Open the treasure box and recover the Church’s musical treasures

Father George Rutler’s The Stories of Hymns: The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns is quite simply the most fascinating book about sacred music that I have ever read.

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I have beside me a new book by Father George Rutler. It is called The Stories of Hymns: The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns. It is quite simply the most fascinating book about sacred music that I have ever read. Every sentence counts, every sentence reveals something wondrous or ironic or poignant or profound or amiably human about the authors, the translators, the composers, the arrangers, the congregations who sang the hymns, and the immensely curious George himself when he was a choir-boy in the Episcopal Church, before the deluge.

But I am struggling first to find the words to convey to my readers the criminal stupidity of what we in the Catholic Church have done with church music.

Imagine that there is a retired chef living in your attic. He can cook for you in the style of just about any of the peoples of Europe and the near East, and without sending you to specialty stores for lichens that grow on the north side of granite in Yakutsk, or bottles of squid-ink selling at a thousand dollars an ounce. He can cook a meal fit for a king, or fit for a peasant, or for both at once. He can’t make a rump roast taste like filet mignon, because he can’t alter the laws of nature, nor will he try to do so; but he can sure make that rump roast as enjoyable to you as the filet mignon. And since he uses real food – real barley, lentils, cuts of pork, spinach, chickpeas, olives, cheese, salt – his meals are good for you, and won’t give you diabetes when you are forty, or a soft and sallow body when you are ten. Imagine that he will do this for you at no cost, out of the generosity of his heart. He simply loves what he does.

“Well, I don’t think so,” you say. “I think I’ll have mass-produced hormone-injected ground beef instead, microwaved, and coated with yellow-dyed casein, and congealed corn-oil semi-plastic lactose product for dessert, with titanium white added for coloring, and chocolate syrup.”

An old Amish carpenter wants to make tables, chairs, shelves, cabinets, and sideboards for your house. He has oak and cherry wood ready. He has his own tools, and his hands. He will do it for you as a gift, out of love. But you tell him that you prefer particle board, plywood, plastic, staples, and machine screws instead.

An old Italian man who has spent his life studying and copying the paintings of Titian wants to decorate the spaces between the windows of your church. He will do it for nothing. Each space will feature one of the apostles, in a painted “niche” that will accentuate the architectural lines already present in the windows and the walls. But you tell him that you prefer to have the space blank, or worse. “Well, I’m sure that what you do might be all right for some congregations,” you say, with the snobbery of the modern iconoclast, “but we were going to let the children decorate those areas.”

“But do the children know how to draw?” says the old man, furrowing his brow with astonishment. “It took me many years to learn to do that well.”

“Oh, there’s no need for that,” you say. “Haven’t you ever heard of paint-by-numbers?”

I hope I have made the point. And please let us not hear that what we are talking about is only art, and that art does not matter to God, so that we can treat our worship with a carelessness that we would never show on a day we hold to be really important, such as your dog’s birthday, or the Dies Ludi Supremi.

But don’t let me give the impression that Father Rutler’s work is a polemic. It doesn’t have to be. Just showing what the great hymns were – from the patristic O Trinity of Blessed Light to the American tent-revival song There is a Fountain Filled with Blood; from the melodies of Bach and Haydn to those of a farmer whistling on the Sussex downs – is sufficient.

You don’t have to read The Stories of Hymns from beginning to end, in order, just as you don’t have to browse the hymns in a hymnal by starting with the first. Father Rutler introduces each hymn by title, followed by the score for the principal melody-line, the name of the melody, and the texts for the verses. Then he gives us a two-page essay on the hymn, telling stories as the master raconteur he is, helping us to appreciate the beauty of the music or the poetry, and showing us that the old hymnodists really did try to preach as Saint Paul did: Christ alone, and Him crucified.

Every page is a delight. I never knew that He Who Would Valiant Be, set by the incomparable Ralph Vaughan Williams to the folk tune “Monks Gate,” was chosen by Winston Churchill to be sung at his funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, indicating, says Father Rutler, “that, from the purview of natural virtue, he lived World War II as a spiritual battle, and in such combat nothing is more demeaning to human integrity than moral neutrality.” I had seen John Milton named as the author of Let Us With a Gladsome Mind, but I did not know that he was only a fifteen year old lad when he wrote it as a paraphrase of Psalm 136, which of course he was reading in Hebrew. Nor did I know that for two centuries the hymn was part of the commencement ceremonies at Dartmouth College, Father Rutler’salma mater, “until the world of academia was brutalized by the philistinism of political correctness.” His last memory of the college was a sweet one, singing Milton’s hymn with “hundreds of fellows in my class among the pines of Hanover Plain.”

