Jun 15, 2003


Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 4: June 2003

What Happened to My Hymn? 

by Lucy Carroll 

"They finally picked a hymn I remember from childhood", a friend recently commented, "but when I sang it, I realized the words I was singing from memory had very little to do with the words in the paper hymnal. What have they done to my hymn?"

One of the very frequent complaints heard today is that the texts to traditional hymns are no longer traditional. Why are they changed? Sometimes for good reason; sometimes, not.

Altering texts is not something new. Many hymns are translations from the Latin; some are translations from the great body of German hymnody. Translations will vary, in attempts to fit syllables comfortably to notes that were intended for a quite different language. These translations are often "updated" to keep pace with language changes. But it is the translations that are updated, rather than a new translation offered. This twice-removed aspect can begin to lose the very meaning of the original text.

Catholic hymns that were written in the sentimental Victorian age reflect their time, as all music does. The formal language of thee and thou is still understandable, but archaic forms such as wert for were may prove a stumbling block today. When text is updated to avoid confusing texts, it might be helpful, but it is still tampering.

The thou text format helps us even today to realize that the person we are addressing is not our human equal. The English language, unlike many European languages, no longer uses a formal second person. In French, the formal text is je vous aime; the familiar form is je t’aime. Vous is formal, te is familiar. In English we simply say I love you. Elizabethan and Victorian English used the thou form when speaking to the Deity. I must confess to a preference for retaining the old format in works that originally used it. Besides, the rhyme scheme will be seriously altered. After all, we do not update other works of art, do we? We read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English. We did not repaint the Mona Lisa in day-glo colors in the 1960s, did we? Why do we "repaint" the texts of musical works of art?

For an example, look at All Glory Laud and Honor. The text, written in 820, is by Theodulph of Orleans (760-821). The traditional translation was by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in 1851:

Thou art the King of Israel
Thou David’s royal son.
Who in the Lord’s name comest
The King and blessed one.

And here is an updated version found in the 2002 Music Issue of Oregon Catholic Press (OCP):

You are the King of Israel
And David’s royal Son.
Now in the Lord’s Name coming
Our King and Blessed One.

The archaic form is actually less strained and circuitous than this modern update.

In the days before the Second Vatican Council, attempts were already being made to cleanse hymns of texts deemed overly sentimental. In the Preface to the People’s Hymnal (Cincinnati: World Library of Sacred Music, 1955) the editors wrote:

The affectations of a false emotional attitude, the exaggeration of feelings actually possessed, and excitation of mere sentimental associations. All these devices, irrespective of their outward sincerity, manifest a piety that inwardly is untrue. Catholic devotion, as the Church takes care to emphasize, should represent, not what we would wish to feel, but what we actually do feel. There is no need for saying the "our hearts are on fire" when really they are not.

This is an interesting statement, particularly in light of so much shallow and overly secular music that assaults us today. How can we say that people do not feel those strong emotions? And really, as a literary device, a metaphor, why should we not seek to express what we inwardly feel? Is there a phrase that better tells of our deep emotion other than "our hearts on are fire"? Surely no one ever took that phrase literally.

The Passion Chorale (O Sacred Head) has so many varied translations and new verses today that one can scarce recognize it next to the original. Yet even when the original format is kept, the words are often modernized. The text is from a Latin hymn attributed to St. Bernard of Clairveaux (1091-1153). The familiar, traditional translation is by Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877). The lines

Death’s pallid hue comes o’er thee
The glow of life decays…

offer a stark and powerful image. This image is softened in the version offered by OCP:

No comeliness or beauty
Thy wounded face betrays.

This is an odd configuration of archaic "thy" with an equally archaic replacement word "comeliness"; the power of the original imagery is lost.

Hail Holy Queen is a paraphrase of Salve Regina, a Gregorian chant with text by Aimor, Bishop of Le Puy, in the 11th century. The translation in the Roman Hymnal of 1884 gives us these lines in verse six:

When this our exile is complete, O Maria
Show us thy Son, our Jesus sweet, O Maria!

OCP recasts this as

And when our life-breath leaves us, O Maria
Show us Thy Son, Lord Jesus, O Maria.

This may have been done to rid us of the adjective "sweet", but we lose the image of earthly exile. (Latin: Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui nobis, post hoc exilium, ostende: "And Jesus, the blessed fruit of thy womb, show [to] us, after this our exile"). The OCP re-working is a poor replacement, and the word "leaves" must take up two notes, a trap for the unsuspecting person-in-the-pew

Sometimes publishers will change the texts so that those translations are purely theirs. Then you must purchase their version. Sometimes it is just over-zealousness.

There is a more worrisome reason for altering texts, and that is to fit an agenda. Politically correct language presents us with lots of stumbling blocks. But when we alter the words, often we alter the meaning.

