Were you to pare away my over-abundant interests until you reached the core, or key, obsession in my intellectual and spiritual life, it would probably be the elusive art of the Lutheran hymn. Both the texts and the tunes fascinate me, as does the history of Lutheran hymnody in the English language -- both its triumphs and its disasters.
Of course, talking to anybody about this is tantamount to picking a fight. I don't doubt that my thoughts on hymnody include a certain amount of subjective opinion. At the very least, my thinking on this fascinating and highly complex art involves concepts I have trouble putting into words. So I am bound to rub up against somebody else's sore spot, where he or she feels strongly but cannot express the reason.
So I risk offending everyone who reads this blog, somehow or other, as I begin laying out some of the things I have discovered in my research in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals. From the perspective of a hymn lover and a Lutheran theologian, I would like to start by introducing some composers and their works. These are composers who have contributed a significant number of tunes to the hymns and hymnals that English-speaking Lutherans have used in the last century or so. The basic question will be: does this music support, or undermine, Lutheran teaching and spirituality? My work on this subject is still incomplete, but I think I have found enough so far to provide an interesting "taster." And so, because he is so prolific, my first victim shall be
JOSEPH BARNBY (1838-1896).
Barnby was an English composer, organist, and choir master who directed the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, edited a hymnary, and received a knighthood. Among his nearly 250 hymn tunes, I have found at least two dozen in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals. Here is a sampling of them. (Please note that the fermatas in the music are only meant to indicate the last note of each phrase.)
Angels of Jesus
This string of syrupy cliches was set to the text "Hark! Hark, my soul! Angelic songs are swelling." Here is a good example of a pairing of a text and a tune that are consistent in style. And the style is, very definitely, Romantic. One characteristic frequently noted of Romantic hymn tunes is the difficulty of singing the melody alone, without the harmony that clothes it, colors it, gives it dramatic shape and even, at times, rescues it from sounding like a meaningless series of notes.
This music is the sound of a Lutheran church succumbing to the sentimental, subjectivistic climate of the American Protestant scene around it. The text by Frederick Faber drips with Reformed theology, bespeaking an inner, spiritual experience unmediated by Word and Sacrament; a "voice of Jesus" that sounds "far, far away"; and a vague kind of communication with angels that is nearly as bizarre when you really think about it as the idea of walking alone with Jesus in the garden. This hymn text could only be a pernicious influence on Lutheran minds and hearts; and Barnby's tune, like several others associated with this text, matches it spiritually and "sells" it emotionally.
Here is a very pretty, warm-and-fuzzy alternate tune for "O little town of Bethlehem." In recent decades, this Christmas carol has become so firmly chained to Louis Redner's tune St. Louis that one forgets that at least four or five different tunes have been paired with it over the years. This one comes closest to the spirit of Redner's tune. It cries out to be sung in harmony, and would make a lovely addition to a service of Christmas carols and anthems. The question remains, however, whether such a lush, Romantic hymn belongs in the songbook of a church that emphasizes the comfortingly objective truths of incarnation, atonement, and justification. The Sunday school could do much worse than this hymn; but it could also do much better!
At least three American Lutheran hymnals selected this tune to go with one of my favorite hymns of all time, "Lord of our life and God of our salvation." In fact, I intend to have this hymn sung at my funeral; but probably not to this tune. Admittely it is a clever, energetic tune, but it also has the tendency not to sound quite like itself without the rather barbershoppy harmony that comes with it. I also think that at the "moderately fast" tempo indicated, this tune could be tricky for the average congregation to learn, and all the more so if the organist has a tendency to rush.
This tune should not be confused with one of the same title by George J. Elvey, though both of them have been set to the hymn "Crown him with many crowns." Barnby's tune has also been linked with "Thou art gone up on high." With neither text is it the tune most closely, or most happily, associated. Though not without its attractive features, Barnby's Diademata is a nightmare of wide intervals, tricky rhythms, and chromatic twists that put it above the pay-grade of the average singing congregation. Nevertheless, I am sure some music directors would find this exuberant piece of pomp-and-circumstance quite an attractive vehicle for a very loud organ and, perhaps, an accompanying brass band.
