The strange decline of Catholic hymns

The strange decline of Catholic hymns

When Pope Honorius crowned the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) by proclaiming the new feast of Corpus Christi – a triduum of joy from the Thursday following Trinity Sunday to echo the triduum of Holy Week and Easter – the Catholic world responded with a burst of artistic creativity unmatched since the days of Ancient Greece. Drama came alive again, in a folk tradition which, when it merged with the learning of the Renaissance, would culminate in the plays of somebody called Shakespeare.

When the Council of Trent closed in 1563, the Catholic world again responded with a burst of artistic creativity. What the neo-classical tea-tasters of the 18th century disparagingly called the “Baroque” was born; Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Shakespeare again, Milton, Racine, Bernini, Bach; and that quintessentially Baroque invention, with its magniloquence and its passionate action – the opera.

But when the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 – what?

I used to wonder whether Catholics outside of the Anglophone world did a better job preserving their art, their music and their prayers, even if they were not in a good cultural position to create new works. We speakers of English have put up with doggerel and “I Feel Holy” jingles and the butchering of old hymns. Were speakers of other languages not so cursed with innovation? If I were to judge by the part of French Canada where we live in the summer, I’d say the destruction was universal.

I’m looking at a copy of Paroissien Romain (1956), which I found stuffed in the closet of the choir loft of our local church, Notre-Dame de L’Assomption. It is a beautiful book, 2,000 pages cloth-bound and red-edged. The wear on the tassels for keeping your place, and some pencil marks here and there, show that the books were indeed used. Paroissien Romain contains the prayers, readings and chants for Mass and for the Divine Office for every Sunday and every feast day throughout the year, and a great deal more, along with careful instructions on how to pronounce Latin, and how to perform Gregorian chant (printed in standard G-clef notation). The prayers for the feast of the Assumption are glorious. (They aren’t heard here any more, because the feast is not a holy day in Canada.)

I’m often struck by how powerful it can be merely to place a verse from Scripture in the context of a feast. For the Gradual of the Assumption, we have a tremendous verse from Psalm 45, the great marriage psalm, in Latin: Audi, filia, et vide, etc. I will translate: “Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and the king shall desire thy beauty. The daughter of the king walks forth in glory, her robe is fringed with gold, Alleluia. Mary has been assumed into heaven: the host of Angels rejoice.”

I count 433 notes to chant the 32 Latin words, once. The chant is extraordinary in its tapestry, its delicate melody opening out like a rose, petal upon petal, as if you could never have enough of praise, as if you could meditate joyfully upon a single word forever.

All that is gone now. I also have before me the current French hymnal, D’une même voix (2003). It’s a third the size of Paroissien Romain. There’s no instruction on how to chant. The short section with chanted prayers gives the impression that the editors are not terribly interested. “It is not fit to chant everything,” they say. “One should strive for a balance, and a liveliness in the congregation. Sometimes you should chant less, to chant better.” Those are their last words on the matter.

Then come the hymns. For the Assumption, in Paroissien Romain, we have the mighty O prima, Virgo, prodita. The first five verses sing of Mary foretold at the Fall of Man, to be the mother of our Saviour in the flesh, of Him who would conquer death; and then she too shares in the conquest when death itself abandons her, to the joy and praise of all nature. In the sixth verse, we beg her to turn her eyes to us that we may follow her.

The seventh and final verse is the doxology:

Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Qui natus es de Virgine,
Cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula. Amen.

There’s one hymn for the Assumption in D’une même voix. It’s a wannabe jaunty ditty, with guitar chords and those odd rhythms meant for a soloist – the last seven notes held for counts of 3, 2, 1, 1 ½, ½, 1, and 5. It isn’t beautiful. It isn’t even pretty, though I think it was supposed to be. It’s groovin’ for Mary. The words aren’t stupid or heretical; only simplistic. I give the refrain followed by the verses in translation:

You are lovely, acclaimed by the angels. You are lovely, holy Mother of God.

Come, the day arises, on the morning of God, come, the day arises in the highest heaven!
Come forth in the joy of the garden of God, come forth in the joy of the highest heaven!
Enter and be the Queen in the palace of God, enter and be the queen in the highest heaven!
May love enchant you at the banquet of God, may love enchant you in the highest heaven!

That’s it, that’s all. No Adam, no Christ, no Fall, no salvation, no death, no new life, no plea for intercession, no Trinity. It’s a salad of perky feelings, with a couple of pious words sprinkled on top, like a sugary dressing.

Why can’t we have beauty any more?

Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire