13 March 2008

Music Matters

I recently came across yet another debate on the value of Haugen Haas et al. The author I was reading defended the value of some of Haugen et al, but more than this plead for the development of objective criticism, and the use of objective language when debating the value of music. I agree with this. So much of the debate consists of “I hate that song! Get rid of it!” which is no more or less valid than: “I love that song! Sing it often!”

Unfortunately, objective language is difficult. I once debated a fellow who claimed to be an expert in music matters who also insisted that we use objective terms. He then proceeded to argue that Haugen was objectively good because he “uses interesting chords.” Now first, a technical point: “Interesting” is not an objective term, not in any way. It is subjective, for it implicitly needs a subject who finds something interesting. So no objectivity here.

I have also heard music defended because “There’s nothing wrong with it.” Perhaps this is true. Perhaps not in some cases, as I will argue momentarily. However, it seems to me that in celebrating the sacrifice of Holy Mass it is insufficient for our music to have “nothing wrong with it.” There should be something positively right with it. Unfortunately, so far all I’ve been offered personally is ‘interesting chords,’ whatever that means.

But I’m willing to admit the existence of ‘interesting chords’ or ‘curious rhythms’ or whatever novelty seems to pass for musical goodness these days. I am, admittedly, a musical amateur. My expertise lies in language. To be fair, the debate that began this little rumination was over Haugen's psalms, which aren't so bad when compared to- say- Rossini's propers- and the words are direct translations, so my linguistic analysis would be irrelevent. Instead I propose to examine the words to one of Haugen’s greatest hits, the ubiquitous “Gather Us In”.

Before I begin to examine what is to be found in the words, let me say what is not to be found: God. There is no explicit mention of God, neither by name nor by attribute. Normally I would have thought this to be a problem for a hymn, but apparently I am wrong. With that in mind, I begin.

Here in this place, new light is streaming,
And we’re off. This line sets a place for this song- “here”- which is the only way we can assume the song is about God, because we are in a Church, and presumably we would ask God to gather us in church, right? We’ll get back to that point. The next part of the line offers us new light. Why new? Light has been a subject of many hymns down through the ages, and many adjectives have been added to it. “Holy” light, “Heavenly” light, “Godly light” or even “Godlight.” But here the light is “new”. New is not a virtue, although it is paraded in this song as though it were. Further, what is “new” about light? Light was the first created thing. It could be the light of a new day- except for me, the place and time where I heard this song most often was at the Saturday evening Mass of Anticipation, when the day was drawing to a close, and the light was therefore old. The only new thing about the light in church is that light is currently provided by electricity, a relatively new development. Perhaps that’s what this song is about: it’s really a hymn to Thomas Edison. It makes sense. After all, Edison is mentioned by name exactly the same number of times as God.

Now is the darkness vanished away,
See in this place our fears and our dreamings,
Here we have the first mention of the true subject of this song: Us. There are 27 or 28 mentions of “we” “our” or “us”. By comparison there are seven mentions of “you” and “your” which is presumably God. Or Edison. A question: Are we supposed to see “our fears and our dreamings” at church? If not, then where are we? Incidentally, dreamings is not a word.

Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in, the last and forsaken
Gather us in, the blind and the lame
Call to us now and we shall awaken,
We shall arise to the sound of our name.

We are the young, our lives are a myst’ry
We are the old, who yearn for your face.
We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry

We are “sung”? What does this mean? I am at a loss about being sung into existence. I can only hope the songwriter is better than Haugen.

Called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in, the rich and the haughty,
Gather us in, the proud and the strong,
Give us a heart, so meek and so lowly
Give us the courage to enter the song.
'The courage to enter the song'- perhaps my least favourite line of the song. We ask for the strength and courage to endure. The courage of saints and martyrs. Here the song combines New Age spiritualism with sixties idealism which tells us that the bravest thing in the world is to strum a guitar around a campfire in protest of the Man.

Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth.
“New” again. And here we run into a pet peeve of mine. I am tired of songs that refer to the body and blood of Christ as bread and wine. I know, Aquinas did it. He did, but he also stressed that the matter was more than bread and wine. Some of the newer songs I was stuck singing for five years emphasize the bread, rather than the flesh. Some go further, so we sing of “seed” and “grapes” or “vines”, and are no longer singing of bread and wine. If we go any farther back we’ll be singing in praise of manure.

Here you shall call your sons and your daughters
Call us anew to be salt of the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion
Body and Blood of Christ.

Give us to eat the bread that is you
Body and Blood of Christ!

Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are new.
Not in the dark of buildings confining
So, we’re not in a building. A church, whatever else it may be, is a building. So if we are not in a building, then we are not in a church, and if we are not in a church, then where are we, and more importantly, whom are we asking to gather us in?

Not in some heaven, light years away,

I have no idea what to make of that line.

But here in this place, the new light is shining
Now is the kingdom, now is the day.
Gather us in, and hold us forever,
Gather us in, and make us your own,
Gather us in, all peoples together
Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.
The song displaces God, and in God’s place puts “us”. This song is not about God, or in praise of God, it is in praise of us, and us alone. I would take the advice of the fourth stanza, and not sing this song in a “building confining.” Although, personally I would not sing this song around a Catholic campfire.

