Monday, December 17, 2007

J. B. Calkin

John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905) was an English organist, choral director, and music educator who was active in both Ireland and England. Cyberhymnal offers little more information than this and a list of 9 of his hymn tunes; five of them have appeared in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals. And although the English version of Wikipedia has never heard of him, a German Wiki page reveals Calkin's main claim to fame: he wrote the music to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular lyric "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Isn't that something.

The editors of the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book seemed to have liked Calkin's stuff. The above tune does very little to explain this. Paired with the hymn "Behold the sure Foundation-stone," it is a tangle of awkward intervals that reminds me, once again, of my old schoolmate's phrase "random-note generator." (The same student referred to hip-hop as "shoes-in-the-dryer music." Priceless.)

Some hymnals refer to Felice de Giardini's tune Italian Hymn ("Come, Thou almighty King") as Moscow. The contrast to Calkin's tune by that name couldn't be greater. Where the Italian Moscow dances and skips, the British one sighs and swoons melodramatically. You really haven't heard this tune until you've heard it in harmony. Its unsettlingly overwrought inner voices and tediously static bass line combine to create a shmaltzy, barbershoppy, old-lady-in-kid-glovesy effect. It reminds one of the tune St. Louis, popularly sung to "O little town of Bethlehem" - only without the force of tradition to prevent us from stamping it out. The Common Service Book lends this tune to Horatius Bonar's hymn "I lay my sins on Jesus."

Nox præcessit
ELHB sticks this tune with two hymns, "Lamp of our feet, whereby we trace" and "Lord, while for all mankind we pray." It is about average as Common Metre (CM) tunes go. It starts well, but grows increasingly soppy towards the end. However, I wouldn't rule it out of my "jumbo treasury of hymns." It is, at least, distinctive and memorable.

I have previously alluded to this tune, which the old Lutheran Hymnody places with the hymn "Jesus, Name all names above." This arrangement seems to have been Calkin's intention, since John Mason Neale's hymn is translated from a 9th-century text by Theoctistus of the Studium. Theoctistus is not only the best of several tunes that have been paired to this hymn, but also the best tune by Calkin that I know. Here the composer shows himself fully in control of his form, crafting a well-structured melody with all the seriousness, dignity, ear-catching appeal, and sensitivity befitting a 17th-century chorale.

The Service Book & Hymnal matches this tune to "Fling out the banner! let it float," a hymn by G. W. Doane seemingly bent on transforming the cross into a flag. I wonder whether this came from the same movement as the "pledge to the cross" that brightened so many of our parochial-school days. Another hymn that uses this tune is ELHB's setting of "This day at Thy creating Word," a nice hymn that gives a Biblical rationale for Sunday sabbath observance. The latter hymn recovered from its embarrassing association with this dreadful little tune, which brings to mind comic operas and advertising jingles sooner than worship.

Conclusion: I won't mince words. From a Lutheran perspective, Calkin's contribution to hymnody is almost worthless. Perhaps I could give a fairer assessment if I studied more of his tunes, tunes that have not crossed the pond that divides Anglican from Lutheran hymnody. But of the five examples I have studied, I would give a carrot for only one of them: Theoctistus. If anyone does rifle through Calkin's works for additional resources, he (for all I know, I) should test them rigorously for signs of maudlin theatricality, and use only the ones that come up negative.

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