Thursday, December 31, 2009

John Robson Sweney (Day Seven)

Gospel song composer and compiler John Robson Sweney was born on this day in 1837 in West Chester, PA (near Philadelphia). He first taught music in Dover, Delaware, and during the Civil War he served as the band leader of the Third Delaware Regiment.

After the war, he became the professor of music at the Pennsylvania Military Academy (now
Widener University) in West Chester for more than 25 years, also serving as music director of the Bethany Presbyterian Church for several years during that time. The Sunday School at Bethany was a model institution that many churches followed; its superintendent was John Wanamaker, of the famous Philadelphia department store. Sweney was the song leader, and with Wanamaker's support, he soon found himself asked to lead the music at many summer revival assemblies around the country.

He originally composed secular songs, but after 1871 his music was primarily written for sacred texts. Often collaborating with fellow Pennsylvanian
William J. Kirkpatrick, he worked on the compilation of approximately sixty collections of Sunday School and gospel songs, most published by the Philadelphia firm of John J. Hood. Nearly all the leading song writers of the day are represented in those books, and Sweney is credited with "discovering" several of them, by first publishing their work and often writing music for their texts. In one of the collections, Our Sabbath Home (1884) there is a tune credited to his daughter Josephine, "aged 4," though I have yet to find any evidence that she continued to compose in her more advanced years.

A few of Sweney's songs are still sung today, but they were much more popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many were recorded in the early days of sound technology. One of his frequent collaborators was Fanny Crosby, and this Christmas song (you knew we were getting around to this) was first published in Radiant Songs (1881).

The evergreen branches are waving around us,
And sweetly our carols in harmony sound,
While here we are gathered to welcome with rapture
The birth of our Savior, in Bethlehem found.

Hark! the music of the angels
Floating onward still we hear;
Blessèd music, sweetest chorus
Ever sung to mortal ear.

How graciously favored the shepherds of Judah,
Who guarded their flocks on that wonderful morn,
When legions descended, proclaiming the tidings
That Jesus, the promised Redeemer, was born.

How humble his birthplace, how lowly his cradle,
O tender compassion, O infinite love!
The Child of the Highest our nature assuming
That we might inherit the mansions above.

The sweet chiming bells with our carols are blending,
A glad, merry Christmas they joyfully ring.
While here we are gathered to welcome with rapture
The birth of our Savior, Redeemer, and King.

Fanny Crosby, 1881; alt.
EVERGREEN ( with refrain)
John R. Sweney, 1881

Among Fanny Crosby's thousands of gospel songs, you might correctly imagine that some of them were written for Christmas. These are only a handful:

The Angel's Proclamation

In a lowly manger sleeping

Merry, merry chiming bells

Never shone a light so fair

One Year Ago: Its Onward Course Has Run (more Fanny)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To Wake, to Worship, and Rejoice (Day Six)

If you know the women poets of the nineteenth century, you may have read this text before, but the Cyber Hymnal claims it as a hymn, so it may have been sung somewhere (I've chosen a better tune for it, I think).

Anne Brontë was the youngest of a famous trio of literary sisters, though she was perhaps the least well known. Surely more people have read Charlotte's Jane Eyre or Emily's Wuthering Heights than have read Anne's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall combined. The three of them published (at their own expense) a collection of verse in 1846, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, each sister taking a male pseudonym with her own first initial. The book was not a success, and thus the Brontës turned to writing novels with better results.

This text by Anne is from that book. There are a few others by her listed here that might also have appeared in hymnals over the years (and none listed for Charlotte or Emily).

Music I love—­but ne’er a strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine;
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes borne.

Though night will still its empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice.

To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of heav'n below;
The powers of evil to dispel,
And rescue earth from death and hell.

While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.

With them, I celebrate his birth;
Glory to God, in highest heav'n,
Good will to all, and peace on earth,
Today, to us a Savior giv'n;
Our God is come to claim God's own,
And evil’s power is overthrown!

Anne Bronte, 1846; alt.
Composer unknown, 19th cent.

One Year Ago: William Croft

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And God Sent Us Salvation (Day Five)

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

While shepherds kept their watching
O'er silent flocks by night,
Behold, throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light.

The shepherds feared and trembled,
When lo! above the earth,
Rang out the angels' chorus
That hailed the Savior's birth.

Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born;
And God sent us salvation
That blessèd Christmas morn.

John W. Work Jr., 1907
Tune: GO TELL IT ( with refrain)
African-American spiritual, 19th c.

John Wesley Work Jr. became interested in spirituals as a student at Fisk University in Nashville, where he studied voice in addition to more "serious" subjects such as history and Latin. Fisk was the home of the Jubilee Singers, a traveling choral group who introduced spirituals, or "slave songs," as they were also known then, to a wider audience beginning in 1871.

Work later became an instructor at Fisk like his father, and became chair of the history department in 1906. With his brother Frederick, he worked at gathering and harmonizing spirituals from the oral tradition. One of his early collections, Folk Song of the American Negro, was first published in 1907 and contained this Christmas favorite. Work wrote the text to go with a spiritual tune. The stanzas of its earlier text, not Christmas-related, were:

When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day
I asked the Lord to help me'
And he showed me the way.

He made me a watchman
Upon a city wall
And if I am a Christian
I am the least of all.

