Tuesday, March 10, 2009

John Bacchus Dykes

Composer and clergyman John Bacchus Dykes (March 10, 1823 - January 22, 1876) was born in England and began his musical career quite early, playing the organ at age 10 at the church in Hull where his grandfather was vicar.

His musical interests continued through his schooling, and in university he was known for writing and performing comic songs, but he reportedly abandoned them entirely upon ordination.

Unlike most of his Victorian composer contemporaries, he was ordained in the Church of England and occupied a number of clerical positions instead of becoming an organist. He did write some anthems and church music, but is primarily known for his hymn tunes, reportedly over 300. We have already heard a number of them here (click on his name in the tags below this entry) but this is one of his most-loved.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at thy word,
Who walked upon the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage did sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
To give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our people shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoe'er we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

William Whiting, 1860; alt.
Tune: MELITA (
John Bacchus Dykes, 1861

In the US, this is generally known as the Navy Hymn, and there have also been various adaptations and new verses written for other branches of the military service. I think it's helpful to remember its origins, from a time when long distance travel was often by sea, and when more people gained their livelihood from the ocean. Think of this hymn being sung a hundred years ago by a small congregation in a coastal fishing village and it becomes even more alive.

Dykes wrote
each of his tunes for a particular text, though over the years many of them have come to be sung with different texts. Seven of his tunes were published anonymously in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), including this one.(named for the location of a Biblical shipwreck in Acts 28, which we know know as Malta). Dykes was then invited to join the committee that produced the first revision of A&M, and fifty-six of his tunes appeared in the new edition of 1875.

His tunes would appear in every English hymnal published after that, and for the next fifty years following, usually more of them than any other composer. Even Vaughan Williams could not leave Dykes wholly out of The English Hymnal (1906) and Songs of Praise (1925), much as he disliked the tunes of the Victorians. Dykes is nearly as popular in American hymnals of the 1870-1920 period, and still today a number of his tunes are regularly sung.

It's interesting to compare him with Phoebe Knapp. Roughly contemporaries, though one is English and one American; one writing "standard" hymn tunes and one gospel songs, they both composed a large number of tunes and were very popular and renowned in their time. Yet the tunes of Dykes were taken up in dozens and dozens of later hymnals while most of Knapp's tunes never made it out of the ones they were originally printed in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you recall where you found the picture of John Bacchus Dykes that you used to illustrate your blog post about him?
I'm trying to organize a memorial to him at his old Cambridge college and every other picture of him I've seen has been cropped from the one you used, including the frontispiece to his Life and Letters. It would be really useful to get my hands on a high-quality scan of the image you've used.
Thanks for any help you can give me.
J.S. Reed