shepherd sounds: Sunday Music: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday Music: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 August 2010

Words can be stodgy things, but properly arranged they approach a loveliness that courts the divine. Some of the verses in today’s hymns have that character and can move us deeply.

The Introit hymn, ‘God is love; let heaven adore him’, written by the Rt Rev’d Timothy Rees (1874–1939), Bishop of Llandaff, Wales, has such power. It’s easy to clarify in words that there is a chasm between good and evil, but Rees’s poetry plies the sublime:
God is love; and though with blindness
sin afflicts all human life,
God’s eternal loving-kindness
guides us through our earthly strife.
When Cyril Taylor (1907–1995) was working for the BBC in 1941 and complaints came in that ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ should not be sung to the tune ‘Austrian Hymn’ (then used for Hitler’s ‘Deutschland über alles’), Taylor wrote a lovely new tune, ‘Abbot’s Leigh’, which has since been associated with this text.

The first Communion hymn, ‘Father, we thank thee who hast planted’, talks about mundane things like bread and wine. However, versified by Bland Tucker (1895–1984), the common becomes supernal:
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in this broken bread made one,
so from all lands thy Church be gathered
into thy Kingdom by thy Son.
The fact that this text takes its inspiration from the Didache, an ancient Greek text from the apostolic age, perhaps as early as somewhere between 80 and 110, makes this all the more powerful for us. These words have been such by the Christian community for over 1,900 years.

The French tune ‘Rendez à Dieu’ was harmonized by Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510–1559), a Swiss Reformed musician who did much to help Calvinist Switzerland appreciate harmony and singing beyond mere psalmody.

The Postcommunion hymn, ‘God of grace and God of glory’, is one of the great contributions of Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969). Challenging in this hymn the ‘warring madness’ of Americans and Christians, even more specifically, Fosdick was criticized for being too liberal. When he was removed from his parish in New York, he was hired by another Baptist church which happened to have John D. Rockefeller as a member. Rockefeller built the famed Riverside Church and Fosdick dedicated it. The tune, ‘Cwm Rhondda’, to which Fosdick’s text has usually been sung, was composed by Welshman John Hughes (1873–1932). The tune name is the Welsh term for the Rhondda valley in Wales. The Welsh have always loved this tune first composed for a Baptist singing festival, and have made it the national rugby hymn. One can often hear it sung at international rugby matches when Wales is playing, and it was used at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

David Zersen

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