Much later, in 1963, another text was written for the tune for the pop group Peter, Paul, and Mary, incorporating themes from the Book of Exodus and geared to the civil rights movement. The group recorded it with some success, and it was also adopted by the activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Love's Treasure Bringing (Day Four)

Many "forgotten" Christmas songs have been written over the years for children. Sunday School hymnals and songbooks were big sellers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, and nearly all of them include sections for Christmas, combining familiar carols and new selections, often written especially for that book. I'd guess that the great majority of those new selections never made it into another collection.

Today's song was written by
Eliza Hewitt, who wrote and composed dozens, if not hundreds of gospel songs and Sunday School songs, most of which we no longer sing. Composer E.G. Snelling is even more obscure, it seems. It appeared in Sunday School Hymns No. 1 (1903), one of whose editors was Grant Colfax Tullar. Checking a few later Sunday School songbooks published by Tullar's company, this song appears in neither The Bible School Hymnal (1908) nor Sunday School Melodies (1914).

Peaceful the wondrous night,
Peaceful and holy,
Under the silv’ry light,
Gleaming afar.
Faithfully watching there,
Shepherds so lowly,
Over the hills so fair,
Saw glory’s star.

Hail to the starry night,
Sparkling with glory;
Angels on wings of light,
Thronging the sky.
Hail to that starry night!
Wondrous its story:
Jesus, the Lord of Light,
Came from above.

Come with that shepherd band,
Come to the manger;
Join in the chorus grand,
Glory to God!
Worship the holy Child,
Wonderful Stranger,
Give to the Undefiled,
Glory and laud.

Sweet favor, thus to bow,
Love’s treasure bringing,
Gratefully yielding now,
Life’s joyful praise.
Hear from the heav’nly height,
Glad echoes ringing,
Blessing and pow’r and might,
Through endless days.

Eliza E. Hewitt, 1903
WONDROUS NIGHT ( with refrain)
E.G. Snelling, 1903

One Year Ago: The Holy Innocents

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Let Peace Surround the Earth (Day Three)

Shepherds rejoice! lift up your eyes
And send your fears away;
News from the regions of the skies,
Salvation’s born today.

Jesus, the God whom angels fear,
Comes down to dwell with you;
Today he makes his entrance here,
But not as monarchs do.

Go, shepherds, where the infant lies,
And see his humble throne
With tears of joy in all your eyes,
Go, shepherds, kiss the Son.

Glory to God that reigns above!
Let peace surround the earth!
Mortals shall know their Maker’s love,
At their Redeemer’s birth.

And thus shall angels have their songs,
And we no tunes to raise?
O may we lose our useless tongues
When they forget to praise.

Glory to God that reigns above,
That pitied us forlorn;
We join to sing our Maker’s love,
For there’s a Savior born.

Isaac Watts, 1706; alt.
Peder Knudsen, 1859

Isaac Watts wrote here another paraphrase of Luke 2:8-14, but with some interpolations of his own; apparently he thought he could do better than Nahum Tate, but Tate's version has lasted much longer. Watts is more comfortable with venturing beyond a strict paraphrase; it's often stated that when he told his father he was tired of only singing psalm paraphrases, his father challenged him to write something better.

One Year Ago: Sir John Goss

Saint John the Evangelist

The life and works of Saint John, the apostle and evangelist, are celebrated today. John was present at many of the significant moments in the life and ministry of Jesus, mentioned in other gospel accounts beside his own.

John's gospel is the one that refers to the "beloved disciple," without specifically identifying who that was. In our time there are several differing opinions; possible candidates include Jesus's brother James, Lazarus, and even Mary Magdalene. However, John himself was the most commonly accepted bearer of that name for several centuries, and would probably be the one mentioned if you asked any random churchgoer.

This hymn by Reginald Heber, like many of his others, was first published after his death. He also refers to the beloved disciple without specifically supplying a name, but he did assign this hymn to St. John's feast day (the illustration below is from an 1870 edition of his collected hymns).

O Christ, who gav’st thy servant grace
On thee the living Rock to rest,
To look on thine unveilèd face,
And lean on thy protecting breast.

Grant us thy gift of mercy, still
To feel thy presence from above,
And in thy Word and in thy will
To hear thy voice and know thy love.

And when the toils of life are done,
And nature waits thy just decree,
To find our rest beneath thy throne,
And look in certain hope to thee.

To thee, O Jesus, Light of Light,
Whom as their God the saints adore,
Our strength and refuge in the fight,
Be laud and glory evermore.

Reginald Heber, 1827; alt.
Tune: WOOLMER'S (L.M.)
Frederick A. Gore Ouseley, 1861

One Year Ago: Saint John the Evangelist

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tread Now In Them Boldly (Day Two)

Today's carol is generally considered to be a Christmas one, but the story told in it actually takes place on December 26, St. Stephen's Day, and there's no reference to the the Nativity (though Christ is present in metaphor, I believe). It's also a carol generally only known by its first stanza - could you sing the other four from memory?

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me,
If you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me food and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how;
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page,
Tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze your blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christians all, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

John Mason Neale, 1853; alt.

Swedish carol from Piae Cantones, 1582
adapt. Thomas Helmore, 1853

The king not only extends his charity to a poor subject, but his footprints give warmth to his following servant.

This carol was first published in Carols for Christmas-tide (1853), a collection by our old friend
John Mason Neale and his musical collaborator Thomas Helmore, though it gained more recognition through its later inclusion in Christmas Carols New and Old (1871) by John Stainer and Henry Bramley, which was a hugely popular collection. This carol (the first stanza, at least) is probably the best known original work of Neale, who was much better known for his translations of Latin and Greek hymns. Neale had previously written the story of Wenceslas in his book Deeds of Faith (1849), a collection of children's stories originally told to his daughter Agnes (perhaps the reason for the inclusion of “Saint Agnes' fountain” in the carol, a fatherly wink of sorts).

