A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church
Hymns have been a part of my life from a very young age. As a fourth-grader I joined the choir of boys, girls, men, and women at Grace Church, the parish my family attended. At that time in my life I was an Episcopalian, although I had been baptized in a Presbyterian church. Every Sunday we sang hymns from the classic Hymnal 1940, along with anthems, psalms and canticles in Anglican chant, and the beautiful setting of the Holy Communion Service by Healey Willan.
With the hymns, my focus was primarily on the melodies, but occasionally I noticed and appreciated or wondered over some of the words. Sometimes I wasn’t quite sure of the meaning of certain hymns, with one example being “O saving Victim, opening wide the gates of heaven to man below.” I knew that in some general way the “saving Victim” was Jesus, but it was not until I entered the Catholic Church many years later that I realized the full Eucharistic significance of the lyrics. The same was true—even more so—of “Humbly I adore Thee,” which I now know as Adoro te devote, Saint Thomas Aquinas’s devotional exposition of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Later in life I began to love and understand the lyrics of hymns with new apprehension, thanks to God’s grace. In the words of one of the hymns discussed in the book under review: “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, / but yet in love he sought me, / And on his shoulder gently laid, / And home, rejoicing, brought me.” These are lyrics I had memorized as a little girl, and they came back to me with new meaning after I returned to Christ, thanks to His grace. The hymn melody most often associated with these lyrics is St. Columba, and it is one which I love to this day.
Which brings me at last to my purpose of writing this review of Anthony Esolen’s book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church. Professor Esolen is currently on the faculty of Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts and is a highly lauded literary scholar known for, among many accomplishments, his translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Thus he is highly skilled at analyzing and discussing poetry and indeed, this is the supreme value of this unique and inspiring book, that he uses his literary skills on a genre of poetry that is often overlooked. As a fervent and faithful Catholic, Professor Esolen brings more than just his academic expertise to his discussion of classic hymnody; he combines these two attributes to give the reader “exegeses” of the hymns he has chosen to present. By “exegeses,” I mean that by using many different resources, Esolen elucidates the spiritual meaning of each hymn that he has chosen for inclusion in Real Music.
Although most of the hymn texts in Real Music are English hymns, some were originally written in other languages, principally Latin and German. Professor Esolen evaluates the translations and shows how the translators made each English version a little masterpiece, not just a literal rendering of the lyrics. With both translations and original English poems, he shares with the reader just what makes a great poem. This is one of the greatest assets of the book: we learn how a poetic hymn text is crafted and what makes a hymn great from the perspective of the art of poetry.
Real Music is divided into chapters whose order forms almost a catechism. After the initial chapter on the psalms, Chapters Two through Twelve form a narrative of the life of Christ followed by chapters on the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, and various aspects of the Christian life. Since many of the hymn texts in Real Music are by Protestants—principally from the Anglican and Lutheran traditions—the author sees the benefits of his study for all Christians, and following C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he omits any mention of Marian hymns.
The chapter on psalms is especially valuable. First, Esolen explains the parallel structure of the Jewish psalms using transliterated Hebrew; he then translates them into English to explain the parallelism. From there he compares, for example, the prose rendering of Psalm 100 (in the King James Version) with “All people that on earth do dwell,” William Kethe’s 1561 metrical English translation, which actually predates the King James Bible (published in 1611). Metrical psalms were the musical bread and butter of Calvinist-influenced churches, and they were almost the sole type of music permitted in Presbyterian and (Low) Anglican worship. French Calvinists had preceded their English counterparts in producing metrical psalms, and those English Calvinists who had fled to Geneva encountered French metrical psalms in the “hometown” of Calvinism. In one sense, Kethe and other English and French authors of metrical psalm texts, were attempting to promote the psalms as poems, rather than prose, just as their original Hebrew authors had intended. As they were rhymed and metered, metrical psalms could be sung to any melody that had the same meter. Moving on to the Victorian era—one particularly rich in the history of English hymnody—Esolen examines “Pleasant are thy courts above,” an 1834 metrical rendering of Psalm 84 by Henry Francis Lyte. In this exegesis Esolen shows how Lyte selected two motifs from the psalm: the beauty of God’s tabernacle versus the tents of the wicked and the theme of pilgrimage typified by the psalm’s metaphor of birds finding a nest. Esolen explains how Lyte used rhyming couplets to present related concepts.
