HYMNS: some spiritual and mundane observations
I have written before about the profound effect which hymns, and particularly hymn texts, have had on my spiritual and musical development. Along with scripture, hymns are the constant source of my daily devotional study and prayer. As I work, I have a Bible and about a dozen hymnals within easy reach. In the bookshelves facing me are more than fifty other hymnals and psalter collections. These are my cherished resources in my work as part of the planning of our worship services. One might well ask, “Do you really need all of those different hymnbooks? Don’t they all contain a lot of the same songs?” My answer to both questions is a simple “Yes!”
My reasons for needing, or at least for using, just about all of these books on regular basis, are often musical reasons. The hymns I’m ‘checking out’ are both for the congregation’s singing and, in ‘normal’ times, the choir’s singing. During the ‘choir-less’ services in this pandemic exile from singing, the choir’s role of enriching our services with anthems and choral responses (often hymns or portions of hymns) has evolved into an expanded amount of congregational songs, which I hope many of you are still singing, or at the very least reading, in the muted isolation of your homes. While there is a substantial ‘core’ of hymns common to most of the books, there is a huge, rich variety in the hundreds of additional hymns showing up in only a few hymnals. There is value also in the commonality of the familiar and frequently recurring hymns. Repeated instances of the same hymn can be in different keys, different musical arrangements/harmonizations, and can feature different text stanzas. Hymns written before the twentieth century frequently had many, many stanzas (often 12 or more). Our modern hymnals, reflecting the ever-shortening attention span of human beings as well as a practical concern for controlling the page length/size of hymns as printed in our collections, tend to limit most of their contents to four or five stanzas. In our Zoom worship at Lexington Presbyterian, I try to provide you with easily readable (the magic word is ‘enlargement’) hymns which are included with your e-bulletin. At least some enlarging is possible when the hymn is contained on one hymnal page. Every major current hymnal, including our Glory to God (2013), does have a number of hymns spread out over two pages, or at least rolling over onto a line or two of a second page. For any of you managing not to actually print out your hymns form the e-bulletin, dealing with scrolling back and forth between two enlarged pages is not, I believe, ‘user-friendly.’ So I can usually find, in some other hymnal, a version of the same hymn, with the same (or occasionally better) stanzas, and contained on one page (which can then be enlarged).
This is a tiny glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ of my preparatory work for our worship services, along with the huge new expanded task of comprehensive documentation of copyright information. This church, like most others, has for years participated in a licensing service giving us permission to use most copyrighted material (texts/music) in our bulletins and other printed materials, when for our own ‘in-house’ use. The requirements changed substantially when we had to expand our license to include a ‘broadcasting’ component. Especially for YouTube, we have to document the ‘provenance’ of every song we print and/or sing.
Returning from the above mundane, ‘behind-the-scenes’ references, I’d like to return to my persistent role as a champion of hymn texts for personal devotion. If you have a hymnal at home, explore it. You can do this in a systematic, orderly way, taking advantage of the book’s organization of its contents into seasonal or thematic categories. You can also trust the Spirit and just open the book. No matter what you find, there will be something on that page that will speak to you and engage you.
If you don’t have a hymnal, let me know. We still have many copies of the blue book, The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), which is still a wonderful resource. The contents of any hymnal are the result of a committee’s deliberative choices. While our newer Glory to God expanded on its predecessor (the blue one) by increasing its contents from about 600 hymns to over 850, the 1990 book is a rich resource, including the great majority of the hymns you know, as well as at least a dozen treasures which I was saddened to find missing in the 2013 book.
There’s another way to access hymns in this digital age. On a weekly basis, I scan a half-dozen lectionary-related websites, many of which include hymn resources or references. I’ll share two sites with you now.
The first, and most comprehensive site is: hymnary.org
If you enter in your search the word ‘hymnary’ plus the first line of a hymn (e.g. hymnary hark the herald angels sing), you’ll get information of the text authorship and tune composition/source. You’ll get a full text if the words have passed into the Public Domain (i.e., they’re no longer copyrighted). Often there is a printable music version. If you enter ‘hymnary’ plus a scripture passage, the hymnary index will give you a list of every hymn which the scholar editors have referenced with that scripture. And every hymn entry includes a comprehensive index of its various inclusions in different hymnals.
One other site I’ll share with you is that of the pastor and prolific hymn writer, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, whose texts are written to be sung to a wide range of familiar tunes. (You have sung her words.)
You can find her work by searching her name, or by going straight to her site: carolynshymns.com
To close, as we celebrate this radiant season of Epiphany, in which we encounter each week in our worship another of the important events (epiphanies) in which Jesus was revealed to be the Christ, I leave you with a hymn which many of you will know, a memorable portrayal of the life of Christ.
O SING A SONG OF BETHLEHEM
(text: Louis Fitzgerald Benson, 1899 – PUBLIC DOMAIN. Louis Benson (1855-1930) was a Presbyterian pastor and professor (Princeton Theological Seminary), who wrote a number of hymn texts, as well as several books on hymnody.)
O sing a song of Bethlehem, of shepherds watching there,
And of the news that came to them from angels in the air.
The light that shone of Bethlehem fills all the world today.
Of Jesus’ birth and peace on earth the angels sing alway.
O sing a song of Nazareth, of sunny days of joy;
O sing of fragrant flowers’ breath, and of the sinless boy.
For now the flowers of Nazareth in every heart may grow.
Now spreads the fame of his dear name on all the winds that blow.
O sing a song of Galilee, of lake and woods and hill,
Of him who walked upon the sea and bade its waves be still.
For though, like waves on Galilee, dark seas of trouble roll,
When faith has heard the Master’s word, falls peace upon the soul.
O sing a song of Calvary, its glory and dismay,
Of him who hung upon the tree, and took our sins away.
For he who died on Calvary is risen from the grave,
And Christ, our Lord, by heaven adored, is mighty now to save.
Peace and grace,