The Kingship of Christ is a wonderful image: the role of king is one understood even by those of us living in a democratic republic. Yet the idea of kingship is not politically correct today, and some parishes do not even celebrate the mandated feast of Christ the King. Imagine at Christmas if we were made to sing, "Glory to the newborn Person-in-Charge".

Sometimes entire verses disappear, to be replaced with new, self-centered texts.

Sometimes the attempt at so-called "inclusive" language becomes laughable. The English language is not as gender-specific as some. Again, in French, la table is a feminine noun. To us, it is just a table. Mankind is the English word we have to indicate people, collectively. It is inclusive, not exclusive. How can we imagine that all women are excluded? Do French men feel excluded because all tables are feminine?

Faith of Our Fathers is a favorite hymn. The text was written by the Reverend Frederick W. Faber (1814- 1863), a convert to Catholicism from the Church of England. The second verse is powerful:

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark
Were still in heart and conscience free;
And truly blest would be our fate
If we, like them, should die for thee.

World Library/Paluch in the Seasonal Missalette (2002) adds a verse by Mike Hay:

Our mothers, too, oppressed and wronged
Still lived their faith with dignity;
Their brave example gives us strength
To work for justice ceaselessly.

Ah, the concerns this new verse raises! Since "our fathers" are mentioned, we must now mention "our mothers". But "fathers" is a common collective noun indicating ancestors, forefathers. Are we to think that no women suffered in prisons or died for the faith? How about, for just one example, the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, led to the scaffold? And were the "fathers" not wronged, just the mothers? If the mothers were dignified, were the fathers undignified? And what kind of "justice" is meant? Religious freedom? Or is there a subtext here of radical feminism?

"Inclusive" language strikes everywhere — and even recent songs are subjected to rigorous neutering. Soon after it was published, the refrain of We Are the Light of the World was altered from "Let our light shine before men" to "Let our light shine before all" (Text and music by Jean Anthony Grieif, © 1966 Vernacular Hymns Publishing Co.).

Some hymnists today feel every word we sing should be directly from Scripture (though the passages are often very loosely rendered). Although it is an interesting concept, it ignores the great tradition of supplemental hymnody.

A particularly distressing example is the altering of the Stabat Mater. This magnificent hymn is attributed to Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). With Mary, we follow Jesus along the route of the Passion. But with Mary falling out of favor with some over-zealous liturgists, Mary is sometimes left out of her own hymn. A 1965 setting (Baltimore: Barton-Cotton) adjusts the verses so they prefigure the next station. The literary value of this setting is highly suspect. At the end of the fifth station, before the sixth where Jesus meets Veronica, this stanza is offered:

Brave but trembling came the woman
None but she would flaunt the Roman
Moved by love beyond her fear.

Flaunt the Roman? What? This is followed, before the first fall (seventh station) with

Prostrate on the dust He crumbled
Flogged in Body He resembled
All our brothers poor and scorned.

Poor as that is from a purely literary standpoint, the verse after the fourteenth station is almost too embarrassingly bad to sing:

Jesus, Risen, be our lover
In your Food and in our brother,
Lead us home to heaven with you.

And what have we discarded to be given the above? Here are verses from the translation by the Reverend Edward Caswall (1814-1878):

At the Cross, her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother, weeping
Close to Jesus to the last.

Oh how sad and sore distressèd
Was that mother, highly blessèd,
Of the sole begotten One.

(a nice reference to Mary’s virginity here)

Let me share with you His pain
Who for all our sins was slain,
Who for me in torments died.

Of course, the very best version is still the original:

Stabat Mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrimosa
Dum pendebat Filius.

There are endless examples of text-tampering. Haven’t we heard Good Christian Men Rejoice altered to "Good Christians, all rejoice", or "Good Christians, now rejoice", or "Good Christian folk rejoice"? And what to do with God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen?

One of the worst examples is the mutation from Of the Father’s Love Begotten to "Child of God, of Love Begotten".

Heresy: Jesus was not a "love child", but was begotten of the Father.

The Original is the Original

But even when texts are altered slightly, for reasons of language modernization, isn’t something very precious lost?

I like turquoise, but I’m not going to re-paint the blue in my flag. The original is the original is the original. The original texts, or the traditional translations, become a part of our heritage and tradition. If there is a hymn we have sung since childhood, then it ought to be the same as we learned it. Otherwise, we’d better rewrite the Constitution, the Declaration, Shakespeare, Gettysburg Address, and so on.

Familiar texts can be as comfortable as old shoes, and as uncomfortable when replaced as new ones a size too small. Unless there is a very, very, very serious reason, oughtn’t we permit the originals to remain as they are?


Lucy E. Carroll is organist and music director at the Carmelite Monastery in Philadelphia, adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, and a frequent contributor to Adoremus Bulletin. She is also the creator of Churchmouse Squeaks.



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA