Sunday, January 6, 2008

Traditional Christmas Hymns

I've been especially struck, this Christmas, by the strength of traditional Christmas hymnody. Struck, in part, because I've spent much of the last year listening to bad hymns, including new hymns in the traditional style that just don't pull it off. The nadir for me is one we've sung several times in the last year with the words, "across the world, across the street . . . ." The sentiment is fine, though a bit horizontal. But the poetry is atrocious. There's something important, I think, about hymnody combining beautiful thoughts with beautiful phrasing.

Indeed, I often say that any argument for why music is important necessarily proves, by corollary, that bad music is bad. If music is good because it lifts our spirits (which is true, but needs more spelling out), then there must be some relation between particular forms of expression and particular states of spirit -- and bad music must depress our spirits. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of bad poetry: if a beautiful turn of phrase has any value at all, spiritual or otherwise, then an ugly turn of phrase ("across the street"?) has negative value. Music and poetry are not a gentle and necessary upward ascent, but a potential to raise or depress.

(This argument doesn't tell us, of course, what qualifies as bad music or poetry. It just tells us that such a thing exists, that it's bad, and that it can be identified by the same criteria as good music or poetry.)

In any case, I've been struck by the beauty, both musical and poetic, of the standard Christmas hymns. Today, for Epiphany, we have "As with gladness men of old," with its beautifully drawn parallels: they followed the star, "so . . . may we / Evermore be led to thee;" they went to worship him, "so may we with willing feet / Ever seek the mercy-seat." Even "We three kings," which has received more than its share of saccharine treatments, follows the first, most well-known verse, with three on the Christological symbolism of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, concluding in the final verse, "Glorious now behold him arise, King [gold], and God [incense], and Sacrifice [myrrh]." Nice.

(Though I must note: "Westward leading" seems to parse Matthew's "we saw his star in the East" oppositely to the older tradition: "We three kings" has the kings in the East; tradition seems to have either the star in the East (so that two of the kings come to Judea from Sheba in Africa and Tarsus in Asia Minor) or the star in its "rising" (the literal word, in Latin and Greek, for east), so that the third king can come from the south, in Arabia.)

The point I'd like to make is that these hymns represent accumulated tradition. "We three kings," one of the weaker ones, is twentieth century, but "As with gladness" is nineteenth, "God rest you merry" is eighteenth, "The first Nowell" is seventeenth, "Lo, how a rose" is fifteenth, and "Good Christian men" is from the fourteenth century. Some centuries are over-represented: "What child is this," "It came upon a midnight clear," and "O little town of Bethlehem" are all from the nineteenth century -- but the nineteenth century was a great period in English hymnody. Meanwhile, "Hark! the herald angels sing," "O come, all ye faithful," "Angels we have heard on high," and "Joy to the world!" are all eighteenth century: but "Hark" is by Charles Wesley (perhaps the greatest English hymnist of all time), "Joy" is very early eighteenth, with music by Handel, "O come" was composed in Latin, and "Angels" is traditional French -- I don't know when it was written, but it was translated into English in the early nineteenth century.

What's my point? Newer isn't always better -- often isn't better. What is better? There's no way to tell. Tradition is a sorting out. There were doubtless many hymns in those prodigious eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that didn't stand the test of time. There are many in the twentieth that surely shouldn't. And the ones that have remained are worth keeping. Genius shows up unpredictably--and even more, the historical forces that produce genius, and produce great flowerings of genius, as in nineteenth-century England, cannot be manufactured, but must be embraced when they come.

How can they be embraced? Above all, by not holding them too tightly. Centralization of decision-making--whether social, cultural, or even liturgical--is the surest way to push genius to the side: first, because individual authorities will always be over-concerned with their own legacy, and thus inclined to pick new over great. But even more, because the same historical forces and surprise appearances of genius that produce greatness also mean that the present will never contain the same greatness, and is often mediocre indeed--which means that anything that gives too much authority to the present will tend to lose the greatness of the past. This includes those who try to rewrite our moral or social codes as well as those who try to push an ultra-current translation of the Bible. It congregations are not taught how to understand older English -- say the RSV -- how can we expect them to appreciate fifteenth century hymnody? Not to mention Latin.

The only way to preserve the myriad greatness of the past is through "conservatism": that is, a constitutional unwillingness to let anyone move too quickly, or especially to let any centralized power too authoritatively decide what is worth keeping. True conservatism, which is at its heart a cultural movement, fights for liberty--the dispersal of power and decision-making authority--not, as libertarians do, to unleash the individual from moral bounds, but precisely to prevent moderns from too quickly discarding the genius of past ages.