Saturday, November 17, 2007

William H. Monk

William Henry Monk (1823-1889) was a music teacher and editor of the first two editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861 and 1875). This website lists 56 tunes by Monk, and includes the hymn texts, scores, and MIDI files of these tunes. 17 of Monk's tunes turn up in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals, as detailed below. Besides composing these more-or-less original tunes, W. H. Monk is also credited with adapting or arranging many other hymn tunes found in Lutheran books. This testifies to the vast influence of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

W. H. Monk should not be confused with composer Edwin George Monk (1819-1900), who also wrote several hymn tunes and edited a hymnal.

Here is an example of profundity in simplicity. In a few basic brushstrokes, this brief tune provides a memorable and moving setting for such Passion hymns as "Lord Jesus, think on me" and "He did not die in vain."

All Things Bright and Beautiful
This tune is set to the same, famous children's hymn by Cecil F. Alexander for which it is named. Filled with angular intervals and syrupy, kiddy pomp-and-circumstance, it nevertheless has the virtue of a well-planned, repetitive structure that should make it easy for kids to learn - if the more popular tune for this song, Royal Oak, doesn't get to them first. Note how the tune's harmonic structure obligates you to repeat the refrain after each verse, including the last one.

Try not to confuse this tune with Henry H. Bancroft's tune by the same name, which goes with the text "There's a voice in the wilderness crying." Monk's tune is an admirable setting of the festive processional hymn "Hail the day that sees him rise," with an Alleluia inserted after each line (unlike the tune Orientis Partibus, which is elsewhere paired with this text). Because of its 7777 metre and Alleluias, this tune could also pinch-hit for such warhorses as Llanfair and Easter Hymn.

At least three of the hymnals in this survey chose this tune for "Look, ye saints! the sight is glorious," the Ascension hymn whose verses end with phrases like "Crown Him! Crown Him! Crowns become the victor's brow." In its jubilant majesty, it is easy to forgive the tune's slight resemblance to Straf mich nicht, and its even slighter, alleged resemblance (I'm not sure I see it) to "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas." Lately, Monk's tune has been losing ground to William Owen's thrilling Bryn Calfaria; though that tune's difficulty may give Coronæ a new lease on life.

It is odd to find this tune listed among Monk's creative works, since he allegedly adapted it from a chorale by my hero, Johann Crüger. This claim is not very flattering to Crüger, though the tune does contain some Crügeresque touches. Actually, it's kind of a Frankenstein monster, made of parts of So nimm denn meine Haende and Wie soll ich dich empfangen, and who knows what else, grotesquely stitched together. As an homage it isn't entirely unsuccessful, but as a serious hymn tune it suffers from a distracting tendency to suggest other tunes to the congregation's mind. Texts paired with this tune have included "Sometimes a light surprises" and "The world is very evil." Don't be confused by the fact that Nun danket all' is sometimes also called Crüger, for better reason.

Often identified as St. Ethelwald, this tune is most often paired with the stewardship hymn "We give Thee but Thine own," which many Lutherans sing every Sunday after the collection. I myself have heard, played, and sung this hymn so many times that I doubt I can comment on it objectively. The tune lives up to its name, however, with a sweet brightness and briskness that could be adapted to many other texts. And so it has. These hymns include "A charge to keep I have"; "For all Thy saints, O Lord"; "Grace! 'tis a charming sound"; "My soul, be on thy guard"; and "Soldiers of Christ, arise."

One Lutheran hymnal pairs this bland, forgettable tune with the hymn "At the name of Jesus/Every knee shall bow." I rather prefer singing this text to King's Weston.

When the name of W.H. Monk is remembered for only one thing, it will most likely be this tune. I doubt there isn't a Protestant church anywhere in the English-speaking world that does not cherish the funeral hymn "Abide with me! fast falls the eventide," sung to this tune, as a particular favorite. With only a slight shudder of morbid sentimentality, this pairing has been transformed into an all-purpose "evening hymn," and its use as a close-of-service hymn at Lenten midweek evening services has jerked many nostalgic tears over the years. It works, dammit! Shmaltz it definitely is, but benign shmaltz, of unassailable craftmanship. In fact, I daresay most of the hymn's shmaltziness resides in the way it is typically performed.

In spite of the overwhelming success and popularity of the aforesaid text-tune marriage, some hymnals have daringly tried other texts on this tune. The texts include "Come, Lord, Thyself with Thine abounding grace"; "Not worthy, Lord, to gather up the crumbs"; and "Unchanging God, hear from eternal heaven." Many of the lines of these hymns demonstrate the tendency of Romantic poetry in very large metres to use many words to say not much.

Two hymnals have paired this bright, innocent, slightly annoying tune with the hymn "Jesus, with Thy church abide." It's a nice, simple piece that could serve well in a book or section of children's hymns, though I find its ending a bit inconclusive. In my estimate, unless there comes a huge glut of hymns in the 7776 or 7777 metre, we can afford to "pass" on this tune. Incidentally, there is another tune by the same name, also in the 7776 metre, from the St. Alban's Tune Book of 1866.