Surely "Crown him" needs no introduction. It has become one of the most ubiquitous hymns, appearing in virtually every hymnal, and just the thing when the occasion calls for a fanfarelike effusion of blessing, honor, glory, and power. As for "Thou art gone up on high," the tune that comes to my mind is Ascension Tide by Henry S. Gauntlett, though that tune is in no way superior to Barnby's. To this hymn text's credit, it describes not only the glory of Jesus' ascension and session at God's right hand, but also the continued griefs and needs of the church on earth. To the hymn's detriment, it betrays its Reformed leanings by depicting Jesus as spatially separated from Christians until either we come to Him, or He returns to us.
The old Lutheran Hymnary sets "I lay my sins on Jesus" to this tune, which elsewhere has become wedded to Samuel S. Wesley's tune Aurelia. Actually, the two tunes are very similar in their appeal; it may be that a mere accident of time and fortune resulted in the Wesley tune becoming more popular. There are even a couple of phrases where Frankscot vaguely echoes Aurelia; perhaps it loses out, then, based on a relative lack of originality. It may also suffer from being slightly more difficult, particularly at the end. All the same, this tune should appeal greatly to people of a Romantic kidney; what mainly stands in its way is its unfamiliarity. For people who have been spiritually formed by Lutheran teaching, however, its soft, wilting sentiments might be a bigger problem.
The hymn most closely associated with this tune, at least in Lutheran circles, is Daniel March's "Hark! the voice of Jesus crying." This is a pity, because on its own merits this is one of Barnby's strongest tunes, with a sturdy nobility that never veers into pompousness or sentimentality. Unfortunately, years of association with the whining, cajoling, eyebatting sweetness of March's Arminianism-tinged text have left their mark on this tune. Even when it is (occasionally) paired with "Glorious things of thee are spoken" - in my opinion, a more appropriate coupling of text and tune - it seems inadequate, freighted with the imagery of limp-wristed pleading. On the other hand, I would sooner sing "Glorious things" to this tune than to Haydn's Austrian Hymn, because the popular mind has not yet given up the connection between that tune and Deutschland ueber alles.
This tune, also known as Mar Saba, should not be confused with Lowell Mason's tune titled Hebron (or, sometimes, Mason). Got that? All right, don't worry about it, because you are never going to have to sing this tune. Why? Because it is horrible. Staggeringly uninspired, sounding almost exactly like a random succession of awkward phrases, it tries to get by on sheer manipulativeness. Written-in fermatas, smarmy tempo changes, and an equally smarmy key-change from C minor to E-flat major, create an atmosphere of gushy melodrama all out of proportion to the merits of the tune. The old Common Service Book inflicted this tune on a funeral hymn, "Now the labrorer's task is o'er," which interestingly provides a special stanza for burials at sea. One only hopes this tune doesn't trigger seasickness.
Let's not confuse this tune, also known as Nightfall, with the tune Horeb by H. A. Polack. Barnby's piece is a finely crafted musical utterance in a warm, tender, Romantic style. I found it set to the hymn "O God be with us, for the night is falling," which is elsewhere paired with the (in my opinion) underrated tune Die Nacht ist kommen. Barnby's alternate tune is perhaps more of a people-pleaser, though either tune may be a little tricky for the average congregation.
Just As I Am
The title of this tune (a.k.a. Barnby, a.k.a. Dunstan) suggests that it was originally meant to go with the classic revival hymn, "Just as I am, without one plea." (Observe that the words "I come" at the end of each verse would only be sung once.) However, in Lutheran hymn-books this tune was paired with "Drawn to the cross, which Thou hast blest" and, even more frequently, "O God of mercy, God of might." The tune's metre and warm-hearted, pleading character make it a magnet for revivalistic hymns which, in turn, slip past Lutheran hymnal editors on the strength of their unimpeachable content, even though their character and spirituality promote a subjective, emotion-centered, spiritualizing form of Christianity.
