Sunday, October 19, 2008

More Voices Found: Emily Swan Perkins

Composer and hymnwriter Emily Swan Perkins was born today in 1866. Though she was musically gifted from an early age, she did not start writing hymns until later in life.

During World War I she served with the Red Cross, and wrote text and tune for a hymn of thanks for that organization (possibly one of her first). The first verse:

A blessed ministry of love
Goes forth to all the world,
For every nation, every tribe
The Red Cross flies unfurled.
Oh! come, ye people everywhere,
Its love and power and worth declare.

In 1921 she published Stonehurst Hymn Tunes, a book of 38 of her tunes and four of her texts. She writes in the introduction:

Old tunes are being used with a fair measure of success, but the new wine cannot always be contained in the old bottles. A really great hymn must have its own tune and any hymn of worth should have proper setting if its message is to gain full interpretation.

Many of the tunes in her collection are written for familiar texts, and some to more obscure ones that she hoped would gain more exposure. Yesterday's tune by Perkins, LAUFER, was written for the hymn The light of God is falling, by Louis F. Benson. Benson was pleased with the tune, and used it in a published collection of his hymns, but he admitted in a letter to Perkins that it would be difficult to supplant GREENLAND, the tune that his hymn had originally, and usually, been matched with. LAUFER was named for another friend of Perkins, Presbyterian hymnist Calvin Laufer.

Here is another tune from her first collection.

Years are coming, speed them onward
When the sword shall gather rust,
And the helmet, lance, and arrow
Sleep at last in silent dust.

Earth has heard too long of battle,
Heard the trumpet's voice too long.
But another age advances,
Seers foretold in ancient song.

Years are coming when forever
War's dread banner shall be furled,
And the angel Peace be welcomed,
Regent of a happy world.

Hail with song that glorious era,
When the sword shall gather rust,
And the helmet, lance and arrow
Sleep at last in silent dust.

Adin Ballou, 1849; alt.
Emily S. Perkins, 1921

Emily Perkins published another collection, Riverdale Hymn Tunes, in 1938, three years before her death, presumably containing a similar number of new tunes. Unfortunately, not many of her tunes were published in other hymnals (there are only three available to be heard at the Cyber Hymnal site), but I think they should be reevaluated. Surely out of possibly 60+ tunes there are more than three worth using. Has anyone out there heard any of the others?

In 1922, Perkins was one of the instrumental founders of the Hymn Society of America, (later renamed the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada), an organization that would help her share her love of hymnody with thousands of people throughout the world. She served as Corresponding Secretary of the group for nearly two decades.

P.S. We will hear more about Adin Ballou on his birthday a few months from now. His hymn has been used many times in recent years, as evidenced by several worship services for peace than can be found online.

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