A tale of two hymns

The lectionary readings for this Sunday (Sept. 22) are rich but complex. And the two hymns that we will sing during Communion this Sunday have rich and complex texts as well.

The first hymn is a contemporary one, which we have sung before, but is probably not quite as familiar. However, the melody is simple and, with its gentle rises and falls, is quite singable.

The second hymn, a Bach chorale, is frankly one of the most beloved tunes in the book.

The first hymn, “What does the Lord require” is based on Micah 6:6-8, which to many is one of the most beloved passages of scripture:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

This passage is significantly quoted in the Outline of the Faith, the Catechism, on page 847 in the Book of Common Prayer.

The text of the hymn “What does the Lord require” acknowledges that Christians are often challenged by moral complexity, which Jesus references in the parable of rich man and the unjust steward, found in this Sunday’s Gospel in Luke 16:1-13.

Stanza Two of the hymn:

Rulers of earth, give ear! Should you not justice show?
Will God your pleading hear, while crime and cruelty grow?

Do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.

This hymn text is one of a series of seventeen hymns by the British hymnist Albert F. Bayly (1901-1984), an ordained minister in the United Reformed Church, and is considered one of his finest poems.

The tune Sharpsthorne, was composed by Erik Routley (1917-1982) especially for this text. In hymnology, this is somewhat rare, as most often hymnal editors or editorial committees select the parings of texts and tunes.

With the contemporary Episcopal Church being comprised of many people from many faith traditions, we frequently land upon a hymn text that many have sung to another tune.

(More on that in another blog.)

Musicologist and composer Erik Routley was an English Congregationalist minister, was educated at Oxford, and for many years was Professor of Church Music at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey.

And now for the second hymn, the tune of which is a definite parish favorite.

I know I say that often, but after eighteen years, I hear the hymns during which the parish faithful grasp the hymnal tightly and sing forth!

The hymn tune Herzlich tut mich verlangen is also known as Passion Chorale, thanks to the removal of all German language in The Hymnal 1940. Well, it was published during World War II and is, therefore, understandable. It’s original tune name was restored in The Hymnal 1982.

In this parish, we sing “O sacred head, sore wounded” and “Ah, Holy Jesus” each Palm/Passion Sunday every year, and I dare not ever change these two beloved gems. Sometimes we sing “O sacred head” again on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, a double-whammy Holy Week, if you will.

This Sunday’s second Communion hymn is the beloved Passion Chorale tune with its other hymnal text, “Commit thou all that grieves thee,” a text that points to the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah in which the prophet acknowledges that grieving is a part of life.

Sunday’s second Communion hymn is a prime example of how a different text can change a tune or how a different approach to the same tune can completely transform a text.

Were this tune being sung with “O sacred head,” it might take a slower tempo and even softer articulation. However, with the text “Commit thou all that grieves thee,” Bach’s Passion Chorale will take on new life, new strength, new affirmation, and robust harmonies. Stanza One begins:

Commit thou all that grieves thee and fills thy heart with care
to him whose faithful mercy the skies above declare,

who gives the winds their courses, who points the clouds their way:

‘tis he will guide thy footsteps and be thy staff and stay.

Be sure to get a good grip on your hymnal during Communion this Sunday.

Photo Credit: free image "Scales of Justice," courtesy of www.WallpaperSafari.com. Used by permission.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 3:29 PM
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