My favorite part of going to church is singing the hymns. That’s not necessarily true for the most exalted reasons. The sad truth of our LDS hymnal is that the quality of the hymns is, alas, uneven. Some are absolutely gorgeous. Some are, frankly, kind of funny; unintentionally funny, but funny nonetheless. And yes, I’ve been known to, uh, improve the lyrics. And some manage to combine bad music with a bad text to be really completely uninspiring. (To me, I should add. If you’re reading this, and I’m dissing your faves–sorry.)
It almost goes without saying that nothing conduces to worshipful reverence like music. On Father’s Day, my daughter turned me on to Stumbleupon, and it led me, in turn, to the Vatican’s interactive Sistine Chapel website. The music was a mass: Palestrina? If anyone knows, I’d appreciate hearing from you. I listened to it for three hours. I don’t know when I’ve felt closer to God.
Absolutely my favorite parts of General Conference are the hymns, especially since the Tabernacle Choir has managed over the last fifteen years to go from a really good choir to one of the greatest choirs the world has ever heard. That’s in part what happens when a great composer/arranger becomes head conductor. Mac Wilberg is just astounding. His arrangement of Come thou fount of every blessing moves me to tears every time I hear it. That hymn, though, is not in our hymnal. Likewise: Simple Gifts. Not in our hymnal. My Shepherd Will Supply my Needs? Not in our hymnal. Amazing Grace? Emma Smith loved it, wanted it in. Didn’t make the cut.
What is in our hymnal is, of course, some glorious, worshipful music. I wish that were true of all the songs in there. Alas. We’ve got “Put your Shoulder to the Wheel.” I can’t help myself; I rewrite the chorus: “we all have work, you lazy jerk, put your shoulder to the wheel.” I always sing “NO” for “YES” and “YES” for “NO” while singing “Shall the youth of Zion falter?” and I have been known to sing enthusiastically “high on a mountain top, a badger ate a squirrel.” And I’ve changed “In the cottage, there is joy” to “in the cottage, there is cheese, there is cottage cheese. Put it on lasagna, please, oh that cottage cheese.” Plus there’s “Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing.” Anyone else ever succumb to the temptation to sing “go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead” instead?
Worse than that are the really martial hymns. I worship the Prince of Peace; I don’t want to Behold a Royal Army.” Not a big fan of “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “We are All Enlisted” (“Happy are we?” Seriously? You’re in the army, pal.) Even “A Mighty Fortress” bugs me, though the music’s glorious and “Ein Feste Burg” is a massively important hymn. And worse than warlike are the cheerful ones. Check out the hymn categories for “Cheerful.” Nine hymns there, all of them sicky sweet shiny-happy-people happy: “Scatter Sunshine,” “Improve the Shining Moments” “There is Sunshine in my Soul Today”, “You can Make The Pathway Bright.” Blarg.
I know, I’m a cynic. I’m a mean, bad-tempered grouch. Probably true. I just like hymns to be worshipful. I don’t want to be exhorted.
Favorites? Too many to list, maybe. But I love If you could hie to Kolob. I like this version. even better. Such a nutty poem, with lovely music. I love Oh Savior thou who Wearest a Crown. It’s actually the chorus O Haupt voll blunden from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. (Or, if you prefer, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Check it out; same tune.) Lovely music, in English or German. I love “That Easter Morn.” I love the pioneer ones: “Come come ye Saints” of course (with that astounding last verse; I like this version; imagine sitting around a campfire in Nebraska). Do any of you know Adam-ondi-Ahman? It’s not sung often, but it’s one of those beautiful, original LDS hymns. I was never much a fan of A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, until I heard it sung by David Johanson of the New York Dolls. Do you know God of our Fathers, Known of Old? It’s Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional, given a beautiful setting. Good hymn for nowadays–a great hymn urging humility for the world’s one superpower.
And now, I can think of twenty more hymns I love. But there’s one in particular that I love. Reverently and Meekly Now is unique among LDS hymns, because it’s the only hymn written from the point of view of Jesus. “In the solemn faith of prayer, cast upon me all thy care, and my Spirit’s grace shall be like a fountain unto thee.” It’s by Joseph Townsend, a guy I only know from Wikipedia; a Payson pharmacist, apparently. Just a guy. But he worshipped through song, and that makes him a friend.