Wednesday, February 22, 2017

James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, born today in 1819, was one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the nineteenth century, even though by his own admission he had not applied himself particularly well to his studies at Harvard University. He graduated without any sort of distinction in 1838, but would return in 1855, once his writing career was established, as a professor of modern languages. In the interim, he had practiced unsuccessfully as a lawyer until turning his efforts to writing. His first book of poems appeared in 1841, but he also wrote political pamphlets, satirical essays, and more significantly, articles for abolitionist newspapers and magazines. Successive collections of his poetry continued to appear for the rest of his life.

In 1857 he became the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly (still running today), a post he held until 1863, after which he spent the next ten years editing the North American Review, which was the first literary magazine in the US, founded in 1815. Also known for his political views, he would later serve as minister to Spain (1877-1880) and ambassador to Great Britain (1880-1885). 

The hymn texts now attributed to Lowell were mostly not intended as congregational song, but were excerpted and adapted by various hymnal editors over time.  Lowell first appears in Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology in the 1907 edition (entry seen at the first link above), where Julian says that Lowell wrote "no hymns." Today's hymn was first adapted for singing by W. Garrett Horder in his Hymns, Supplemental to Existing Collections (1896), and apparently had not become sufficiently popular to gain Julian's notice by 1907.  However, it would later appear in many twentieth-century collections (163 documented at, before falling somewhat out of favor in the last thirty years or so.

In the 1840s, at the beginning of Lowell's career as a poet, the United States was headed toward armed conflict with Mexico, which he strongly opposed, partly for the reason that it might spread slavery into the newly annexed territory of Texas. In December 1845 he wrote a long poem titled The Present Crisis, believing that the nation stood at a moral crossroads. It was published in the Boston Courier on December 11. More than fifty years later, Horder (followed by many subsequent editors) believed that this poem had something important to say to people of faith beyond Lowell's particular concerns and took several lines from the long poem, rearranging some of them and making the lines more metrical, resulting in the hymn Once to every man and nation.

By the late twentieth century, some editors saw problems with the text. "Man" was no longer considered useful to refer to the whole of humankind (in spite of self-appointed grammar police). Also, some believed that the important choices we face do not happen only once; that we have to make the choice between right and wrong many times in our lives.  After being left out of a number of important denominational hymnals, some editors have made further adaptations so that it can be used again. The Welsh tune TON-Y-BOTEL has been the predominant tune matched with this text for most of its life.

To us all, to every nation,
Come those moments to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’Twixt that wrongness and that right.

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share its wretched crust,
Ere its cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave one chooses
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus' bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though its portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
God is standing in the shadow,
Keeping watch above God's own.

James Russell Lowell, 1845; adapt.
Thomas J. Williams, 1890

New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth. 
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Words to live by.
Eight Years Ago: Sarah Flower Adams

Monday, February 20, 2017

David McKinley Williams

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of composer and church musician David McK. Williams (1887-1978), who was born in Wales, but came to Colorado in this country as a child with his family. Some of his earliest musical training was as a boy chorister at the Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness in Denver, and by age 13 he was the organist at St. Peter's Church in that city.

In 1908 he moved to New York City, where he was organist and music director at Grace Church Chapel and the Church of the Holy Communion (where William Muhlenberg had been rector) with a break to study in Paris (1911-1914) and another to serve in World War I with the Royal Canadian Artillery (his photograph here is from those years).

Not long after his return from Europe in 1920 he became the director of music at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where he would remain for the next twenty-six years and raise the level of music at that church to become one of the best-regarded in that city. His organ playing, both accompanying the choir and congregation, and in recital, was beloved by his peers, and he was also admired for the force of his personality. He also wrote several hymn tunes (most of them unison settings rather than in traditional four-part harmony - and also still under copyright), anthems and various service music items for Episcopal worship. He served on the committee that produced the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (which includes six of his tunes).

However, Williams was also openly gay (whatever that would have meant in that time), and was suddenly dismissed from his position in 1946. This would certainly have been known for some time by leadership at St. Bartholomew's, and it's possible that action was not taken earlier because Williams was a close friend and colleague of composer Amy Beach, a parishioner and probably a significant donor to the church (who died in 1944). The congregation was told that  Williams had developed hearing problems and would be taking a leave of absence and leaving the city to seek treatment.

Following his forced retirement he remained in New York, in spite of the claims by church leadership, headed the organ department at the Juilliard School of Music and was a faculty member at the School of Sacred Music at Union Seminary. He remained active in church music circles and the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists, where younger people in later years couldn't recall any significant hearing issues.

This 2015 recording of Williams' anthem In the year that King Uzziah died is by the choir of Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, directed by Brad Whaley.

Anthem text is from Isaiah 6:1-8.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Make Us All the Burden Share

Continuing our series of hymns of social justice, we have today the reintroduction of a text which predates slightly the first "golden age" of such hymns which happened in the early twentieth century, and may or may not have been known to the authors who produced those early hymns. 