This is one of three tunes that go by the name Merton. The one that goes with the hymn "When cold our hearts and far from thee" is by James P. Jewson. The obnoxiously shmaltzy tune to "Sweet the moments, rich in blessing" and "Savior, who Thy flock art feeding" is by Charlotte Alington Barnard, and is more often identified as Brocklesbury or Brocklesby. The Monk tune, on the other hand, has been paired with the hymns "Jesus, Thou art mine forever"; "Savior, all my sins confessing"; and, most often and most happily, "Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding." This last hymn is one of those that go with a different tune each day of the week and two on Sunday, but I think Merton is one of its best pairings. I am happy to see this gradually becoming the prevailing view.

St. Ambrose
Another tune by the same name, paired with the text "Let thoughtless thousands choose the road," was allegedly adapted "from an ancient melody" by none other than William H. Monk. The tune above, however, is Monk's original work, and I think it is quite good. The opening phrase reminds me of a fugue subject. Happy, prayerful, well-structured, with a built-in crescendo effect, it has been paired with the hymn "Shepherd of tender youth" - which is (go figure) adapted from an ancient text by St. Ambrose!

St. Constantine
This hymn has a consistently innocent and childlike sound, though the first (probably original) ending, given above, strikes me as soft, inconclusive, and effeminate. (Oops! There goes my credibility with the PC Squad!) One hymnal actually provides an alternate harmonization for the last stanza of "Jesus, meek and gentle." Another text I have found set to this tune is "Holy Spirit, hear us."

St. Matthias
Rudyard Kipling's hymn "God of our fathers, known of old" (ending with the memorable refrain "Lest we forget! Lest we forget!") is an interesting prayer for an empire in decay, apropos in today's America. This is only one of a remarkable list of hymns that have been paired with this hymn, including: "Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord most dear"; "My God, I know that I must die"; "O Love, who formedst me to wear"; "O Savior, who in love didst take"; and in three hymnals, "Sweet Savior, bless us ere we go." I find this list so remarkable because I find the tune so unremarkable. There are worse tunes. But there are definitely better ones!

St. Philip
The hymn "Holy Ghost, my Comforter" went with this tune in the old Lutheran Hymnary. It's gentle, humble, a bit bland, remarkable mainly for its unusual 777 metre. Unusual, yes; unique, no. A better alternative is the chorale Heil'ger Geist, du Troester mein.

This dignified but gently sad tune is so well-put-together that it would be a shame not to use it as a teaching tool. It has already served as a vehicle for such hymns as "Hail, Thou once despised Jesus" and "Jesus, Refuge of the weary."

Unde et memores
I would like to invite my brothers in Lutheran theology to open the Service Book and Hymnal to hymn 278 and tell me what they think of the Communion hymn "And now, O Father, mindful of the love," which is there set to this tune. The tune is nothing special one way or the other; it is neither hot nor cold, neither grossly sentimental nor an artistic masterpiece. Whether I would include it in my "fantasy hymnal" would depend entirely on William Bright's text...and I'm not sure about that either. On one hand it seems a beautiful expression of reliance on Christ's passion as the only thing that makes us righteous in God's sight, and on "this food, so aweful and so sweet" to "deliver us from every touch of ill." On the other hand, its characterization of the Lord's Supper as a "sacrifice" that "we here present" comes on a bit strong; plus, like many hymns with 10-syllable lines, it takes its sweet time saying whatever it is trying to say. What do y'all think?

Please, please don't confuse this tune with Jean Baptiste Calkin's atrociously shmaltzy, musical-theatre hymn tune by the same name. No tune deserves that, even Monk's slightly theatrical bit-o'-nothin' given here. I have already whined about the hymn "Thy life was given for me," which suits Barnby's Pro me perforatus better than it does this tune. Monk's Waltham inhabits a rarefied realm of uninspiredness one of my seminary friends used to describe with the phrase "random-note generator." Other tunes in this metre (6666 66) that actually work include Old 120th and Gottes Sohn ist kommen.

Conclusion: The critical consensus seems to be that William H. Monk was a bit of a "musical square." His method of hymnal editing, characterized by smoothing out the distinctive features of favorite hymn tunes, was lampooned by Thomas Hardy:
Stripped of some of your vesture
By Monk or another. Now you wore no frill,
And at first you startled me. But I know you still,
Though I missed the minim’s waver
And the dotted quaver.
Monk's legacy of hymn tunes includes a handful of pieces that, for better or worse, are "baked into" the core of Anglophone hymnody. Tunes such as Energy, Eventide, and Merton are not going away any time soon. Others, like Aber, Ascension, and Coronæ, deserve to be better known. But I would look carefully at any other tune by Monk before introducing it into current use. Adding blandness to any body of hymnody is simply not productive. When a Monk tune was once favored for a particular hymn, but has been superceded by another tune more recently, we should check whether the reason is Monk's congenital blandness or a mere, momentary enthusiasm. The virtue of Monk's tunes is that, in many cases, they can outlast the vogues and fads that briefly place other tunes in ascendancy over them. But the same lack of ephemeral, identifying features can make one question whether it is worth reviving Monk's tunes when those vogues and fads have passed.


Unknown said...

Does anyone know if William Monk spent any time in Calcutta just after he composed the music for Abide with Me? I have a book of Sacred Music signed by William Monk 1867 - Music Arranged for the Clarinet in B flat - Calcutta

gooley said...

Unde et Memores is beloved by many Catholics as the tune for "Lord, Who At Thy First Eucharist" (now usually stripped of the second person singular and some of the Catholic theology). Objectively, your assessment is right on the money: not a bad tune, not a great tune.