Tag Archives: American Hymnody

7th Sunday after Pentecost – 15 Jul 12

Isaac Watts (1678-1748)

Opening Voluntary: “Elevation” – Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911)

At the Communion: Prelude on ROCKINGHAM – C. S. Lang (1891-1971)

Closing Voluntary: Nun danket all und bringet Ehr – A. W. Leupold (1868-1940)

This week at St. Mary’s, we continue with our second installment on American Hymnody by featuring the works of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), known as the “Father of English Hymnody.”  Until practically the 19th century, hymnody in the North American Colonies continued to share a common evolution with English hymnody.  From the beginning of the English Reformation until the time of Isaac Watts, congregational hymnody in both the Church of England and the churches of the Dissenters, whether in Britain or the North American Colonies, was limited to metrical versions of the Psalms (as we illustrated last week).  The story is told that, at the age of only 15 years, Isaac Watts, child of a Dissenter family, had returned home from some particularly atrocious religious service, and was complaining loudly about the poor music and singing when his father challenged him to, “Give us something better, young man.”  Before the evening of that same day, Watts had written his first hymn:

“Behold the glories of the Lamb, Amidst his Father’s throne; Prepare new honors for his name, And songs before unknown.”  

The new hymn was lined out and sung that same evening at the Southampton Independents meeting and may be heralded as the start of a revolution in church music that broke the strangle-hold of exclusivity of metrical psalmody on the liturgy of the church, Anglican and Dissenting, and started the substitution of “hymns of human composure.”  Although Watts was not the first to write hymns in English, he was the first to propose a new theory of congregational praise and to create a great body of material for Church use.  Watts’ theories were simply that, first, our songs are a human offering of praise to God, and, therefore, the words should be our own.  Second, Watts maintained that, if Psalms were to be used, they should be Christianized and modernized or as he termed it “imitated.” For the next 18 years after his first attempt, Watts wrote hymns that, when he was later a preacher, were sung by his congregations.  The types and meters of the rhyming were kept deliberately simple.  Watts intended, he said, “to write down to the Level of Vulgar Capacities, and to furnish Hymns for the meanest of Christians.” He subsequently published, first in 1707 and again in 1709 in a revised version, his book, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, a work that was a monumental success.  This was followed not long after by his own Christianized and modernized Psalter of 1719, published under the name of The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and apply’d to the Christian State and Worship, which created singable versions of Psalms for worship that were, as he himself described them “ye ancient Psalms in ye wording of the New Testament.” Watts wrote about this collection to his friend, the famous Cotton Mather in 1717,

“Tis not a translation of David that I pretend, but an imitation of him, so nearly in Christian  hymns that the Jewish Psalmist may plainly appear, and yet leave Judaism behind.” 

Although not without opposition from those who felt that the Psalms should remain the only acceptable songs for public worship and who maintained that “hymns of human composure” were only suitable for home or private use, the hymns of Watts and several of his near-contemporaries gained gradual acceptance both in Britain and in the American colonies through the years of the 18th century.  Benjamin Franklin reprinted Watts’ Psalms in 1729, although he complained that, nearly two years later, most copies remained unsold on his shelves.  This was followed by publications of Watts’ Hymns in Boston in 1739, Philadelphia in 1742 and then New York in 1752.  The Hymns initially, however, reached the Southern colonies in the year 1735 with the arrival of the Wesleys who brought English versions of both Watts’ Hymns and the Psalms with them when they arrived in Georgia in that year.  It was only two years later that, in 1737, the first hymnbook (rather than psalmbook) printed on American soil entitled, Collection of Psalms and Hymns, Charlestown, 1737 was published by the Wesleys in South Carolina. Although a small work of only 74 pages, it included 70 hymns, of which half were those of Isaac Watts.

In today’s service, our hymns are works, written either in whole or part, by Isaac Watts. Three of the examples, our entrance Hymn # 50 (LONDON NEW), the Offertory Hymn #391 (WINCHESTER NEW) and the fourth stanza of the communion hymn, #321 (ROCKINGHAM) are from his Psalms and relate, respectively to Psalm 118, Psalm 100, and Psalm 19. Our final hymn, #374 (Nun danket all und bringet Ehr), is from his Hymns of 1707.  The first three stanzas of the Communion hymn, #321, were written by Philip Doddridge, a contemporary of Watts, and were published posthumously in a collection of Doddrigde’s hymns in 1755.

