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The Stories of Hymns – The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns Book by Fr. George W. Rutler



January 29, 2017
by Fr. George W. Rutler


The Stuffed Owl is an amusing anthology of bad verse, first published back in 1930. I was reminded of it with the popularity of the new historical dramatization “Victoria” on television, for one of The Stuffed Owl’s choicest specimens is a contribution by one of Her Majesty’s afflicted subjects:

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,

Into the tomb the Great Queen dashes.

It is matched perhaps only by “Lines Written to a Friend on the Death of His Brother, Caused by a Railway Train Running over Him Whilst He Was in a State of Inebriation” by James Henry Powell. These were amateurs, but, as Dryden said, “Even Homer nods.” That is, even experts make mistakes, and Dryden himself has more than one entry in the anthology along with the likes of Tennyson and Wordsworth.

C.S. Lewis did not care much for hymns, which he said were usually fifth-rate poetry set to fourth-rate music. Exceptions include the great works of Charles Wesley, John Mason Neale, John Henry Newman, and the like. Those were sturdy adaptations of classical theology set to splendid tunes. As such, they stand out from the bad verse and banal tunes that have descended on congregations from the culturally bleak 1970’s onwards. Some hymns from the older Protestant writers are more in accord with solid doctrine than the insipid twaddle heard at some Masses and may be approved for Catholic praise, like the music of Bach and Handel. They harken to a tradition earlier than their times, as did the work of James Renwick, the Anglican architect of our own St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Liturgy itself is a hymn. The current Ordinary Form permits other hymnody, but this is in the form of “tropes,” as commentary on the sacred texts. The Church’s basic hymnal consists in the Psalms. The Greek “psalmos” is a song accompanied by stringed instruments. Psalms 120-134 even have notations for the instruments.

In the tenth century, the sublime music and ceremonials of the Byzantine rite persuaded Prince Vladimir to adopt it for his lands from northwestern Russia to southern Ukraine. While the Latin rite, performed according to its canons, also has an innate power to evangelize, these days its music is often wanting and its lack of care regrettable.

Nearly twenty years ago I published a book about the history of some hymns, called Brightest and Best. This week it is being re-published as The Stories of Hymns. Perhaps these stories will help readers to appreciate better what St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote:

You must every man of you join in a choir so that being harmonious and in concord and taking the keynote of God in unison, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, so that He may hear you and through your good deeds recognize that you are parts of His Son.

Father Rutler’s book, The Stories of Hymns – The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns, is available through Sophia Institute Press (Paperback or eBook) and Amazon (Kindle only).

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Our website is http://www.StMichaelNYC.com

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