Saturday, December 1, 2007

E. J. Hopkins

Edward John Hopkins (1818-1901) is another Anglican composer who has contributed several hymn tunes used in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals. Noted as an organist at London's Temple Church, composer and editor of organ music, and editor of both Anglican and Wesleyan service books, he is an heir to the tradition of Henry J. Gauntlett. Although Hopkins is mainly remembered for one tune (Ellers), Cyberhymnal recognizes 15 of his hymn tunes as significant. Our Lutheran books employ ten of them:

Christmas Morn
The 1958 Service Book & Hymnal pairs this tune with the children's hymn "The wise may bring their learning." Categorized under "service," it imbibes the type of treacly moralism that contradicts the evangelical spirit of Lutheranism and that makes sensible kids hate going to Sunday School. It's all about obedience and sincerity and stewardship, admonishing little children to "bring the little duties we have to do each day," etc. And don't think for one instant the tune is innocent of all this. It suits the text down to the ground.

I reckon this is Hopkins' magnum opus. At least it is the only tune by him that has penetrated past the blubbery pietistic layer of American Lutheranism. Which is not to say it has no pietistic leanings of its own. Universally wedded to John Ellerton's close-of-worship hymn "Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise," it has all the merits and faults of a quintessentially Romantic hymn, including more syllables to a line than one really needs to get the point across, and a tonally inconclusive ending (at least, when interpreted in G Major rather than D Mixolydian). Lit by a warm glow of pious sentimentality, many organists might find if they stop playing at the beginning of the last stanza, the congregation can finish the hymn in 4-part harmony, a capella. Yes, that type of old favorite.

Daringly, a few hymnals have tried other texts on this tune, including "Father, again in Jesus' name we meet" and "Like Enoch, let me ever walk with Thee." Neither of these hymns strikes me as a big winner. I prefer to keep "Savior, again" around to sop up the sticky overflow of sentimentality that occasionally builds up in any congregation, and to give the congregation a break from closing every evening service with the "Abide with me"/Eventide combo.

The old Lutheran Hymnary pairs this tune (also known as Worship) with two hymns: "Ancient of Days, who sittest throned in glory" and "Praise ye Jehovah, praise the Lord most holy." The tune reminds me of a sitcom character of whom it was said, "I never expected to meet a man who had a full set of recessive genes." Everything negative that could be said of Ellers applies here, while there is nothing good to say about it at all. It is neither memorable nor artistically inspired; and even though I belonged for several years to a church that used the old Hymnary, I have a hard time even imagining a congregation bothering with this tune.

This tune has the ring of a sentimental popular song, circa 1872. And not a particularly successful one. It sounds incongruous and, frankly, cheesy when joined with the hymn "Every morning mercies new." The last hymnal that made this mistake was the 1917/1918 Common Service Book. I doubt it will happen again.

St. Athanasius
I have heard hymns such as "Chief of sinners though I be" and "Holy, holy, holy Lord" set to bland enough tunes. But a tune would have to get up quite early in the morning to out-bland St. Athanasius. I suppose that on some ponderously dignified occasions, such a tune would do fine. In fact, this tune has some merits, chiefly in how it is structured. It's simply too easy to think of more interesting tunes.

St. Hugh
There is an English traditional hymn tune, also in the Common Metre, called St. Hugh ("Sing to the Lord the children's hymn"). The CM St. Hugh by Hopkins is another creature altogether. In Australian circles it is sung with James Montgomery's hymn "Lord, teach us how to pray aright," and William Cowper's "There is a fountain filled with blood."

Perhaps this is not the right place to mention that I think Cowper's text is one of the stupidest hymns that has ever been mistaken for a work of great profundity. I simply do not understand its appeal. No, I tell a lie. It is me-centered sentimentality dressed in the rags of atonement theology and sacramental language, but it doesn't actually say anything meaningful about atonement or the sacraments. What's not to like? Only, when you scrutinize the words, it is hard to make out what they are really talking about...unless you accept, as I do, the possibility that Cowper was out to lunch when he wrote them.

As for Montgomery, I am usually happy with his work, and his hymn about contrite prayer and Christ-centered faith is no exception. So on the grounds of textual associations, St. Hugh is a wash. Musically, it doesn't stir anything one way or the other, except the impression that Hopkins was trying to break a record for number of 7th chords and inversions thereof in a single hymn tune (I counted eight of them in four short phrases).

St. Raphael
Hopkins continues the same sentimental, 7ths-heavy harmony in this tune, which I have found paired with the following texts: "Angels, from the realms of glory"; "Glory be to God the Father"; "Jesus, Lord of life and glory"; "O'er the distant mountains breaking"; and "Savior, like a shepherd lead us." These hymns suggest so many better, alternate tunes that I think we can safely dispose of this one.

As a mate for the hymn "God, who madest earth and heaven," this tune is far less successful than, and losing ground every day to, Ar hyd y nos. It's not that it's really bad; I was quite charmed when I played through it. But it simply lacks that je ne sais quoi that its Welsh counterpart has in spades. Slightly pale as to inspiration, slightly dated-sounding, slightly embarrassing in its resemblance to Aurelia played badly, slightly awkward here and there, Temple has so many "slight" strikes against it that will presently be whittled down to nothing.

If you are perplexed by the familiarity of this hymn's second phrase, look at Hereford by H. J. Gauntlett, which you may have seen in the essay immediately following this one. Or perhaps you are more the type who notices the first phrase's similarity to a Scandinavian chorale for the Annunciation, Maria hun er en Jomfru ren ("On Mary, virgin undefiled"). Am I messing around with you, or is it Hopkins doing that? The only good things about this hymn are lifted from elsewhere. Nevertheless the old Ev. Luth. Hymn-Book gave over the hymn "Lord of my life, whose tender care" to this tune's tender mercies. It must never happen again.

Cecil F. Alexander's hymn "Jesus calls us; o'er the tumult" gets a smooth ride on this tune, at least among Lutherans in Australia. And though this isn't the first tune that hymn brings to mind (for better or worse, I can't help thinking of William H. Jude's tune Galilee), I honestly do like this tune. In fact, the popularity of Ellers notwithstanding, this is the only tune by E. J. Hopkins that I personally care for. I like everything about it, from the modest expressiveness of the melody to the gently flowing inner parts.

Conclusion: Most of E. J. Hopkins' contribution to the Lutheran cult of hymnody has been, or is currently being, destroyed by the march of time and changing fashions. I say, let the destruction continue until two tunes remain: Ellers, which I couldn't get rid of if I wanted to, and Wraysbury, which could and should, quickly and permanently, enter the repertoire of English-speaking, hymn-singing Lutherans.

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