I knew that the text of Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying was originally German, and that Bach had taken up an older melody and arranged it for what organists know as Wachet Auf. I did not know that the poet and composer both, Philip Nicolai, was a Lutheran pastor whose art was a part of his care for souls, pouring from “his mind and heart, not in spite of, but because of the plague that killed more than a thousand of his parishioners in Westphalia in the second half of 1597 and scores more in the beginning of 1598,” and so to give hope to his fellow sufferers he composed a book of hymns and called it Mirror of Joys. Then Bach went on to do what Vaughan Williams would do in the twentieth century, and what plenty of lovers of genuine folk music and folk hymnody did in the nineteenth. He “typified the minuscule population of true greatness by not disdaining the amateur. He harmonized Nicolai’s melody and, in so doing, added passing notes to improve its singability, the way Corot added a few strokes to a student’s painting to their mutual delight.”

As we can expect from Father Rutler, good humor is everywhere to be found. When he comes to Sing of Mary, he advises us that the words we sing would never have been approved by the people who preserved the folk melody, from the Plymouth Collection, compiled by the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, whose father Lyman had led riots against the Ursuline nuns in Boston in 1834, and whose sister Harriet wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was thus, as Lincoln jested, the little lady who started the big war. The Beechers were early feminists, but the man who wrote the poem we know was Roland Ford Palmer, a gentle Anglican minister with deeply Catholic leanings, who became a friend of Father Rutler himself. Palmer emigrated to Canada and became the superior of an order of Anglican monks. That idea was unfamiliar to people, says Father Rutler, “and when some of them set up in a parish on Cherry Street in Philadelphia, walking outdoors in their cassocks, a lady in the neighborhood complained to the Protestant Episcopal bishop that some of his clergymen were practicing celibacy in the streets.”

Nor does Father Rutler ignore certain kinds of hymns that have utterly disappeared from our consciousness. I note with gratitude his inclusion of a good number hymns of spiritual combat, such as Christian, Dost Thou See Them? and Soldiers of Christ, Arise. “A dyspeptic and slothful soul will try to make a virtue of pacifism,” he says, “but none of that is in the apostolic literature.” We are to put on, as the latter hymn has it, echoing Saint Paul, “the panoply of God,” that is, the full armor of God, as the priest is supposed to be doing when he vests for Mass. The beloved hymn known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate – I Bind Unto Myself Today – has a history that should abash anyone who considers himself too sophisticated to learn from past masters. We have the fiery trinitarian Patrick sweeping through Ireland, celebrating Mass everywhere in Latin and, as legend has it, uttering the words of the breastplate as he walked to Tara in the midst of the scouts of his enemy, the king Loegaire mac Neill. Then the redoubtable wife of the Bishop of Armagh, Cecil Frances Alexander, a proponent of the Oxford Movement that gave a young John Henry Newman to the world of letters and a hymnodist in her own right, decided she would translate those Old Irish words into English verse and give them as a gift to the Anglican parishes in Ireland. The Catholics took up the hymn, which was set to a mighty and ancient Irish melody preserved and developed by Charles Villiers Stanford, “friend of Brahms, collaborator with Tennyson, and teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams,” a man of prodigious talents, “who composed a piece at the age of eight that was performed two years later in the Dublin Royal Theatre.” Not a bad resume, that! But I doubt that the heads of many Ia “music ministry” would see much to work with here. “Patrick’s song,” says Father Rutler, “was neither merry nor sad, for his battle brought the sound known only to those who conquer idols, and that is the sound of joy.”

I should like to end with an appeal to ecumenism. Father Rutler is neither indifferent to the theological divisions among the Christian communities, nor ungrateful for the tremendous contributions that such men as the Wesleys and John Mason Neale and Isaac Watts have made to our treasury of sacred music. Liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants thought that they would be the architects of Christian unity, but it has not been so, because the liberal capitulation to modernity and its result, a unitarianism too pallid for Emerson, cannot inspire the young, and afflicts its congregations with liturgical and theological dementia. You might think of it as the summary judgment of the Holy Spirit upon them. But Catholics and Protestants have united in the battle-lines against abortion and same-sex mirage, in the homeschooling movement, and in demanding in our schools a recovery of classical and Christian arts and letters.

Here is another opportunity. You can hardly get one Catholic man in fifty to sing the silly twaddle that soaks our hymnals; but imagine Catholic and Protestant men singing together the authentic words of Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven, joined by the women and the children, and raising an earthly thunder that shakes the church dome and assaults heaven itself. Lord, let me be a part of this before I leave this earth!

Stories of Hymns: The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns
by Fr. George William Rutler
Sophia Institute Press, 2017
Paperback, 288 pages

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About Anthony Esolen 20 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.

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