Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ten Best Hymns (?)

Over at a mega-blog called First Things, these's a post you might want to read titled Are These the Ten Best Hymns of All Time? At least they phrased it as a question rather than a statement.

It's a blog sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life,
"an inter-religious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society," according to them. Which is fine; I don't have to subscribe to their philosophy to read a few posts. I have a few suspicions about their "interreligious" claim, but we'll get to that later.

The list has only a few surprises, I think.
  • The number one hymn does come out of nowhere; I don't ever recall encountering it on any similar list before, though it's certainly a fine text by Isaac Watts. I've written about five others of the ten (#s 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10) and all those seem to be reasonable choices.
  • It is a bit odd that anyone would deliberately choose two paraphrases of Psalm 23 (#s 1 and 4) to be included in one top ten list, but there you are.
  • Only one of the ten was written in the last hundred years (which may partially account for my never having heard of it), O God beyond all praising by Michael Perry. I'm not sure whether that is truly a text for the ages, or if they were swayed by the tune (THAXTED by Gustav Holst, better known in the UK to the text I vow to thee, my country - a favorite of Princess Diana).
It's not claiming to be a list of favorite hymns, so I'm not at all bothered that only one on their list (#7) is also on my own top ten list (though definitely lower than I'd put it). There's no real indication of their criteria, or even of how many "editors" contributed to the discussion. And, as we've discussed here before, there's no way you can ever pick just ten! You always remember later that you left one (or more) out.

Back in 1899, The Best Church Hymns produced a list of thirty-two. Comparing their top ten to these ten, only one hymn appears on both: When I survey the wondrous cross (#2 in 1899, #8 today). Christ the Lord is risen today came in at #24 then, and Holy, Holy, Holy was just off the list, "unofficially" ranked at #33. But I do think it's interesting that six of the other places on the list were not taken by newer hymns written since 1899, but by texts that were already being sung back then, though they had yet to gain the broader popularity they enjoy today.

As always, the comments on the post are interesting to read, partly because some of the commenters give away more information than they might intend about their individual biases (and many forget that the list is not supposed to be a list of favorites). But some certainly do have worthwhile possible substitutions, and you might also.

This post followed an earlier one titled Are These the Ten Worst Hymns of All Time? and I think it's here that the editors at First Things might have slightly dented their claim to be "interreligious." The giveaway is that all ten are Roman Catholic "contemporary" worship songs from the last forty years. Either the editors all grew up singing (and apparently hating) these songs, or they're looking at them from the outside and just happened to choose all their "worsts" from the same tradition, in which case they couldn't have looked very hard. No single denomination could reasonably be said to have a monopoly on bad hymns, and there were certainly bad hymns written more than forty years ago. Also, I've sung several of these ten, and I have to say that a few of them are really very effective in the right setting and people love to sing them. So whose standards are being used to condemn them?

But, as I may have said before, I don't generally write here about "worsts" or hymns I might consider "bad." Sure, there are texts and tunes I don't particularly like, but I think it's better to focus on the good hymns (or at least, on the interesting ones). Everyone has favorites, and there's little point in stepping on them.

Thanks to the blog One Eternal Day (blog title also taken from a hymn) for pointing me to these posts at First Things.

One Year Ago: Thomas Kelly


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Psalm 24?? Never seen it numbered that way.

Just back from the HSUSC convocation in Birmingham, still trying to savor it all and remember the parts I need to remember. For me the high point was the "Unsung songs by black and unknown bards" Hymn Festival Tuesday night at Sixth Ave Baptist Church, though frankly I wouldn't call many of the songs "unsung" nor many of the bards "unknown" (unless we're counting the anonymous first singers of Negro Spirituals...).

What on earth is #3, "O God beyond all praising"? I mean, it's not in the Cyber Hymnal. It's apparently a Jubilate rewrite of something, but what, and by whom (before Michael Perry got hold of it)? Oremus has it, but the Jubilate version even though the documentation below the hymn goes back at least to 1868.

Sorry about the disjointedness of this, haven't had a chance to settle down and think yet.

C.W.S. said...

See, this is why I need my commenters. Of course it's Psalm 23, but I looked at it for days without seeing the mistake.

I am very glad you got to experience the Hymn Society Conference and am still unhappy that I was not able to go this year. I hope you can give us a rundown at your blog. Already looking forward to Denver next year.

I think O God beyond all praising was written by Michael Perry just because the English love the tune THAXTED and someone thought that I vow to thee, my country was not quite suitable for general church use (though actually we sang it this year in my church on Independence Day). The page at Oremus just shows the whole skeleton of available Anglican/ Episcopal hymnals - if you scroll down, you'll see the modern hymnals Perry's hymn actually appears in.

But I have to wonder if this text is really considered by many to be the "best" hymn of the last hundred years. I'd think the readers here could come up with other nominations quite readily (a challenge!). My own, just off the top of my head: God of grace and God of glory (though there's always my #1 favorite as well)

Leland Bryant Ross said...

God of grace and God of glory is certainly one of the greats; I note with interest (though unconvinced) that in his A Hymn Companion: Insight into 300 Christian Hymns Canon Frank Colquhoun recommends singing the Fosdick hymn to RHUDDLAN, to which you have set today's À Kempis text. But for me "God of Grace" is the preeminent CWM RHONDDA hymn, beating out even Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/Redeemer, which I may reassign to GUIDANCE as given in the 1963 Sgaw Karen hymnal.

I hope I can blog on Birmingham, but I may wait till I have my pictures ready to post (I took film photos). In the meantime, there is a story with about 8 photos in the Birmingham News of a few days back, here; the first photo shows me, looking down at my music, a bit below the upper left corner.

C.W.S. said...

Of course they first sang God of grace... to REGENT SQUARE too, but CWM EHONDDA is pretty well established now except for a few outliers (I can't see it to RHUDDLAN).

I have another tune for Guide me, O... coming up, one of those written and used (though maybe not widely) before CWM RHONDDA appeared and took over.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

I'll be interested to see if your choice for "Guide me, O..." is the same as Alice Parker's.

C.W.S. said...

I think it's rather unlikely, but we'll see.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

There's also a very serviceable alternative in the Welsh-American hymnal (Reformatted); they set "God of grace and God of glory" to it, but of course it could be used for "Guide me, O…" Yesterday "Guide me, O…" was on the menu at Fremont Baptist; I happened to have my Welsh hymnal with me, and so (for the first time) had a chance to sing "Arglwydd …" in the original Cymraeg. To Cwm Rhondda, of course.