So what do we do at this point? Objective debate would be nice, but few are capable. The majority of music that seems deficient is the new stuff, so the tendency is to want to banish the new in its entirety. It is unfair to look back into the past and say “gosh, they really knew how to write back then!” Natural selection of a sort has been taken place, and only the best has come down to us. Natural selection is still at work. A while ago a choir director acquaintance of mine took me through some old dusty cupboards of a church and showed me some hymnals from the forties. The hymnals were full of the work of a priest who wrote the sappiest, most syrupy saccharine songs you could possibly imagine. His work has now died the death it richly deserved, and is sung no more. Wait a few years, and most of the Haugen Haas Schutte stuff will be gone. A few of their better pieces may survive, and Catholics will be griping about some other new hack who has arrived on the scene.


Todd said...

"There is no explicit mention of God, neither by name nor by attribute."

God is mentioned directly in the second person, you, many times.

The song is a prayer of petition. Nothing more, nothing less.

Bear-i-tone said...

Incorrect. First, there are two mentions of "you" and three of "your" compared to nearly thirty of "we" and "us". Two "you's" does not "many" make.

To say that this "you" is God is an assumption not made explicit in the text. As I said, the song itself says "not in the dark of a building confining" and again "not in a heaven light years away"- whatever that meant. But a mass is held in a church, and a church is, whatever else it may be, a building. So if this song is not in building, and not sung to a being in heaven, where and in what context is this song to be sung, and who is the "you" who is gathering us in?

Todd said...

Every instance of "Gather us in ..." is a direct petition to God in the vocative. The "you" is implied by both the language and the context in worship. It doesn't have to be explicit. English doesn't work that way. Latin even more so.

For example, a Christian might call out "mercy!" and the context of the cry might well include the unspoken "Lord have ..."

I think you've also misunderstood verse four (among other points). " ... of buildings confining" is a prepositional phrase describing "the dark." That particular text seems very clear to me: not in the dark, not only far away, but God's Presence is Real in the celebration of Eucharist

Bear-i-tone said...

You have not refuted my point. The use of the vocative case eleminates the repetition of "you" but not the repetition of "us" Figures of repetition are used for emphasis, so what is emphasised here is the "us" while the "you" is de-emphasised.

Furthermore, my reading of the fourth verse is fair. "in the dark of a building confining" can be read as a whole as a phrase. Furthermore, assuming "of a building confining" was a mere modifier of "not in the dark", one must ask why it was chosen, when there could be so many other possibilities of examples of spiritual darkness. But the author rejected other possibilities and specified the darkness of a building.

Todd said...

I don't have a problem with a repetition of "us" in a prayer of petition. Practically every intercession in every prayer of the faithful offered in every Mass in the world offers a repeated first person plural. The Agnus Dei. The Creed. Even praise sequences in the Gloria. It's my view you don't have a point by criticizing a hymn text because it uses a first person reference. Not unless you want to criticize the actual texts of the liturgy itself.

The fourth verse line is actually, "not in the dark of buildings confining." It could be interpreted metaphorically as speaking of prisons. That's how I read the text. Combined with "not in some heaven ..." I would take the meaning to be directly descriptive of Christ and his Real Presence, especially the reference to the Kingdom of God.

Look, I realize people don't like this hymn--text or tune. I can't count it among my favorites. But a serious criticism of any liturgical text really should be grounded in a pretty wide experience with the liturgy. And it should avoid the same tired arguments I've seen elsewhere.

Bear-i-tone said...

My argument, should you care to read it, was not merely that the song repeated "us", but that it de-emphasized and rendered ambiguous the "you" to whom this song is addressed. The prayers you name all have a repetition of "us", I grant you, but they also have a repetition of "you", snd the you to whom the petition is addressed is named,as in: "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us." Secondly, you cannot possibly consider: "Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mecry on on us" as being equal in any form to any petition in Gather Us In. All your examples merely prove my point and not yours. Furthermore, the liturgical texts call for a humble presentation of the self. Gather exalts the self.

I made a mistake with the fourth verse, I agree. But your argument leaves me puzzled: is this a metaphor, or a direct description? The two are exclusive. Secondly, if he meant prisons, he should have said prisons, as the word is metrically identiccal to buildings. "Prison confining" actually makes sense and will fit the metre of the song. As for your interpretation, you offer no authority greater than your own reading, which does not detract from my authority and my interpretation, as I said in the opening paragraph of this little piece. We are at an impass with that line.

This piece is something I wrote years ago, It was hardly a tired argument then. Your defense, however, is old now. I see nothing of wide liturgical experience in what you have said. You have not added anything new to the debate, and if you have nothing else new to add, feel free to withdraw.

Todd said...

"... it de-emphasized and rendered ambiguous the "you" to whom this song is addressed."

I don't see that at all. The context within the celebration of Mass is clear.

"... is this a metaphor, or a direct description?"

Both. Jesus as Lamb of God: descriptive of Jesus's role in the Passion, but also a metaphor.

"(Y)ou offer no authority greater than your own reading ..."

Which pretty much leaves us at the start. Some people like the song. Some people don't.

Bear-i-tone said...

"I don't see that at all. The context within the celebration of Mass is clear."

So you have said across four posts now. My point is that the words of the song make it clear this piece has no place within the context of the Mass. But you don't see that.

"Which pretty much leaves us at the start. Some people like the song. Some people don't."

Which is the position I rejected in the opening paragraph of this essay. By the words of the Vatican, the fact that some people lke or dislike a song is no grounds for its use or non use in the Holy Mass.