There was a historical
Saint Wenceslas (not a king), a tenth-century Duke of Bohemia called Vaclav who is the patron saint of the modern Czech Republic (his feast day, September 28, is also celebrated as Czech Statehood Day). Vaclav was converted to Christianity and became known for his charity. His statue pictured below is in Wenceslas Square in Prague.

While collections of carols frequently include this one (the illustration above is from
Carols Old and Carols New, a 1916 collection of 751 carols for various seasons compiled by Charles Hutchins), books about carols don't think very highly of it.

Elizabeth Poston, in The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1965) calls it “(the) product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and a thirteenth-century dance carol.” and goes on to say “Unfortunately Dr. Neale also felt the urge to express himself, though it is debatable whether the bizarre results would have become so well known in the present care, but for the doubtful service of their populations by Bramley and Stainer.”

William Studwell, in The Christmas Carol Reader (1995) piles on with “the lyrics are, quite honestly, on the horrible side, and have even received negative epithets such as 'doggerel.'”

As we have seen, however, the pronouncements of “learned” men and women don't always bear much weight when it comes to popularity. People will probably be singing of Good King Wenceslas for some time to come, doggerel or not.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Magnitude of Meekness (Day One)

Advent's waiting is over and the first day of Christmas is here. I hope it is a joyful and grateful season for everyone who visits here.

You may recall that last year we had some discussion here about the dozen or so Christmas carols and hymns that “everyone” agrees should be sung during the season. Hymnblogger and commenter Leland even listed them at
one of his blogs. I also happened to post one that I thought was just a bit obscure and everyone told me that, of course, they knew it after all.

So, a challenge of sorts. There are
twelve days of Christmas, as everyone knows. I'm going to try for one hymn of carol each day, but not necessarily one of the dozen de rigueur (or what would be left for next year?). Over the years, hundreds of text writers and composers have written carols and hymns for Christmas only to see them ignored for the popular standards. Look through any older hymnal and you'll probably see Christmas selections you've never heard before. Look through any newer hymnal and you'll find things you'll probably never sing. Maybe I'll pick some of those discarded pieces up and dust them off over the next several days.

There will be some favorites interspersed, so you needn't go off and ignore me for the next while if you're not a fan of the obscure. I do hope that anything I refurbish will have something worthwhile about it (even if you don't agree). And, after writing about the Bishop of Croydon
the other day, I have to watch out for the scourge of sentimentalism.

English poet
Christopher Smart, from whose poetry a few hymns have been derived, is certainly not sentimental in any way. This Christmas text explores the contradictions of the Incarnation; the Promised One of the ancient prophets coming to earth not as a mighty conqueror but as a human baby. And yet, the power is present. God who made the earth has come among us on this day.

Where is this stupendous stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise;
Lead me to my Savior's manger,
Show me where the Christ-child lies.

O Most Mighty! O Most Holy!
Far beyond the seraph's thought:
Art thou then so weak and lowly
As unheeded prophets taught?

O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
If eternal is so young!

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world God made.

Christopher Smart, 1765; alt.
Tune: SUSSEX (
English folk melody
arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Smart's original second line was “Swains of Solyma, advise,” but that name for Jerusalem was probably outdated even in his time. The tune SUSSEX we have seen before, one of the folk tunes arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams for his English Hymnal.

As you can imagine, I rarely get to sing this one. But I keep hoping for its rediscovery.

One Year Ago: With the Oxen Standing By

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Glad Tidings of Great Joy

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not!” it said, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and humankind.

“To you, in Bethl'hem town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Savior, who is Christ the Word,
And this shall be the sign:

The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”

Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:

“All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to earth
Begin and never cease!”

Nahum Tate, 1700; alt.
The Whole Book of Psalmes, 1592
arr. William H. Monk, 1861

This was the first Christmas hymn authorized to be sung in the Church of England. Prior to the eighteenth century, only psalm paraphrases were used in worship. Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady had published their New Version of the Book of Psalms in 1696, and in 1700 they issued a supplement, which included sixteen texts not based on the Psalms. This hymn is a paraphrase from the well-known nativity story in Luke 2:8-14. You may also know it from the first part of Handel's Messiah, from the soprano recitative There were shepherds abiding in the fields through the chorus Glory to God. (this sequence of text also opens the Christmas Oratorio of Camille Saint-Saëns). I think it may even be in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Tate's hymn has remained in many hymnals since that time, though it may no longer be so near the top of the Christmas music list. It has been sung to several different tunes, including CHRISTMAS, arranged from a different Handel oratorio (you have to repeat the last line of each stanza), and this early American (and now unknown) tune.

One Year Ago: The World In Solemn Stillness Lay

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hymns In the News

Though, this time the year, it's always about the carols. This is actually a bit late, but you know how I feel about Christmas carols in Advent, and maybe you haven't heard about it anyway. Or, at least, not the whole story.

Earlier this month there were reports from various news outlets that the Anglican Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, “slams carols,” saying that he's “fed up with musical nonsense.” Some of the favorites that he reportedly dislikes include Away in a manger (though, presumably, sung to the tune that the English prefer) and O come, all ye faithful.

Digging a bit deeper, it turns out that the bishop has
a blog of his own, where he has endeavored to explain the situation, which turns out to be somewhat different from the sensational headlines.

