Thursday, October 15, 2009

Notes from the Choir

Posting in a hurry today; school ran long, and what with one thing and another I just realized that choir practice is looming.

One of the hymns we'll be singing this week comes to us first from the Jesuits and then from the Lutherans. It is a very beautiful hymn in many ways:
Beautiful Savior, King of Creation
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love Thee, truly I’d serve Thee,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.
Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands,
Robed in the flowers of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.
Fair is the sunshine, Fair is the moonlight,
Bright the sparkling stars on high;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
Than all the angels in the sky.
Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, Praise, adoration
Now and forevermore be Thine!
If you go to the link, you'll see alternative lyrics for this hymn under the title "Fairest Lord Jesus." The music provided is the music I'm familiar with, but I've always seen the "Beautiful Savior" lyrics in Catholic churches.

Like I said, this is a beautiful hymn in many ways. The music used for it seems fitting for church, and some of the lyrics are certainly very worshipful and conducive to reverence, particularly the first and fourth verses.

So why do I find myself not altogether liking it?

The second and third verses.

For one thing, they shift the address; the first and fourth verse address Jesus directly under the title "Beautiful Savior" and praise Him directly. The second and third, on the other hand, speak of Jesus in the third person, to other people. And perhaps it's the unfortunate effect of translation, or perhaps the unfortunate effect of living in a time saturated by advertising and marketing, but there's something about the language employed in the second and third verses that reminds me a little of this kind of thing (picture removed).

It's not that Jesus isn't fairer, purer, etc. than stars, angels, flowers, and so on. It's just that the words in English tend to sound too facile, like advertising copy for laundry soap or a new fragrance; like I said, perhaps the original German avoids this problem. But the unhappy facility of the language here makes what is otherwise an inspiring sort of hymn sound just a bit like the vocalization of Christian kitsch--something which, though well-intentioned, ends up trivializing the faith too much, or treating solemn topics in a way that would be perfectly apt for the treatment of a new shiny product being touted by some Madison Avenue geniuses.

I hesitated to write about this, lest people start thinking I'm just hopelessly picky and impossible to please when it comes to sacred music. But ultimately I wanted to be honest with my criticism of this song precisely because it is an older hymn. It was written, after all, in 1677, and translated to English in 1873. The flowery sentimentality of the second and third verse may have seemed quite appropriate for Mass at some time in the past, but I don't know for certain if the hymn was used at Mass or only at other devotions; even so, there's no doubt that either because of the translation or because of our familiarity with advertising the hymn now seems to be lacking a bit in its middle verses--at least, in the "Beautiful Savior" translation.


Irenaeus said...

You've nailed why I have a love-hate relationship with the song. Now I know. That's it.

eulogos said...

My husband's Anglican parish sings this as "Fairest Lord Jesus."
I don't know if all the words are the same but it definitely has the "Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer" line in it. And that stanza does always make me faintly uncomfortable. I have gone through the...Well, He is, isn't He...and I guess woodlands and all that are very beautiful and can inspire and lift the spirits, and the person is saying Jesus is even better than that, so what's wrong with it?" set of thoughts.

I never thought about how our sensibility is degraded by advertising, and I can see that. I am afraid this is going to be in my mind now when I sing this.

I am not sure that is why it bothers me. Perhaps it is the too "sweet" presentation of Our Lord, Who after all "is not a tame lion" to quote CS Lewis about Aslan.

Then there is the focus on the incarnate second person of the trinity only. This hymn doesn't end as so many do, with praise of the trinity. (even if Catholics routinely never make it to that last Trinitarian stanza.)

Still, as long as all the hymns we sing are not like this, this one has its place.

Lauren said...

I've got to throw my two cents in here. Red, it's clear that you and your daughters enjoy singing in the choir, despite the leader's taste or musical shortcomings. I would like to just mention: be grateful you have a decent choir! I dearly wish our parish had one...all we've got is one piano and two or three Asian-Americans behind microphones (leaving us with accented lyrics). So...I wish I had a choir like yours :)