Happy birds that sing and fly
Round thy altars, O Most High;
Happier souls that find a rest
In a heavenly Father’s breast!
While hymns (save hymns that are metrical psalms) generally do not have lyrics from the Bible, they are rich in biblical allusions. One of the many laudable features of Real Music is Esolen’s intimate knowledge of Sacred Scripture and how he is able to reveal scriptural allusions—no matter how fleeting—in hymns. “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing” is a magnificent translation by Robert Campbell (1814-68) of the anonymous Latin hymn Ad regias Agni dapes. The second stanza makes reference to Exodus 12:12, which contains the Passover narrative.
Where the Paschal blood is poured,
Death’s dark angel sheathes his sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.
Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
Paschal victim, Paschal bread;
With sincerity and love
Eat we manna from above.
In addition, the last line is an echo of Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist in John 6:49-58, which itself is a reference to the holy manna in Exodus 16.
The great hymnodist Charles Wesley is represented by four hymns in Real Music. Unlike “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” Wesley’s hymn “Jesus, lover of my soul” is probably not well known by many Catholics. Nevertheless, it is a favorite of mine and one that focuses on the desire of the soul for Jesus and the knowledge that He loves us.
Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life be past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.
This hymn, too, makes scriptural allusions, especially to psalms, for example, Psalm 69: 1 (Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul). Esolen examines Wesley’s use of the word “hide,” and references Psalms 143: 8-9 (delivery from enemies) and 27: 4-5 (For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle he shall hide me … ).
One might think that Anthony Esolen, as a professor of literature, might be interested only in hymn texts, but he also discusses hymn tunes and even analyzes the interaction of lyrics and music. His knowledge of hymn tunes is extensive and he even mentions melodies outside of the commonly known “canon” of hymn tunes. One example is the hymn that begins “See Him in raiment rent,” a little-known poem by Edward Monro (1815-66). Bridgwater is the melody, found in the 1933 edition of The English Hymnal, to which Monro’s words are wedded. Esolen provides an extensive analysis of this rather obscure melody in relation to Monro’s words. A unique feature of Real Music is the CD that comes with it. Eighteen of the hymns discussed by Professor Esolen have been expertly recorded by the Saint Cecilia Choir of Saint John Cantius Church, Chicago, under the direction of Father Scott Haynes, SJC, so readers will be able to hear some of this glorious music.
If ever a second edition of Real Music were to be published, there are a few additions or changes that I might suggest. I would like to see some of the best aspects of Father George Rutler’s book on hymns (Brightest and Best: Stories of Hymns) added to Real Music. Father Rutler includes the musical notation for the hymns whose histories he discusses. Even though many people cannot read music, it would be a benefit for Real Music to have notation available for those who can. Furthermore, with a graphic element available Professor Esolen’s excellent analyses of hymn texts and music would be even more meaningful. The all-professional Saint Cecilia Choir is excellent, but personally I would rather not hear stanzas sung by soloists. Instead of, say, having a baritone soloist sing one stanza, why not have a whole section of baritones or basses sing it?
The above, however, are just small, personal quibbles aimed at making a superb book even better. I found Anthony Esolen’s Real Music to be utterly engrossing and inspiring. As I wrote in my endorsement for the book: “What could be better than an esteemed literary scholar—who is also a faithful Catholic—to provide ‘exegeses’ of some of the greatest hymns of all times? Anthony Esolen’s commentary is learned, loving, and lucid. I found myself wanting to use this book for spiritual reading.”