The tunes of such hymns, like this one by Barnby, highlight those very apsects of the text that make them obnoxious to the Lutheran theology of worship. On the other hand, we keep hymns like this around because they are relatively harmless, and because we serve congregations who have been led this far astray and beyond; if we didn't feed them a little treat like this, now and then, they would become disgusted with our continual efforts to teach them solid, Lutheran hymns.
This is one of Barnby's most fortunate compositions: a poignant, Romantic church song on the level usually inhabited by John Stainer. The harmony is part of its perfection, though the melody does make sense without it. Widely paired with the hymn "When morning gilds the skies," the tune seems to stretch and yawn before launching into sunsplashed praise. If ever there was an argument for giving room to Romanticism in a Lutheran hymn-book, it is this hymn.
The sometime tune of "Heralds of Christ, who bear the King's commands" is warm, broad, dignified, with a touch of pomp and circumstance that does not go beyond good taste, and above all, ear-catching - though its conclusion is just a bit less than conclusive. Should it be in a Lutheran hymnal? On the "pro" side, it is well-written and generally free of the sort of bad connotations that weigh against many of Barnby's other tunes. On the "con" side, it is unfamiliar and has, perhaps, a few tricky spots to challenge a congregation learning it for the first time.
Many hymnals pair this tune with the hymn "Now the day is over." I consider it so wretched that I applaud those few Lutheran hymnals that opted for Sabine Baring-Gould's tune Eudoxia instead. How do I hate it? Let me count the ways: it is uninspired, pedestrian, and stupefyingly dull; the repetition of a single note makes the melody exceedingly monotonous, while the underlying harmony oozes shmaltz. To be sure, Eudoxia is also rather boring, but it also has a certain folksy, childlike simplicity. Merrial is artful in its boringness, which is all but unforgivable. If one wants to kill the habit of congregational hymn-singing, there must be more fun ways to do it!
O Perfect Love
The popular wedding hymn "O perfect love, all human thought transcending" is almost invariably paired with this stately, syrupy tune. It is at least melodically superior to Frederick Atkinson's alternate tune, titled Caritas perfecta, which of all the hymnals I have surveyed appears only in The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941. Honestly, it's hard to tell the difference between them. The text of this hymn reminds me of another tendency in Romantic hymnody: the sense that the author could have said the same thing, perhaps even more effectively, in fewer words. I'm afraid we're stuck with it, though. There simply aren't enough hymns appropriate for weddings.
"Thou knowest, Lord, the weariness and sorrow," is Jane Borthwick's interesting, but also quite prolix and Romantic, hymn about the relationship between prayer and God's omniscience. It comes as close as possible to teaching "the theology of the cross" in the popular sense of the term, without actually referring to the cross. It seems very appropriate to pair that text with this tune by Barnby, a featureless, forgettable piece of musical prose with just enough sentimentality poured on to make it go down.
It would be cruel to call this tune a typical specimen of Barnby's work, but it is certainly a very undistinguished one. I have found this tune in three hymnals, always paired with the text "O Paradise, O Paradise, who doth not crave for rest," again by Frederic W. Faber. It is an appropriately shmaltzy, yearning tune, somewhat derivative, with part-writing that suggests (yea, in some books demands) that it be sung in parts. The tune is really quite unmemorable; but it may have been popular once, when rooms full of warbling ladies with lace caps on their heads were a major force in society.
Another niche this hymn fits is pietism, whose hymnody strongly emphasizes the blissful vision of the world to come and, at the same time, a renunciation of this hopeless world. You may wonder at this seemingly "sweeping generalization"...but this is what I have observed in my study of hymnals from a variety of groups influenced, more or less strongly, by pietism. Expect to see more documentation of this in future posts on this "hymnody" thread. By the way, try not to confuse this tune with another by the same name, composed by Frederic Weber and sung to the hymn "For all Thy saints in warfare."