Bishop Baines has a new book on the shelves in his country, Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? which he calls “a strong affirmation of Christmas celebration.” He thinks that some carols (like Away in a manger) are just fine for children just learning the Christmas story, but that perhaps as adults we need to sing them “with our brains engaged.”

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes;
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

This carol sentimentalizes the situation; the manger wasn't such a great place to be born. It's very unlikely that the infant Jesus didn't cry, waking up in a dark, cold, dirty place, lying in the scratchy straw amid the noises of animals. But it was completely intentional for God's child to be born fully human and vulnerable, to an unwed teenage mother, and not into the ruling class of the day, in a palace with nursemaids and a warm, comfortable bed. This seems to be Baines's message: Sing along with the sentiment, but remember the reality.

It looks to me like all the fuss started with a
British journalist who was writing about the bishop's new book and pulled out the most provocative quotes without any context, and certainly without inviting comment from the author. What excitement! How absurd! Great headlines! And then it turns out to be a thoroughly reasonable argument after all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Her Own, Her Ancient Song

The story of Mary is another important part of the Advent season. Visited by an angel with a wonderful prophecy, she agreed to her part in it and to the profound change that would overtake her life. Her prophetic song from the first chapter of Luke, which we now know as the Magnificat, tells of the coming reign of justice and mercy foretold by God.

This carol from the nineteenth century first appeared in Carols For Use in Church (1894), collected by R.R. Chope and published in London. Along the journey to Bethlehem, Mary relies on her own song for comfort and relief, aware of its powerful message.

Away! with loyal hearts and true,
O’er hill and dale they pressed
Full four score weary miles, to do
The Cæsar’s high behest;
And Mary sang “Magnificat,”
Her own, her ancient song;
For well knew she that God’s decree
Was bearing her along,
Was bearing her along.

Away! through fields and meadows green,
O’er purple heather-bed,
By mountain pass, or dark ravine,
The faithful couple sped.
And soft and sweet, where’er they went,
To glad the weary way,
Sang Mary that “Magnificat,”
Her own, her ancient lay,
Her own, her ancient lay.

O’erhead the storm clouds often wept,
And tempests o’er them passed,
And cold around them often swept
The bleak December blast.
But still she sang “Magnificat,”
Through weather foul or fair;
For all was rest within her breast,
’Twas always sunshine there,
’Twas always sunshine there.

And when the pilgrimage was o’er,
And of their royal kin,
Not one would open wide the door,
And bid them enter in;
Still Mary sang “Magnificat,”
With ever joyful tone;
“Whate’er betide, our God,” she cried,
“Is mindful of God's own,”

“Is mindful of God's own.”

Worn out at last, and ill-bestead,
Right glad were they to find
Within a sorry cattle shed
A shelter from the wind.
And Mary sang “Magnificat”
Right through that wondrous night;
And, ere the birth of morn on earth,
Was born the Light of Light.

Was born the Light of Light.

Then let us all with one accord
Join Mary’s song and say,
“My soul doth magnify the Lord,”
For ever and for aye.
Loud let us sing “Magnificat,”
That dear and ancient lay,
For God’s own Son with us is one,
And Christ is born today;

And Christ is born today.

J.B. Gray, 1894; alt.

Just stop and think of how much of the lore that we know about the Christmas season to come derives from just the brief section of Luke 2: 1-8. Author and composer Gray speculates a bit about Mary and Joseph's journey, but the carol still ends up in very familiar territory.

One Year Ago: The World So Long Had Waited

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Horatius Bonar

Today is the 201st birthday of Horatius Bonar, the most well-known of Scottish hymnwriters. He was born in Edinburgh, where he lived much of his life and died in 1889. Though he was ordained in the state Church of Scotland 1n 1838, five years later he left with a number of other pastors who formed the Free Church of Scotland, a new denomination.

He wrote and published articles in church journals, books of theology, and approximately 600 hymns. Ironically, for many years the Free Church of Scotland only authorized the singing of psalm paraphrases in worship, so other churches sang his hymns long before he and his own congregation.

Cecil Frances Alexander in Ireland, he began writing hymns for children to explain theology in a simple way, but not expecting them to be used in formal services. His own hymns were published in several volumes, and he also compiled The Bible Hymn-Book (1845) from many writers. He also was a great admirer of the gospel songs used by Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey in their evangelical crusade meetings, and wrote some for their use.

Some of
his hymns are still known and sung in different denominations, and have been presented here. This particular one, first published in his collection Hymns of Faith and Hope (1866) is not widely known, but I think deserves to be. The tune I've chosen may be one I've dismissed on occasion, but it suits these joyful words.

Fill thou my life, O Living God,
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim
Thy being and thy ways.
Not for the joy of praise alone,
Nor e’en the praising heart
I ask, but for a life made up
Of praise in every part!

Praise in the common words I speak,
Life’s common looks and tones,
In fellowship in hearth and home
With my belovèd ones;
Not in the temple crowd alone
Where holy voices chime,
But in the silent paths of earth,
The quiet rooms of time.

Fill every part of me with praise;
Let all my being speak
Of thee and of thy love, O God,
Poor though I be, and weak.
So shalt thou, God, from me, e’en me,
Receive the glory due;
And so shall I begin on earth
The song forever new.

So shall each fear, each fret, each care
Be turned into a song,
And every winding of the way
The echo shall prolong;
So shall no part of day or night
From sacredness be free;
But all my life, in every step
Be harmony with thee.

