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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

April 1, 2014

Lent and Laudate

evelyn @ 8:43 pm
Me (getting excited): … and during the refrain there will be shrieks from the sopranos and altos.

A soprano (huffily): We don’t shriek.

Me (on a roll now): Oh, yes, you’ll shriek this time. You’re going to be anguished souls, begging for forgiveness, while the  baritones relentlessly hammer out the melody over a solemn drumbeat which I’ll do on the pedals. It’s going to be chilling!

A pause. They look at me in silence.

Me (rather lamely): Or at least, that’s the idea.

We were planning Lent for the choir. I’d always loved the ‘God of mercy and compassion’ tune (Pergolesi’s Au sang qu’un Dieu), and thought it could be arranged dramatically as a penitential choir piece. The singers did eventually warm to the idea – in fact, they became quite enthusiastic – and I was given the go-ahead for my chills and thrills, provided I used the ‘old words’. So I set to work.

The oldest words I could find were in the St Andrew Hymnal. Four verses, the middle two featuring hell and eternal damnation. Hmm. Not the most popular of topics these days.

Next, one of the older Mayhew books. They’d just taken the first and last verses of the St Andrew set. Yes, that would do. Two verses are fine for a choir anthem, and I could create a ‘hell and damnation’ interlude between the verses with some loud organ discords over the steady beat.

So on the first Sunday in Lent we did it during Communion, the sopranos and altos singing strongly with feeling (but not shrieking) ‘Jesus! Mercy!’ over the men’s ‘Jesus, Lord, I ask for mercy’ line. All the ‘hell’ discords were in place and the pedals, carefully coupled, were suitably inexorable. It was certainly different from the usual Lenten fare, but happily, reaction was good. Our parish priest liked the drama and said ‘Do it like that at the Station Mass’ (the deanery Lenten Mass when the Archbishop comes).

Ah. A problem here. The hymn was down for congregational participation at the Station Mass. This meant I would have to cut out the interlude in the middle. Oh well, needs must. At least the vocal harmonies could remain, so long as we changed the words to those in our church hymnal, Laudate, which the people would be using.

I hadn’t considered these ‘new’ words before, and when I looked at them, I have to say, I recoiled. Laudate had done it again, substituting modern blandness and abstraction for something which was obviously deemed too negative (remember the disappearance of the wicked men from ‘I’ll sing a hymn to Mary’?). How could I put ‘Jesus! Mercy!’ shrieks, or any shrieks, over a line which reads ‘Truth insistent and demanding’?

I put the problem to our priest, who simply removed the hymn from the congregational list, and told us to do just what we had done on the previous Sunday. And we did, too.

But, but, BUT … (and I’ve asked this before)

WHY are publishers allowed to DO this sort of thing? Admittedly, there is much less of it in Laudate than in the Mayhew books. But in this instance, a superb tune of great power is wrecked by totally inappropriate words, which frankly have very little merit as poetry – to my mind, anyway.

Why can’t the Catholic Church, which monitors every dot and comma in a Mass setting, take control of its own hymns?

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