Pro me Perforatus
I found this tune in four hymnals, sometimes under the title St. Olav or St. Olave, but always attached to the hymn "Thy life was given for me" by Frances R. Havergal. Most of this hymn's stanzas reflect on what Jesus has done for me, concluding with a question like "What have I given for thee?" One might argue that the hymn reflects a justifiable concern for responding to God's love in Christ, and faith bearing fruit in love, etc. Nevertheless it strikes me as an archexample of subjectivizing, pietistic Protestantism. It suggests that what Christ has done for you is not enough; you must finish what he started, or respond in kind, or meet him partway, or what have you.
Even worse, in my opinion, is the "alt." version of this hymn, which turns it around so that Jesus is speaking: "I gave My life for thee...What hast thou given for Me?" This has the effect of making Jesus sound like a whiny, Jewish mother: the worst possible application of Law and Gospel, so bad that one can't tell one from the other. I have also found this text set to the tunes Waltham (the one by Monk, not the one by Calkin) and Old 120th; and even though I grew up using a hymnal that went with Old 120th, it is Barnby's Pro me Perforatus that comes to mind when I think of this hymn. This might be to the credit of this hymn tune, which is distinctive, memorable, and well-crafted. On the other hand, it might also be due to way the tune makes a perfect match for the maudlin theatricality of the text.
Pro omnibus sanctis
Also known as Sarum, this was a leading tune for the hymn "For all the saints who from their labors rest," until Ralph Vaughan Williams's tune Sine nomine came along in about 1940 and utterly superceded it. Pro omnibus sanctis gave a last kick in 1958's Service Book and Hymnal, and then died. If you wonder why, sing a stanza or two to this tune and compare it to its younger-but-better. As a piece of trumpetty pomp-and-circumstance it must have been really impressive once; but it simply doesn't sing as well as Sine nomine. Perhaps this is a case of the way people hear and feel music changing with the times, but when I compare the tunes, I simply feel that Vaughan Williams understood what this hymn was about - better than Barnby did.
Not to be confused with the same-named hymn by William Schulthes, this tune clearly represents Joseph Barnby on one of his bad days. Monotonous, uninspired in the extreme, it sounds like a Romantic musical evocation of a funeral pall. Which is all good, since it is paired with the text "Sleep thy last sleep." In its favor is the fact that the funeral congregation, mourners, pallbearers, and maybe even the departed should find it easy to sing. Personally, I find that empathizing with the dead can be taken too far, especially in a context where people come looking for comfort and encouragement.
Alternate titles have abounded so far; this tune, for example, is also known as Barnby or Monsell. It also suffers from alternate endings. The one you see above is the ending I prefer; but the majority of hymnals make the final note a G, which is rather a weak ending. Together with its overall tone of bland sentimentality and its lack of strongly-marked features, it is a wonder to find it in four hymnals, paired with four different texts, including "And will the judge descend," "Teach me, my God and King," "The Spirit, in our hearts," and "To God, the only wise." Happily, the Short Metre (SM) offers an abundance of alternative tunes for choice.
The text paired with this hymn is "Thy word, O God, declareth," by Johann Walther. Doesn't ring a bell? How about this: it's a cento of the same hymn from which we get "The Bridegroom soon will call us," as well as the magnificent Reformation-era chorale Herzlich tut mich erfreuen. These stanzas seem to be from the conclusion of Walther's longish hymn; they evoke the Paradise to be revealed in eternity, and the glory to be addressed to the Trinity. The text is all right, though having been sensitized to the issue I mentioned under Paradise, I flinch at isolating these stanzas from their context; they fit the "renunciation of the world" stereotype of pietism too well.
