You know the Ode to Joy tune from Beethoven? One of the most glorious, yet simple and (put in a proper range) singable tunes ever penned. Not liking it is like booing Santa Claus – says more about you than the tune.
The master builds the melody on even quarter notes within a range of a fifth, with the following exceptions – punctuations, really: there is a dotted quarter/eight note figure at the end of 3 out of 4 phrases, and a single syncopated half note that anticipates the 4th line by a beat after a drop down to the dominant at the end of the 3rd line(1). Yet those little rhythmic features kick what otherwise might be a somewhat uninteresting tune to superstar status.
In the hands of Beethoven, a hymn tune can become a shout of martial joy, a march of triumph, while remaining imminently singable, in fact a total ear worm – I’ll probably be humming is the rest of the day. He achieves this through little rhythmic punches on an otherwise super direct and driving tune. This kind of stuff is what shows he’s a genius.
Now consider Kingsfold, one of my favorite tunes:
Here the rhythmic form is two eight notes leading into each phrase and half phrase – every single time. The punctuation here is additional 8th note pairs inserted toward the end of each phrase and in the middle of 3rd and 4th phrases, and a thrilling little run in the last phrase.
Notice that the rhythmic structure established in the first two phrases is deviated from exactly 3 times: in the 3rd beat of the first full measure of the 3rd phrase are two eight notes replacing a quarter; in the same location in the 4th phrase we get that ornamental run; and in last full measure of the third phrase, the 8th note figure is moved up a beat from the 3rd to the second beat.
And that’s it. This is a rocking, memorable, easy to sing tune. Kingsfold qualifies as fairly rhythmically adventurous by hymn standards, yet it works by laying down a very clear and distinctive pattern in lines 1 & 2, then adding clever and arresting variations to it. The untrained singer is not lost at all – after one or two hearings, Kingsfold has that feeling of inevitability that is characteristic of all great music, of how those notes and only those note fit.
The artistic use of structure and pattern not only make for beauty, they also make for singability.
Now consider the tune “Lead Me Lord” that we sang last Saturday at morning Mass (2). The first two lines, which repeat, making them the first 4 lines, look like this:
Even quarter notes except for the ending white notes. It is as boring in practice as it is to look at, but a least it is easy to sing. Next comes the refrain, where the composer tries to liven things up a bit:
And so on. The composer totally shifts gear from smooth and easy to frantically syncopated in an attempt to add some interest. As written, it is all but unsingable – we know this by listening to congregations try to sing it.
On Saturday, I made an effort to sing the tune as written, and found myself doing battle with the consensus of the congregation which, not surprisingly, continued to sing even quarter notes with no regard to the desperate syncopation. Musically, this causes the tune to descend to the infantile level of Carey Landry’s work – the composer was right to see that the tune lacked something, and right to try to fix it. Unfortunately, the fix causes the chorus to be unsingable by the casual non-musician.
And this happens All. The. Time. Whereas real composers writing real music establish a melodic and rhythmic structure that the people can hang with *first*, *then* add a judicious amount of spice to kick it up a notch, modern ‘composers’ of church music lack the skill, the awareness and the sensibilities to do so. Instead, we have a sort of free verse style, where you don’t have any idea what’s coming next until it gets there, and tunes only become somewhat inevitable sounding after they’ve been beaten to death through repetition.
Sure it’s possible that with an enthusiastic enough group of singers leading this tune, the people in the pews can be lead to sing this piece sort of like it is written. It can be done; in fact, I’ve probably done it myself (Lord, forgive me!). Virtually all St. Louis Jesuits tunes require this – they are all but unsignable by the congregation as written.(3) But WHY would you do that? Why not pick music that can enter the souls of the people? Where the internal logic of the music makes it satisfying, memorable and singable, instead of needing lyrics to make any sense out of the music? (4)
How often do we attend a Mass where for some reason the ‘liturgy team’ has deigned to throw the people a bone with a nice old hymn, and heard the volume and participation level double, even though we’re going on three generations since such music was the norm? Isn’t that a hint that something is wrong with the current ‘music’?
Beauty isn’t a sin.
1. All hymnals in my experience leave this out. Shame.
2. I am extremely grateful that there is a Saturday morning Mass 5 minutes from home, and I love all the people and the priest there, and that we sing an opening hymn a capella. This is not at all a criticism of the people choosing the music – through no fault of theirs, the repertoire known to them runs all the way from Carey Landry to David Haas.
3. A fact that goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of Haugen and Haas – by comparison, they are Rogers and Hammerstein level catchy. But only by comparison.
4. Will have to address this issue another day – music can have an internal logic, which all good hymns have, or it can rely on the external logic of a text. If the text happens to be beautiful poetry that written to a strict rhythm, we have at least the potential for a marriage made in heaven; if it’s doggerel or free-form, that’s what the music will end up being as well. Note that a lot of chant is based on unstructured texts, and is beautiful (and hard to sing!). Most modern church music is built on cliches and other adolescent texts, and is ugly (and hard to sing!)