Real MusicA Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church
by Anthony Esolen
I am writing this book to bring back the words of great Christian hymns, most of which are no longer heard anywhere. These hymns are not pious sentiments (or, worse, self-celebrating sentiments or social propaganda) set to a catchy tune. They are works of art. They are, at their best, profound meditations upon the meaning of Scripture, their artistry serving to help us to see truths we may have missed or to hear in our hearts, not only in our ears, the implications of the Word of God for our lives. they are verbal and melodic icons of Jesus Christ.I'm lucky enough to be part of a parish which offers a rich variety of music and our choice is the 11:00 Mass, where we often sing same great hymns that Anthony Esolen writes about in this stellar book.
Esolen's translation of Dante and his commentary on the missal, The Beauty of the Word, are favorites of mine. His adroit connecting of poetry and prayer with underlying meanings have often opened my eyes and inspired me. Naturally I was eager to see what he would show me in some of my favorite hymns. (Without the music, it's hard to have a complete experience so a CD of 18 beautifully sung hymns is included with the book, though that is far from the complete number that Esolen examines.)
He begins with the psalms and how many classic hymns have come from them. Then he looks at how the English poet would focus on a particular aspect of a psalm and develop it as a bit of theology for us to sing.
I've loved these hymns for their rich imagery and meaning but never made the sorts of connections that Esolen points out. That is why it is so good to have Anthony Esolen for a guide. He clearly loves the theology, poetry, and meaning of each hymn.
Here's an example, from the chapter "Who is Christ?"
We sing These Forty Days all the time during Lent but until I read Esolen's explanation, the hymn never came fully alive.The glory of these forty daysThe poetry is so straightforward that we might miss the artistry. Notice the word glory. That should surprise us. When Jesus went forth into the desert, what glory accompanied Him? No train of disciples, no fanfare, no parade, no earthquake. The glory, then, must subsist in the very absence of the manifestations of glory. It susbsists in loving humility—a glory the world misses.
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by Whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.
Thus we can understand the first part of the stanza only in the context of the last part. This is what's glorious: Christ by Whom the world was brought into being (cf. Jn 1:3), Himself has fasted and has prayed. He Himself has done so. The pronoun is emphatic. The richness of the world's being—all things—is placed in contrast with Jesus' depriving Himself of food, and His attitude of complete openness, complete self-emptying, in prayer before the Father.
Chapters range from The Psalms to the Nativity, the Cross and the Resurrection to Our Love for Jesus to The Glory of God, and, of course, much more. Not only does this book help us to enter into each song, it gives us spiritual food in helping us understand and grow closer to God.
I can't recommend Real Music highly enough. Read it and then go ask your music director to slip some of these classics into his regular repertoire. They're good for the soul.