6th Sunday after Pentecost – 8 Jul 12

Bay Psalm Book

Opening Voluntary: Variation on Wer nur den lieben Gott – Kurt Fiebig (1908-1988)

At the Communion: Andante – Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635)

Closing Voluntary: Variation on Wer nur den lieben Gott – Kurt Fiebig (1908-1988)

This week at St. Mary’s, we commence with the first installment of an occasional series on American Hymnody, beginning with what were likely the first “American” hymns, namely metrical psalmody.  With the advent of the Reformation in England, the use of Latin liturgy and hymns was discontinued and indeed prohibited.  Following somewhat the lead of continental reformers such as Martin Luther, various authors began re-translating the book of Psalms into metered, rhyming English versions that could be used more readily for congregational singing.  From the first, this was a controversial task, setting in opposition those of more Puritan sensibilities, who felt that fidelity to Hebrew originals was primary, against those of more Episcopal tendencies, who felt that the integrity of the verse in English was an equally, if not more important concern.  One of the very first English metrical psalters, that of Sternhold and Hopkins, became, unofficially, the “hymnbook” of the Church of England for more than a century until it was replaced by a more “poetic” translation by Tate and Brady during the reign of William and Mary. The Puritan pilgrims, however, brought to America not the de facto “official” version of Sternhold and Hopkins, but one from the early 17th century, produced on the continent for English separatists living abroad.  This version, however, was often difficult for English speakers and congregations, as the music was typically continental, particularly French in style, and its varied rhythms and meters made congregational use difficult.  Starting in 1630, clerics in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of New England began the process of the preparation of a new Psalter for their own use, culminating in the year 1640 with the publication of what is now known as the Bay Psalm Book.  This was, literally, the first printed publication of any kind produced in the North American colonies as well as the first hymnal produced and printed on what is now American soil.

Today, at the Psalm, we sing selected verses from Psalm 48 from the Bay Psalm Book version. Even by then-contemporary standards, the quality of the verse could not be seen as particularly high.

Psalm 48 – The Bay Psalm Booke, 1640 (selected verses)

1. Great is Jehovah, and he is

to be praiséd greatly

   within the city of our God

in his mountain holy.

2. For situation beautiful,

the joy of the whole earth

   mount Sion; the great King’s city

on the sides of the north.

3. God in her palaces is known

to be a refuge high.

   For lo, the kings assembled were:

they passed together by.

4. They saw, and lo they marveléd,

were troubled, fled for fear.

   Trembling seized on them there and pain

like her that child doth bear.

5. About the hill of Sion walk,

and go about her, ye,

   and do ye reckon up thereof

the tow’rs that therein be. 

6. Do ye full well her bulwarks mark,

her palaces view well

   that to the gener-a-ti-on

to come ye may it tell.

7. For this same God he is our God

for ever and for aye;

   likewise unto the very death

he guides us in our way. 

As the writers of the Bay book themselves wrote in their own Preface:

If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God’s altar needs not our polishings: Exodus 20. For we have respected rather a plain translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language…that we may sing in Sion the Lord’s songs of praise according to his own will; until he take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our Master’s joy to sing eternal Alleluias. – Bay Psalm Book

The Bay Psalm Book was, in its initial version, published without the inclusion of music, and the users of the Bay book were admonished to make use of “very neere fourty common tunes” that were in general use at that time.  Most of these tunes, used in both the colonies and England, were in a single meter, known sensibly as “common meter” and abbreviated in our modern hymnals with the initials “C.M.” This simple tune form consists of four lines of 8 alternating with 6 syllables to form a stanza. The dominance of this particular meter was to influence English-language hymnody for centuries to come.  By the time of the third revised version of the Bay book’s third edition of 1651, 121 of the 150 Psalms were in C.M. form.  Our present hymnal of 1982 includes 52 C.M. tunes paired with 72 different hymn texts constituting a full 10% of this hymnal and including such favorites as the tune NEW BRITAIN, the tune for the cherished 19th century hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

Today, we sing the selected verses of Psalm 48 to the tune known as CAITHNESS.  This tune first appeared in print in the harmonized Scottish psalm book of 1635. The tune was named after the most remote of Scottish counties at the extreme northeastern tip of the country.  Although initially paired with what our hymnal commentary characterizes as a “wild and barely literate” harmonization, it was to be revived with a new harmonization in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1904.  It appears no less than three times in The Hymnal, 1982.

In addition to the Psalm, we pay tribute once more today to the tradition of metrical Psalmody in the tune for our non-metrical entrance hymn, #709, with another C.M. tune by the name of DUNDEE.  This tune first appeared in a 1615 Scottish psalter and was later  included in Thomas Ravenscroft’s English psalter of 1621.  It was very likely one of the “common tunes” that was referred to in the Preface of The Bay Psalm Book quoted above. Another “favorite” of the common meter tradition, The Hymnal, 1982 pairs this tune with a full three different hymn texts.

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