Horatius Bonar, 1866, alt.
Württemberg Gesangbuch, 1774;
adapt. William H. Monk, 1868

Much later in life, Bonar changed his opinion on singing hymns in church and allowed some of his texts to be sung by his congregation. This was still a controversial decision; two elders of his church reportedly walked out when they were sung, and he was also sharply criticized in The Signal, a Free Church journal.

Bonar's wife,
Jane Lundie Bonar, also wrote some hymns, but only one of them (Fade, fade, each earthly joy) was much known and sung.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

John Ellerton

Anglican priest John Ellerton(December 16, 1826 - June 15, 1893) is one of my favorite hymnwriters, not only for his several familiar hymns that are still sung today, but for the forgotten ones that still retain some value for us. His total output was around eighty, including both original texts and translations.

He was also a well-loved clergyman who served in several churches and was known for his devotion to social causes and the everyday life of his parishioners. His hymns are straightforward, using simple language rather than obscure doctrine. Historian John Julian wrote of Ellerton's texts in his monumental Dictionary of Hymnology:

Ordinary facts in sacred history and in daily life are lifted above the commonplace rhymes with which they are usually associated, thereby rendering the hymns bearable to the cultered and instructive to the devout.

As we have seen, hymns were written for many more occasions and purposes than those to which our modern hymnals sometimes limit themselves. This particular hymn by Ellerton, which was first published in Church Hymns (1871), one of the hymnals he helped compile, is designated for “Wednesday,” and used for midweek services. The first phrase comes from the familiar passage Matthew 18:20: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them, and the overall theme of the hymn is our commonplace lives, from the perspective of the middle of the work week (when fewer people were probably in attendance at services). Since Ellerton's birthday falls on a Wednesday this year, this hymn seems especially appropriate.

Thou in whose Name the two or three
Are met today to meet with thee,
Fulfill to us thine own sure word,
And be thou here thyself, O Lord.

Today our week, but now begun,
Already half its course hath run;
To thee are known its toils and snares,
To thee its trials and its snares.

Thou by whose grace alone we live,
Our oft-repeated sins forgive;
Be thou our counsel, strength, and stay
Through all the perils of the way.

Give thankful hearts thy gifts to share;
Give steadfast wills thy cross to bear;
And when life's working days are past
Give rest with all thy saints at last.

John Ellerton, 1871
Henry Baker, 1854

Click on Ellerton's name below to bring up the several other hymns we've already seen here. He's probably one of the most often used writers here at C.W.S.

One Year Ago: John Ellerton

Monday, December 14, 2009

Frances Ridley Havergal

Frances Ridley Havergal (December 14, 1836 - June 3, 1879) was born in the small village of Astley, Worcestershire. She followed in the footsteps of her father, William Henry Havergal, also a writer and composer of hymns, and though she remained in his shadow during his lifetime (where her stepmother wanted Frances to remain), today she is more well known and her hymns are more widely sung.

As she once described her own hymnwriting process: Writing is like praying for me; for I never seem to write even a verse by myself [...] Very often I have a most distinct and happy consciousness of direct answers.

Havergal recorded the completion of this hymn in November, 1870, though it was not published until 1874 in her collection titled Under the Surface. Its theme comes from 1 Peter 1:8 -- Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.

O Savior, precious Savior,
Whom yet unseen we love!
O Name of might and favor,
All other names above!
We worship thee, we bless thee,
To thee, O Christ, we sing;
We praise thee, and confess thee
Our Life, our Hope, our Spring.

O Bringer of salvation,
Who wondrously hast wrought,
Thyself the revelation
Of love beyond our thought;
We worship thee, we bless thee,
To thee, O Christ, we sing;
We praise thee, and confess thee
Our Life, our Hope, our Spring.

In thee all fullness dwelleth,
All grace and power divine;
The glory that excelleth,
O Child of God, is thine;
We worship thee, we bless thee,
To thee, O Christ, we sing:
We praise thee, and confess thee
Our Life, our Hope, our Spring.

O grant the consummation
Of this our song above,
In endless adoration,
And everlasting love!
Then shall we praise and bless thee
Where perfect praises ring,
And evermore confess thee
Our Life, our Hope, our Spring.

Frances Ridley Havergal, 1870; alt.
Arthur Henry Mann, 1881

In his study of women hymnwriters, Songs From the Hearts of Women (1903), writer Nicholas Smith writes of Havergal: From her consecrated girlhood to the hour of her departure, her prayer was that her life might be one anthem unto her Redeemer.

One Year Ago: Frances Ridley Havergal

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Witness to the Coming Light

Another important part of the Advent season is the story of John the Baptist, the second cousin of Jesus. John's was an unexpected birth, as told in Luke 1:5-24. His father Zechariah received a visit from the angel Gabriel to announce the birth and foretell some of the child's destiny. Elizabeth, his mother, was in the midst of her pregnancy when her kinswoman Mary came for a visit, to tell of her own angelic visit and another coming child. In Luke 1: 39-45, we hear that Elizabeth's yet-unborn child “leapt in her womb” at hearing Mary's greeting.

These aspects of John's story, are incorporated into this Latin hymn from the eighth century (Praecursor altus luminis) written by the
Venerable Bede, a scholar and writer known more for his historical and theological writings than his handful of hymns. It was translated by John Mason Neale and first appeared in his Hymnal Noted. (1854).

The great forerunner of the morn,
The herald of the Word, is born:
And faithful hearts shall never fail
With thanks and praise his light to hail.

With heavenly message Gabriel came,
That John should be that herald’s name,
And with prophetic utterance told
His actions great and manifold.

