Friday, May 29, 2009

Ten Great Hymns

Sherry is collecting a list of great hymns, and asked everyone to contribute; I thought I'd follow Rebecca's list and put them up. There are a lot of hymns I like, so this list is a little bit arbitrary. Noticeably there are no hymns by Frances Havergal on the list, which is a serious omission and enough to prove that this list, while a list of great hymns can't presume to be a list of the greatest hymns in English, because something by Havergal would certainly be on that list. But this does give a rough idea of the hymns I like.

(1) When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Isaac Watts): Like Rebecca, I think the words of this hymn are exquisite:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.


I like the standard tune for it, "Hamburg," by Lowell Mason. The single best hymn originally written for the English language.

(2) O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (John Mason Neale, et al.): This is a hymn with a rich history. The original words are Latin, the so-called "O Antiphons" which are used in Latin-based liturgies during Advent, building on a large number of Scriptural images. They are spread out over several Sundays, but someone at some point had the brilliant idea of putting them all together into a single song, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. John Mason Neale translated it brilliantly in the nineteenth century; the version we use today is not exactly Neale's, but Neale's with some modifications (e.g., he translated the first line as "Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel." The tune is likewise an adapted form of a fifteenth century French tune, which in turn was adapting chant to more popular singing. It always sums up for me the Church itself: no single human hand sat down and wrote it, and it has been sung by countless people across the centuries and the continents, its format adapted and re-adapted many times, and yet the message is still crystal clear and the hymn itself still exquisite:

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.


(3) Crown Him With Many Crowns (Matthew Bridges and Godfrey Thring): I'm actually torn about the tune; I like both the usual "Diademata" (by George Elvey) and the "Oliva Speciosa" (an eighteenth century Italian folk tune) arrangements. Sung by a good Baptist choir, this hymn will overwhelm; my paradigm case of exaltation is such a choir singing a rousing version of this:

Crown Him the Lord of life, who triumphed over the grave,
And rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save.
His glories now we sing, who died, and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die.


You get a sense of what it means for the heavenly anthem to drown all music but its own.

(4) How Great Thou Art (Stuart Hine): This is the most recent of the hymns on the list; the full lyrics are still copyrighted. The usual tune is a Swedish folk tune, usually called "O Store Gud," after the best-known Swedish hymn that uses it:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy pow'r throughout the universe displayed!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!


This has been a favorite of mine since high school.

(5) Amazing Grace (John Newton): The Hymn that Needs No Introduction needs no introduction:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.


(6) Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning (William Irons): This is Irons's version of the old Latin hymn, "Dies Irae" (the version of the Latin hymn that floors you with a sense of Judgment Day is always going to be Mozart's take on the first two stanzas). The Irons version was written in the wake of a murder; in 1848 the French had one of their regular revolutions of government, and the Archbishop of Paris was murdered. At his funeral the mourners walked by his casket murmuring the the Latin hymn written by Thomas Celano in the 13th century. Irons was there, and went home and wrote an English version of the hymn:

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning.
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from Heav’n the Judge descendeth
On Whose sentence all dependeth!


The tune is by John Dykes.

(7) Battle Hymn of the Republic (Julia Ward Howe): The tune, "Canaan's Happy Shore" by William Steffe, was originally used for a campfire song. It became popular in the Civil War using different lyrics, "John Brown's Body," and thus the tune is usually given that title. Howe heard it in camp one day, thought it catchy, but thought that the lyrics were horrible. That night she wrote new ones, about the inexorable providence of God:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."


(8) My Jesus, I Love Thee (William Featherston): This is a simple hymn, and the words were written by a teenager. The tune is "Gordon," by Adoniram Jordan. Because of the repeating last line, it's a sadder hymn that it looks at first glance, and is in fact usually sung in times of loss.

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.


(9) Dark Is the Night (Fanny Crosby): "Blessed Assurance" is the usual favorite when Crosby's name comes up, but of the Crosby hymns I've heard, I like this one the best. The tune is by Theodore Perkins.

With His loving hand to guide, let the clouds above me roll,
And the billows in their fury dash around me.
I can brave the wildest storm, with His glory in my soul,
I can sing amidst the tempest—Praise the Lord!


(10) O Perfect Love (Dorothy Gurney): The lyrics were written for the tune "Strength and Stay" by John Dykes, which were written for the hymn "O Strength and Stay," which was John El­ler­ton's and Fen­ton J. A. Hort's translation of Ambrose of Milan's "Rerum Deus tenax rigor"; Gurney liked the tune, but wanted the words to be more suitable to a wedding. Joseph Barnby took Gurney's lyrics and wrote a new tune for it, to serve as the wedding hymn for the wedding of the Princess of Wales to the Earl of Fife in 1889. That's the tune usually used. But the tune I like is William Monk's "Life and Love". As for why a wedding hymn makes it into my list of ten great hymns, what can I say? I'm a hopeless romantic:

O perfect Love, all human thought transcending,
Lowly we kneel in prayer before Thy throne,
That theirs may be the love which knows no ending,
Whom Thou forevermore dost join in one.

1 comment:

  1. Montag5:44 AM

    We sang Come, O Come Emmanuel in boys choir and I was always enchanted by it, enchantment being a bit more encompassing than merely liking it. I sing it at odd times during the year and it is part of my musical self, I guess.
    The expression "day-spring" is so perfect I am surprised we do not use it more frequently. It hits me like "dawn" only with a bit more "attitude" and, well, springyness; it is a much more direct counterpoint to "night-fall".

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