This is a prayer for divine guidance that recognizes that we on earth can do the will of God through Christ, who modeled during his life how we should support and help the people around us.  Originally published with six stanzas in Good Will, a Christian journal, its first appearance in a hymnal was in the Christian Social Union Hymn Book (1895), a collection for the social justice organization of the same name.

Reintroducing a classic text such as this one requires a strong, familiar tune that people sing well, in this case the Welsh tune TON-Y-BOTEL (sometimes called EBENEZER).

Jesus Christ, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,

Word made flesh, whose birth incarnate
Hallows all our human race,
Thou, our head who, throned in glory,
For thine own dost ever plead,
Fill us with thy love and pity;
Heal our wrongs, and help our need.

Bind us all as one together
In thy church’s sacred fold,
Weak and healthy, poor and wealthy,
Sad and joyful, young and old.
Is there want, or pain, or sorrow?
Make us all the burden share.
Are there spirits crushed and broken?
Teach us how to soothe their care.

Jesus, thou hast lived for others,
So may we for others live;
Freely have thy gifts been granted,
Freely may we learn to give.
Thine the gold and thine the silver,
Thine the wealth of land and sea,
We but stewards of thy bounty,
Held in solemn trust for thee.

Come, O Christ, and reign among us,
Fount of love and strength and peace,
Hush the storm of strife and passion,
Bid its cruel discords cease:
Thou who hopest, thou who willest,
That thy people should be one,
Grant, O grant our prayer’s fruition:
Here on earth thy will be done.

Somerset Lowry, 1893; alt.
Thomas J. Williams, 1890
Somerset Corry Lowry (1855-1932) was born in the Irish town of Dungannon and educated at Cambridge University. Son of a prominent lawyer, he planned to follow in that profession, but changed his mind and was ordained in the Church of England in 1879 and served several parishes, apparently writing about sixty hymn texts along the way (only a handful are documented online).
TON-Y-BOTEL, coincidentally, will reappear here later this week.
Originally presented here on September 14, 2008.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Hymns in the News

This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of hymnwriter William Williams (1717-1791), though his exact birthdate was unrecorded. The occasion is being celebrated tomorrow in his home country with a broadcast service filmed at the church where he was buried, described in this article in the South Wales Guardian.

Williams published two books of his hymn texts, Halleluiah (1744) and Y Môr o Wydr (1766) which became very popular in Wales. He also released two volumes containing 121 of his texts translated into English: Hosannah to the Son of David (1759) and Gloria in Excelsis (1771) -- later combined into one volume in 1859.

Of course, Williams' best-known hymn today is Guide me, O thou great Redeemer (originally Jehovah), and I believe I can safely say that it is not "better known today as the rugby anthem Bread of Heaven" in this country, at least. Though it was written and translated in the eighteenth century, the tune nearly everyone sings today, CWM RHONDDA was not written until 1905. As you can see from the timeline chart at (scroll down), that tune would lead to even wider use of the text in twentieth-century hymnals.

So, for more than 150 years, it was sung to other tunes, including GUIDE ME by George William Warren, ZION by Thomas Hastings (apparently one of the more-utilized nineteenth-century tunes for the text), PILGRIM by Albert Lister Peace (which certainly sounds like it was written by the composer of ST. MARGARET), and PILGRIMAGE by George Job Elvey (for a little Victoriana), among others. I'm not sure that any of them would have become a rugby anthem.

Nevertheless, let's remember the important work of William Williams, the "Watts of Wales" whose hymns spread from his own country around the world, including one which remains the favorite of many.

Eight Years Ago: Washington Gladden

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Not Despair, But Wise Intent

Unfortunately, the challenges of our present day are not unique.  People of faith often have had to stand up for what they believe, in both large ways and small.

Why discouraged? Why despair,
Yielding to the present woe?
We are not what once we were;
Let us build on that we know.

Even now the future life
Shape we with our conscious hands;
And amidst the woe and strife,
Full our dream incarnate stands.

Lightest thought and humblest deed,
Aspiration's faintest breath,
These are but the unseen seed,
Springing up in spite of death.

Not despair, but wise intent,
Takes the hardship from our task;
High resolve and onward bent --
These the pressing moment ask.

Malcolm Quin, 19th cent; alt.
Tune: PATMOS (
William Henry Havergal, 1869

Malcolm Quin (1854-1927? - no useful link available) was at one time the minister of a Church of Humanity congregation in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Church of Humanity was based on the philosophy of Positivism, developed by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century. It was described by one critic as "Catholicism minus Christianity," and Quin was definitely interested in this aspect, developing liturgies for his church, designing vestments, and writing hymns. He wrote about Catholicism and corresponded with George Tyrell, a Jesuit priest who was excommunicated for his modernist ideas.

Eight Years Ago: Joy is like the rain

Seven Years Ago: Roger Williams

Three Years Ago: Thomas Turton