John, still unborn, yet gave aright
His witness to the coming Light;
And Christ, the Sun of all the earth,
Fulfilled that witness at his birth.

But why should mortal accents raise
The hymn of John the Baptist’s praise?
Of whom, or e’er his course was run,
Spake God unto the Promised One?

“Behold, my herald, who shall go
Before thy face thy way to show,
And shine, as with the day-star’s gleam,
Before thine own eternal beam.”

All praise to our Creator be,
All praise, eternal Christ, to thee,
Whom with the Spirit we adore
Forever and forevermore.

the Venerable Bede, 8th cent.
tr. John Mason Neale, 1854; alt.
English traditional melody
arr. Ralph Vaughan WIlliams, 1906

The window below is in St. Thomas's Church in Colnbrook, Berkshire, showing Elizabeth and her young son John. The banner around her depicts her most famous quotation, spoken to Mary at the great news: Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Little John is carrying the sign Vox clamantis in deserto (a voice crying in the wilderness).

One (Liturgical) Year Ago: Our Refuge and Our Great Reward

One (Calendar) Year Ago: William Walsham How

Sunday, December 6, 2009

To Give Them Songs for Sighing

As we wait during the season of Advent, stories are told of righted wrongs and promised justice, of the prosperity and peace that will prevail in the coming reign of Christ. Psalm 72, often read during Advent, is a prayer for this future.

This paraphrase of Psalm 72 is by James Montgomery. It was written for the British
Moravian community at Fulneck and was first sung on Christmas Day, 1821. Montgomery then sent it to George Bennett, an acquaintance who was then in the South Seas, thus beginning its long use as a missionary hymn as well as a prophetic Advent text.

Hail to you, God’s anointed,
Messiah yet to come!
Hail in the time appointed,

Your reign on earth begun!
You come to break oppression,

To set the captive free;
To take away transgression

And rule in equity.

You come with succor speedy

To those who suffer wrong;
To help the poor and needy,

And bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing,

Their sadness put to flight,
Whose souls, condemned and dying,

Are precious in your sight.

You shall come down like showers

Upon the fruitful earth;
And love, joy, hope, like flowers,

Spring in your path to birth.
Before you, on the mountains,

Shall Peace, the herald, go,
And righteousness, in fountains,

From hill to valley flow.

Kings shall fall down before you,

And gold and incense bring;
All nations shall adore you,

Your praise all people sing;
For you shall have dominion

O’er river, sea and shore,
Far as the eagle’s pinion

Or dove’s light wing can soar.

To you shall prayer unceasing

And daily vows ascend;
Your commonwealth increasing,

A reign that has no end:
The mountain dews shall nourish

The seed which you have sown,
Whose fruit shall spread and flourish,

A garden grace has grown.

O’er every foe victorious,

You on your throne shall rest;
From age to age more glorious,

All blessing and all blest.
The tide of time shall never

Your covenant remove;
Your Name shall stand forever,

That Name to us is Love.

James Montgomery, 1821; alt.
German folk tune, 17th c.

More denominations know this hymn to the ubiquitous tune ELLACOMBE, but that's not a favorite of mine. Few hymnals still include six stanzas of this text; often the fourth and fifth stanzas are combined into one by using only the first four lines of each one. Montgomery's original actually has two more, the original third and fifth:

By such shall you be fearèd
While sun and moon endure;
Beloved, obeyed, reverèd;

For you shall judge the poor
Through changing generations,

With justice, mercy, truth,
While stars maintain their stations,

Or moons renew their youth.

Arabia’s desert ranger

To you shall bow the knee;
The Ethiopian stranger

Your glory come to see;
With offerings of devotion

Ships from the isles shall meet,
To pour the wealth of oceans

In tribute at your feet.

Eight eight-line stanzas is probably a bit overlong even for me.

One Year Ago: Hark, the Voice of One That Crieth

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Walter Chalmers Smith

Today is the birthday of Walter Chalmers Smith, born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1824. Following his education in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, he was ordained in the Free Church of Scotland on Christmas Day in 1850. He pastored a number of congregations, including one in London for seven years, but afterward returned to Scotland. In 1893, the jubilee year of the Free Church, Smith was named moderator of the denomination (apparently a year-long term).

He once wrote that his own poetry was “the retreat of his nature from the burden of his labors.” He published several collections, including Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life (1876), from which his most well-known hymn is taken.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish —- but naught changeth thee.

Great Mother of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

Walter Chalmers Smith, 1876; alt.
Welsh melody, Caniadan y Cyssegr, 1839

“Immortal, invisible” comes from 1 Timothy 1:17: To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. The hymn as a whole enumerates the multiple attributes of God.

Smith's original hymn was in six stanzas; these four have become the standard version. One stanza, originally the fourth, has been omitted entirely:

Today and tomorrow with thee still are now;
Nor trouble, nor sorrow, nor care, Lord, hast thou;

Nor passion, nor fever, nor age can decay,
The same God forever as on yesterday.

The next stanza was the first two lines of the final one, then:

But of all thy good graces, this grace, Lord, impart --
Take the veil from our faces, the veil from our heart.

Some subsequent hymnals changed that line to “the vile from our heart.” Then the final stanza began with the lines starting “All laud we would render,” then concluded:

And now let thy glory to our gaze unroll,
Through Christ in the story, and Christ in the soul.

Most of those lines do not fit well within the meter of the tune, which is probably at least part of the reason for their omission.

