with no problem. My God loves uuuuuuuusssssssss is difficult on two counts. The u-as-in-us does not lend itself to long notes, and where to put the s is a challenge even for experienced choirs, who annotate their scores to show where exactly it should be places. Our God does not, in fact, love us, he loves hissing.
  2. In terms of the rhyme we come to grief in verse 2, which once proclaimed that 'though storm-clouds threaten the day, he will set me free' which rhymed with the first half in which 'His gentle hand he stretches over me'. Me rhymes with free. Yr 1 phonics. Free does not rhyme with us. This is almost the only rhyme the writer managed to get right (wine/time and endures/secure featuring in verses 3 and 4 respectively) and it seems a shame to take that away from her.
  3. I admit to grammatical pedantry. It annoys me that while they have made the pronouns plural, they have not adjusted the nouns accordingly. Verse 4, therefore, irritates me profoundly, as it contains the immortal line 'and we will live like his child' whereas if we are going to live like anything, presumably it should be his children. Two many syllables.
Thou, thy, thee and thine are perfectly good words. They are not hard to understand. Except, apparently, in the hymn 'Breathe on me, breath of God' where they have been replaced throughout with you and yours.
I personally (subjectivism may creep in) have no objection to the use of man or men to mean all of us 'ere human beings. I do not feel threatened by the word 'mankind'. We have already seen that replacing a monosyllabic word with one of 2 syllables would upset the meter and so there is this rettible tendency to replace 'men' with 'ones' and so the verses of I'll sing a hymn to Mary now end with '... when wicked men ones blaspheme thee, I'll to love and bless thy name'. 'Ones' sounds completely ridiculous. (It is good to note though, that women are being given their credit for wickedness, blasphemey and other wrongdoing as well as the chance to receive peace, grace and love etc.) This is better than the version in Celebrational Hymnal for Everyone in which the end of this verse has been completed altered to remove all mention of wickedness and blasphemy, changing the words to 'O may I imitate thee and magnify thy name'. The same hymnbook also contains an astonishing song which begins 'Oh the Lord looked down from his house up in the sky and said, "I created man but I can't remember why"' which is, at best, anthropologically unsound and at worst, heretical. It's about Noah's Ark. Maybe I should be grateful that it's not in LH&N.
After Hymns and Songs comes Children's Hymns and Songs. I daren't look through this section. There is a lot about butterflies. Then I was excited to see a bit called Chants. DisappointingL it's mostly Taize. Then come the responsorial psalms. I have to say that at least this section should go some way to discouraging people from substituting random songs based on a psalm for the responsorial psalm.
Since the translation of the mass was improved, there have been a lot of complaints centred around the fact that 'we knew the old words and its too hard to change'. Apparently the same complaint doesn't apply to hymns which are to be changed and updated as much as possible.
Now I've got that off my chest, here's some serious advice for anyone planning to write a hymn or song:

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