And so does Barnby's music. If you isolate the tune from the harmony, it sounds rambling, uninspired, and now and then even bizarre. Clearly, it was intended always to be done to Barnby's harmony, and perhaps even sung in parts. As a musical whole, it does have a certain barbershoppy appeal: warm, tender, devotional, with a bright sheen of exultation on its surface and an impression of deep experience beneath. However, I can think of several tunes that do the same trick better, with the advantages of a more memorable melody-line, a more intuitive harmonic structure, greater familiarity and gratefulness to the untrained voice. Take, for example, Ewing, Bona Patria, and Missionary Hymn. Besides, St. Anselm has marked similarities to the latter two, as well as (more perversely) the old hit song "Fly me to the moon."
This tune, also known as Adoro, deserves to be held up as an inspiration to working authors and composers. For it is a commendable example of plugging along even when the muse deserts you. Lacking originality and distinctiveness, it is at least well-structured and pleasant to the ear. The original bits are dull; the interesting bits are derivative; the overall effect, however, is bright, energetic, perhaps even majestic, though it is less effective than the tune it most nearly resembles, namely William Boyd's Pentecost ("Fight the good fight with all thy might").
I have found at least five texts paired with this tune: "Awake, Thou Spirit, who didst fire," "Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All," "O Light, whose beams illumine all," "Thou hidden Love of God, whose height," and "Victim divine, Thy grace we claim." Somewhere among these hymns Das neugeborne Kindelein is offered as an alternative; now that's a good tune!
Through the Day
This tune, one of many paired with the hymn "Through the day Thy love hath spared us," has the kind of quiet, subdued sentimentality that might go over well as a choir piece, but that a singing congregation might find hard to pull off. Its unusual 3/2 meter and varying rhythms at the ends of phrases could make it tricky. Also, the tendency to add an extra note to phrases that end with an accented syllable has kind of a shmaltzifying effect - what I would have called "feminizing masculine phrase-endings" before I was forced to confront my insensitivity to gender issues in the world of music criticism. As you can imagine, that has unpleasant associations for me. So I'm probably just biased. All the same, I can't fight it: I find this tune odious, and I think its influence on Lutherans should be kept to a minimum.
WintertonIf this tune were not already widely popular, I would say that it was probably too difficult to teach to the average congregation. Shows what I know. They would go and learn it regardless, because it has the heart-warming appeal of the very best camp hymns. Really, it is a nicely structured piece, and as paired with the text "Savior, Thy dying love," it has found a place in several Lutheran hymnals, particularly of the Missouri Synod stripe. And therein lies the problem.
It is a pity that we have let the hymn whose stanzas all end with "Something for Thee" become an inextricable fixture in our Lutheran churches. There is, to be sure, something to be said for encouraging Christians to live according to the hope Christ gives them. But this hymn depicts the Christian life as nothing but offerings, sufferings, words, and works offered up to Jesus, as opposed to gifts received from Him. The direction everything flows, in this hymn, is from us to God; its spirituality is synergistic, and even moralistic.
And the tune helps nothing by being tricky in just such a way as to encourage the organist to "ham it up." It adopts the metre, many of the stock gestures, and the icky-sticky sentimentality of the revivalist hymn tradition, sounding almost like one of the many tunes written for "Nearer, my God, to Thee" and its variants. All this serves to reinforce the hymn's veneer of decision theology and sacrificial worship.
Another hymn associated with this tune, but to a lesser degree, is "Savior, I follow on," of which the Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal frankly admits: "The better hymnals of the present day do not contain this hymn" - and then goes and contains it.
Conclusion: Some of Barnby's tunes (such as Laudes Domini) have great merit, and could even earn a foothold for Romantic hymnody in a faithful Lutheran tradition. Many of them lack the character to threaten the position of tunes we already know. A few, however, have entered the Lutheran tent as the proverbial camel's nose, followed inevitably by the great, warm, itchy, smelly remainder of the camel; or rather, by a whole vast tradition of warm, fuzzy, popular hymns and the pietistic spirituality they promote. Some of these camel-tunes have fully entered the tent and settled down to stay. It is too bad. Would to heaven we could evict them, or reconsider the decision to let them in in the first place. But we will have to teach around them, carefully choose the contexts in which we use them, and use them delicately to pacify our lambs until we can finally wean them off.