ST.DENIO (sometimes called JOANNA) is a Welsh tune, believed to have been taken from a folk song called Can Mlynnedd i ’nawr (A hundred years from now). The hymn tune in its familiar form was first published in an 1839 collection by John Roberts. The tune was first joined to Smith's text in The English Hymnal (1906) and was gradually accepted as the definitive one over the first half of the twentieth century.

One Year Ago: Christina Georgina Rossetti

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Clara Scott

Songwriter and composer Clara Scott was born today in 1841 in Elk Grove, Illinois, near Chicago. She apparently lived in the Midwest for her whole life. In 1897 she was visiting friends in Dubuque, Iowa when she was thrown from a carriage that was hit by a runaway horse and died.

This tragedy came only one year after the publication of her first hymnal.
Truth in Song, for the Lovers of Truth Everywhere was published by a Chicago firm in 1896. Of the seventy-nine selections in the book, thirty-three have music by Scott, and many of those have lyrics by her as well. The majority of the selections are by women, in fact: three other composers and several more lyricists.

Scott composed primarily in the gospel song style, though some of her tunes feel like more standard four-part hymn tunes, and some are only refrains without the accompanying stanzas, meant to be sung in repetition. This one almost seems like a sort of camp song, where only one word changes in each verse (you may know I've got peace like a river).

God is Love; that Love surrounds me,
In that Love I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Love is mine, and all is well.
God is Love, pure Love,
God is Love, sweet Love,
That Love is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

God is Life; that Life surrounds me,
In that Life I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Life is mine, and all is well.
God is Life, pure Life,
God is Life, sweet Life,
That Life is is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

God is Health; that Health surrounds me,
In that Health I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Health is mine, and all is well.
God is Health, pure Health,
God is Health, sweet Health,
That Health is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

God is Peace; that Peace surrounds me,
In that Peace I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Peace is mine, and all is well.
God is Peace, pure Peace,
God is Peace, sweet Peace,
That Peace is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

God is Strength; that Strength surrounds me,
In that Strength I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Strength is mine, and all is well.
God is Strength, pure Strength,
God is Strength, sweet Strength,
That Strength is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

God is Joy; that Joy surrounds me,
In that Joy I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Joy is mine, and all is well.
God is Joy, pure Joy,
God is Joy, sweet Joy,
That Joy is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

God is Truth; that Truth surrounds me,
In that Truth I safely dwell,
’Tis above, beneath, within me,
Truth is mine, and all is well.
God is Truth, pure Truth,
God is Truth, sweet Truth,
That Truth is mine -— mine,
And all is well.

Clara H. Scott, 1895

After looking through Scott's work in Truth in Song, I described it as “Unitarian gospel songs” (as if there was such a thing) to some friends. The musical style is largely gospel, but the texts are not. Actually, the “Health” verse here suggests to me that she was perhaps acquainted with the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, though I haven't seen any of Scott's songs in the hymnals of that denomination.

One Year Ago: Clara Scott

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Still Held In Thine Own Hand

Today is the twenty-first "official" commemoration of World AIDS Day established by the United Nations in 1988. It is not only a day of remembrance but also of activism, commitment, and still, sometimes, anger. Many government and private agencies (collected here by Google) hold special events today, but they would like us all to remember that they are in business the other 364 days of the year as well.

The Metropolitan Community Church organized their
first World AIDS Day commemoration two years before the UN, in 1986, an international response that was joined by thousands of congregations outside that denomination. Thousands of churches will still mark the occasion today, many in interfaith services.

I have used this hymn here before, but it has come to resonate powerfully for me for this particular occasion of remembrance. It was first published in 1920, and I suspect that the author, George Wallace Briggs, wrote it at least partially in response to World War I. The theme of a generation lost in circumstances not of their making was popular in those years (the poem In Flanders Fields perhaps the most well-known expression) and it was reborn in the last years of the twentieth century in response to the AIDS epidemic.

Creator, by whose people
Our house was built of old,
Whose hand hath crowned thy children
With blessings manifold,
For thine unfailing mercies
Far-strewn along our way,
With all who passed before us,
We praise thy Name today.

The changeful years unresting
Their silent course have sped,
New comrades ever bringing
In comrades' steps to tread;
And some are long forgotten,
Long past their hopes and fears;
Safe rest they in thy keeping,
Who changest not with years.

They reap not where they labored;
We reap what they have sown;
Our harvest may be garnered
By ages yet unknown.
The days of old have dowered us
With gifts beyond all praise;
Creator, make us faithful
To serve the coming days.

Before us and beside us,
Still held in thine own hand
A cloud unseen of witness,
Our elder comrades stand:
One family unbroken,
We join, with one acclaim,
One heart, one voice uplifting
To glorify thy Name.

George Wallace Briggs, 1920; alt.
Joseph Barnby, 1869

I was a member of MCC churches in New York and San Francisco between 1984 and 2000, both cities central to the crisis. A 1988 article published in The Christian Century described the impact of AIDS on our San Francisco congregation in those early years (the hymn from which the article's title is taken can be seen here). Within a year of that article the situation would be even more threatening; imagine a church where the clergy staff performed up to five memorial services every weekend. For those who remember those years, their impact is still felt, almost daily for some, for others sometimes a sudden shock of recollection that can be triggered by an unexpected association.

I remember Tim, Craig, Johnny, Jim, Paul, Bruce, Scott, both Jeffs and the many many others who are no longer here, but not just today. They still come to me often in times of prayer as part of the great communion of saints, the cloud unseen of witness from this final stanza. I also remember the countless more who cared for them and loved them and still miss them today. One family unbroken...

