Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Beaten to the Punch

Our fantasy hymnal exists.  Almost.  Sorta.

For years, we have dreamed aloud about something we call "the reference hymnal."  It would be an anthology, meant for worship planners, which presented familiar hymns in their original, unaltered form:  all the stanzas; the original texts both of the foreign-language originals and of the English translations; brief notes describing their textual history and the most frequent alterations.  Music is optional, but lists of the most common tunes would certainly make sense.

Obviously, this is a book for the pastor's shelf, not for the pews.  It wouldn't interest all that many people.  What it would do is restore to pastors and music directors some of the control that is, whether we like it or not, normally ceded to the committees that put hymnals together.  Editors, after all, make textual decisions based both on their poetic and their theological sensibilities, and while they are by no means always mistaken in their judgment, neither are they always correct.  Sometimes, a congregation wants to sing "his," "thine" and "Jehovah;" sometimes it doesn't.  The reference hymnal would allow informed decision-making.

It would also be a useful teaching tool.  A shocking number of people are genuinely interested in hymns, but fairly few have any deep knowledge of their history.  But hymns are a repository of historical theology.  One could, without much effort and to great effect, trace the differing theories of the Atonement through Patristic, Medieval and post-Reformation song.   Likewise the different visions of Christ's person, or of the Trinity.  it could make for many fun evenings in the undercroft.

One pedagogical side-benefit would also be to hush up the uninformed whiner.  Some of the most common complaints about hymnals are that "they've changed the words" and that "we always [or never] sing all the stanzas."  Many of the people who complain would be profoundly surprised to learn what the original words were, or how man stanzas actually exist.

Anyway, we've wanted this book for years.  And it turns out that it exists -- sort of.  We propose to you two approaches to the same problem:
  • The Rev. Robert Maude Moorsom's 1889 H

    istorical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern

    containing the Greek and Latin; the German, Italian, French, Danish and Welsh hymns; the first lines of the English hymns; the names of all authors and translators; notes and dates.  
  • The Rev. Louis Coutier Biggs' 1867 Hymns Ancient and Modern

    For Use in the Services of the Church : with Annotations, Originals, References, Authors' & Translators' Names, and with Some Metrical Translations of the Hymns in Latin and German. 
As you surely know, Hymns Ancient & Modern is an immensely popular Anglican collection, which has gone through many, many different editions in the course of its long lifefetime.  It has, or at least began with, a High Church spin, and -- because of the "ancient" part -- the work of John Mason Neale is evident on every page.  Of hymnal companions there has never been a shortage, but we know of very few that provide foreign-language originals, more or less intact.  That's what makes these special.

You can download both --free -- at Google Books.  Neither is perfect, but both are interesting.  Of the two, it is Biggs whose work impresses us most.  Moorsom provides original texts, notably the Greek, but without English translations.  His book is elegant to look at and has good indices.  Biggs, however, offers the full monte:  text, translation, notes, all at a glance.  Here's a sample page:

You can see how it works (and readers who own Odd Hours will see why this book appeals to us visually -- we had never seen it when we laid out our own book, but the resemblance is striking).

The system isn't perfect.  Biggs indicates textual changes to hymns that were originally written in English, but in the case of translations, as the one above, he generally does not.  Nor are we certain whether his Latin originals are truly original, or instead the "corrected" versions of the Counter-Reformation breviary.

In some cases, the compilers of HA&M have adopted a mutilated version of the hymn.  Their version of Jesu lebt! Mit Ihm auch ich is one which was popular at the time, but which departed radically both from Christian Gellert's original and Frances Elizabeth Cox's translation.  Biggs notes this, but does not provide the longer version.  Grrr.

The most serious limitation of the Biggs book, of course, is that it reflects an outdated selection.  Many of these hymns have not stood the test of time; many others (and from many languages) have been added  to the common congregational repertory.

Beyond that, the book is inconvenient to use electronically; we'd much prefer a hard copy.

Still, Biggs points the way forward.  He provides a simple, easy to use format, and a core of hymns still in use.  Around this, some enterprising student of hymnody might very well construct a useful little tool for parish ministry.

1 comment:

mark said...

Have you ever seen "The Service Hymnal"?
"A Lutheran Homecoming". It is a bit
amateurish (think of the Latin root there),
and worth a look.