Friday, January 30, 2009

Its Echoes Sweetly Ringing

I make no particular secret of my love for the hymn texts and tunes of the English Victorian age. In fact, one of my ongoing research projects is to find the "lost" tunes of the once-popular composers of the era, long forgotten and unsung in old hymnals. There are far, far more than you can find at the Cyber Hymnal site from people like Joseph Barnby, John Stainer, Edward J. Hopkins, and Arthur Sullivan. And sometimes you can find something that really deserves to be reintroduced.

However, I am also aware of the rampant sentimentalism that sometimes mars these hymns and tunes, and keeps them out of modern worship with good reason. It's a fine line, but sometimes there's just a little too much sweetness and syrup (treacle, the Victorians would have called it, though their tolerance was higher). Of course, that line will always be drawn differently by different people (including you, my readers).

So here, a little background. Last Sunday my choir sang an Evensong service which included a setting of the evening canticles by Henry Smart, one of those Victorian composers whose hymn tunes we have encountered before. It was a fun piece to sing, very much of its time, but boisterous and flamboyant just where it needed to be and properly solemn when necessary. We're singing it again in a few weeks at a choir festival at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.

Later, I happened to mention to our choir director that Smart had written a tune for an evening hymn, but one that was no longer in the current Episcopal Hymnal 1982. Pulling a copy of the Hymnal 1940 from a shelf, I turned to this hymn.

Hark! hark, my soul! angelic songs are swelling,
O’er earth’s green fields and ocean’s wave-beat shore:
How sweet the truth those bless├Ęd strains are telling
Of that new life when sin shall be no more.

Angels of Jesus, angels of light,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!

Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,
The voice of Jesus sounds o’er land and sea;
And laden souls, by thousands meekly stealing,
Kind Shepherd, turn their weary steps to thee.

Onward we go, for still we hear them singing,
“Come, weary souls, for Jesus bids you come”;
And through the night, its echoes sweetly ringing,
The music of the Gospel leads us home.

Cheer up, my soul! faith’s moonbeams softly glisten
Upon the breast of life’s most troubled sea,
And it will cheer thy saddened heart to listen
To those brave songs which angels mean for thee.

Rest comes at length: though life be long and dreary,
The day must dawn, and lonesome night be past;
Faith’s journeys end in welcome to the weary,
And heaven, the heart’s true home, will come at last.

Angels, sing on, your faithful watches keeping;
Sing us sweet fragments of the songs above,
Till morning’s joy shall end the night of weeping,
And life’s long shadows break in cloudless love.

Frederick William Faber, 1854; alt.
Tune: PILGRIMS ( with refrain)
Henry T. Smart, 1868

Now, I thought this was just a curiosity, and added that I really didn't think much of the hymn; though I've sung it before, I think it's a bit over that fine line previously mentioned. But he liked it! And wanted to show it to the rector so that we could sing it at another Evensong service sometime. Clearly, no good deed goes unpunished.

The tune is all right, I suppose, but not as strong as some others by Smart. At first I thought that maybe the text is not quite as bad as I recalled. Then I realized that while I classified this in my head as an evening hymn, in fact, somewhat buried beneath its sweetness, it's actually about death and dying (in a particularly oversentimentalized fashion). No one likes hymns about heaven more than I do, but this one just wallows in the process of getting there more than in the final attainment.

An original verse from the hymn that has been (fortunately) omitted for over a century makes this clearer. I didn't even try to do the "alt." for this verse.

Darker than night life’s shadows fall around us,
And like benighted men we miss our mark:
God hides Himself, and grace hath scarcely found us,
E’er death finds out his victims in the dark.

That verse aside (please!), I'll put the question to you. Different people draw their line in different places. Do we have here a buried treasure that we should rejoice at rediscovering, or a justifiably forgotten and old-fashioned text that should be left in the past? I've certainly given away my opinion, but I'd still like to hear yours. Maybe it's even someone's favorite! (I won't banish you from the blog if so)


Leland Bryant Ross said...

I'll get back to you on this one - first I need to revisit my hymnals and see if the four tunes I have this listed to (a total of 8 times) are perhaps just four names for the same tune... !

Leland aka Haruo

Dorothy said...

I think its a bit on the sickly syrupy side. Quite a bit, actually.

But I surely do wish I could go to that choir festival at St. John the Divine!