Jeremiah Clarke

English composer Jeremiah Clarke died on this day in 1707. Like many people of his day, his exact birthdate (perhaps around 1674) was not recorded, nor much about his early life.

By 1785, the year of the coronation of James II, he was a boy chorister at the Chapel Royal. As an adult he sang at St. Paul's Cathedral in London and studied with John Blow. In later years, he was the organist at the Chapel Royal and Master of the Choristers at St. Paul's. He composed mostly choral music and some hymn tunes, but also pieces for keyboard and instruments, and at least one opera with Daniel Purcell (brother of Henry).

Despondent at the refusal of his marriage proposal by a “titled lady,” he killed himself on that December day. 302 years ago. Accounts differ as to whether he is buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral (unlikely for a suicide) or in unconsecrated ground outside the cathedral graveyard.

Clearly not planning ahead, I have already used Clarke's most familiar tunes here:

ST. MAGNUS (Lo, what a cloud of witnesses)

BISHOPTHORPE (Immortal love, forever full)

BROMLEY (O thou, whose gracious presence shone)

Clark's most familiar composition is undoubtedly his Trumpet Voluntary or the Prince of Denmark's March, which you will probably recognize as soon as you click on the video below. It is frequently used at weddings, which seems ironic given the circumstances of Clarke's suicide.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

When Our Hearts Are Bowed With Care

Today is the beginning of the church year, which begins with the first Sunday of Advent. This season of preparation is made up of several different threads: the prophetic voices of hope from the Old Testament, the witness of John the Baptist, the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the approaching birth of Jesus, and even the return of Christ in the Second Advent.

These things don't proceed in a linear sequence; in fact, the story of the end times usually comes at the beginning of Advent. John the Baptist foretells the ministry of Jesus but that's many years after the birth in Bethlehem; John is still a baby when Mary and Joseph take their difficult journey.

This Advent hymn encompasses the beginning and the end as well as the promises of hope.

Jesus came, adored by angels,
Came with peace from realms on high;
Jesus came for our redemption,
Lowly came on earth to die.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Came in deep humility,
Came in deep humility

Jesus comes again in mercy,
When our hearts are bowed with care;
Jesus comes again in answer
To an earnest, heartfelt prayer;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Comes to save us from despair,
Comes to save us from despair.

Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
Bringing news of sins forgiven;
Jesus comes in sounds of gladness,
Leading souls redeemed to Heav’n;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Now the gate of death is riv’n,
Now the gate of death is riv'n.

Jesus comes on clouds triumphant,
When the heav’ns shall pass away;
Jesus comes again in glory;
Let us then our homage pay,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Till the dawn of endless day,
Till the dawn of endless day.

Godfrey Thring, 1864; alt.
John Hughes, 1907

One (Liturgical) Year Ago: Thousand Thousand Saints Attending

One (Calendar) Year Ago: John Haynes Holmes

Thursday, November 26, 2009

William Cowper

William Cowper, sometimes called the greatest English poet of his age, was born today in 1731 in Berkhampstead. Some sources continue to list his birthday as November 15, but this is under the Old Style Gregorian calendar, abandoned in England in 1752 for the Julian calendar.

He was educated for a career in law, but felt unequal to the pressure of the necessary examinations for a position as a clerk to the House of Lords and attempted suicide three times. This led to his first confinement in an asylum for the insane at St. Alban's. Modern diagnosis of his condition generally supposes it to be manic depression or bipolar disorder. Upon his recovery, he moved to Huntingdon to be near one of his brothers, and took lodgings with the Unwin family. Two years later the Reverend Unwin was killed in a fall from a horse, but Cowper continued to live with the widow and her children. During this time, Cowper and the Unwins met
John Newton, who suggested that they move to Olney, the parish where he was now curate.

Cowper and Newton shared an interest in hymnwriting, and each helped to encourage the other. Their influential collection,
Olney Hymns, was eventually published in 1779. Cowper's sixty-eight contributions to that volume include a good number that are still sung today. Today's hymn takes its themes from the Sermon on the Mount (today's Gospel reading for Thanksgiving in my church) and from Habakkuk 3:17-18. Though this one may not have remained among his most popular, it is still one of my favorites.

Sometimes a light surprises
The child of God who sings;
A light from One who rises
On gentle, healing wings:
When comforts are declining,
God grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may,

It can bring with it nothing
But God will bear us through:
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe all people, too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And God who feeds the ravens
Will give all children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their usual fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet, God the same abiding,
Whose praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in God confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

William Cowper, 1779; alt.
Scottish Psalter, 1615

The critic Hugh L'Anson Faussett, who later edited a collection of Cowper's poetry, claimed that Newton's influence on Cowper only served to “indulge and inflame his sensiblity in the dark ecstasies of Calvinism, while at the same time affronting all that was reasonable and humane in his nature.” It seems unlikely that Cowper would have agreed. At any rate, this hymn is surely as joyful an expression of hope and certainty as one could find.

Cowper suffered at least two more periods of severe depression and confinement. The first, in 1773, seems to have ended his plans to wed Mary Unwin, though she remained his close friend and cared for him after his release from the asylum on that occasion. After her death in 1796 he never quite recovered, and died himself in 1800.

Cowper's primary fame as a poet in his own time came after the bulk of his hymnwriting, with the publication of works such as The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782), The Task (1785) and his blank verse translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1791). However, his hymns have reached a much larger and broader audience, even though many thousands of singers may have never remembered his name.