Deliberations on O Holy Night

We ought to think, and learn to think about the things we do in church. Some are better than the rest of us, but all of us have to learn to stand on our own and make sound judgments. One of the realms in which people most refuse to make judgments is the realm of music. Why can’t we all get along? We have no consensus for taste in matters of taste, alas, and we are not likely to get them anytime soon.

I hold it as beyond argument (I won’t argue with you, I’ll just assume you’re a fool) that the most important thing about a hymn is the music. That is not to say the words are unimportant: they’re important. But it is patently ludicrous to me to make anything more important than the music of a piece of music. And the music means. I don’t argue that either; if you don’t agree, read a year’s worth of any publication on any legitimate art form that has serious criticism. What is the point of art if it doesn’t mean?

We have a lot of different music in the present hymnal we use. It is the product of what I am beginning to conclude is a great eccentric who has spent most of his life near the border with Venezuela in a Colombian city called Cucuta. In the hymnal we have Wagner but we also have Brahms (the academic festival overture’s hymn), and one doesn’t see those chaps a whole lot in hymnals—give me more of the latter and dispense with the great bombaster. We have “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and more minor key hymns than I’ve ever noticed in any one hymnal but also the abominable Spanish perversion of “Take My Life and Let It Be”—which suffers from something like the Frankenstein chorus stitched onto the Watts, the one about being happy all the day.

We have a French one—I can’t recall at the moment—I bet is rather rare that is kind of strange: I sing it but my wife doesn’t. We also have the Adolf Adam carol/ballet score “O Holy Night” which she sings and I don’t. I must admit that when it comes to the French, they do delicately what other places would not pull off and there is a realm of nuance presented, at least with these two, which makes them more difficult than some. If an American had done the french thing I sing and she doesn’t, I wouldn’t sing it. There is a sincerity about the band music bravery of it that lends it an innocence. It is like the French with Poe—they managed, by all accounts, sincerely and actually to make more of him than is actually there. Perhaps it is all in my mind—that is a worthwhile consideration because people’s experience of the world, or lack thereof, affects shades and nuances, and this is a matter of shade and nuance.

“O Holy Night” I cannot take seriously. It is magical, but to me it is the sort of magic of sleight-of-hand and the big top circus, not the deep magic of the stone table or of the twilight in which the first fathers of the elves awoke. Besides the music, in the words there is too much about the dear Savior, loving one another and such locutions for me to think it was the product of true feeling, but this may be due to the translation. Taken along with the chandeliers and ballrooms of the music . . . well, I find the combination enough to damn it. I like the music fine. I like Chopin and all the midnight elegance, the glitter of crystal and candles. But I do not think it is the atmosphere of church, of worship, or of the incarnation.

I would be interested in seeing if somebody could make the case that the atmosphere of the music is something else. Not that I’m keen to have the piece in worship, but with something like that, one is left wondering.

3 thoughts on “Deliberations on O Holy Night

  1. I sympathize with your outlook, and have no argument to offer you at this time. It is certainly not the greatest Christmas carol in the litter.

  2. One thing speakers of English can be thankful for is that most of their hymnbooks do not contain any words to use to the tune of Jingle Bells . . . or the music.

  3. Yes. Thankful we are. Thankful we are, also, that a tuba band was not playing Christmas Carols (including Jingle Bells) in our own church. It would be one thing to hear this on the street corner of a public square, but NPR was relating this from a church or cathedral in Minnesota, somewhere.

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