Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9
This year we have been exploring the history of the music we sing in worship. So far, however, we have mostly discussed the music sung by choirs. During the first fifteen hundred years of the Western church, singing was mostly for select groups and cantors, and sung in Latin. Hymns for all to sing were only used outside the central worship service, where they existed at all.
This story changes during the Protestant Reformation. In fact, many of the theological heroes of the reformation were also musical innovators and champions of congregational singing. As Christians began to read the Bible in their own common languages for the first time, as they began to understand themselves as part of a universal priesthood, it seemed only natural for them to begin to share in making worship music.
The earliest hymn books during the Reformation were mostly Psalters: collections of psalms translated into metrical vernacular, to be sung to simple tunes. The first was the Genevan Psalter of 1539, written in French. It was produced by John Calvin, who wrote: “it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers … so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love.” Another famous early Psalter is the Bay Psalm book of 1640, the first book printed in what was known by many as British North America.
As songs for congregational singing became more popular, both their form and content began to develop. Some were translated from existing Latin songs, often with additional verses added to emphasize the theological points most important to reformers. Other hymns were new scripture paraphrases set to popular secular tunes. Although this was a clever idea for spreading the faith, these combinations didn’t always work; Martin Luther reported that some songs just had to be given back to the devil. Some Reformation hymns were entirely new, in both text and tune.
These songs were designed to be easily sung by anyone. This fact alone shaped how they were written and revised, and which became most popular. Much of the new hymnody had rhyming verse, which was catchier, more memorable. Over time, more and more tunes had a set and predictable rhythm, so that they was easier for many people to sing them together. One fun bit of trivia: at first, the melody line of a hymn was most often located in the tenor part. It was only after 1586 that giving it to the sopranos became standard practice. Techniques of harmonization also developed over time, enriching earlier melodies, thanks in large part to J.S. Bach.
Some reformation-era hymns are still among the best-known in many of our churches. They form a significant portion of many hymn books, including the Pilgrim Hymnal. With an original copyright of 1931, the Pilgrim hymnal claims as its source texts the Geneva Psalters and the Bay Psalm book, as well as Isaac Watts, often known as the father of English hymnody. The Pilgrim hymnal was originally made for Congregational and Christian churches, predecessors to the current United Church of Christ. Later revisions of this hymnal, like the 1958 version that we have, are claimed by the then new United Church of Christ, and added some music from the ancient church, and a wider range of denominational sources.
But perhaps a better way to tell this story is by exploring the music itself. Let’s take a brief tour through a few hymns.
Our opening hymn today was Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, the first hymn in the Pilgrim Hymnal and a defining one. This is perhaps the greatest hymn written by Isaac Watts (as I just mentioned, the father of English hymnody). The British were latecomers to the Reformation hymn-writing party. Isaac Watts did his best to make up for that, writing hundreds of hymns in English. This hymn was written in 1714, a time when there was anxiety about the royal succession. It was later played on BBC radio as soon as WWII was declared, and speaks to the theme of faith as a source of stability in times of uncertainty.
At the end of the service we will sing “Now Thank We All Our God,” which was also formed by a context of conflict. The text’s author, Martin Rinkart, served as pastor in a small walled city in Germany called Eilenberg. Eilenberg became a refuge for those fleeing violence and plague during the 30 years war. Eventually, Rinkart was the only pastor left there, burying as many as 40 or 50 people a day, including, eventually, his wife. This context makes a striking background for Rinkart to celebrate the wondrous things God does. This became a defining hymn in Germany, and is sung for days of national thanksgiving there. The tune, written by Johann Cruger, was used by J.S. Bach in his Reformation cantata.
I can’t talk about this time period in the formation of our hymnody without mentioning the OLD HUNDREDTH, perhaps the best known and most widely used of all psalm tunes. It was first published in the Geneva Psalter of 1551, oddly enough as the tune for Psalm 134. We don’t know it as the Old 134th, however, because its first English words were a translation of Psalm 100 in 1561. Many of us know this tune best with still more recent words, but we’ll sing a version of this first English setting today during the blessing of our offerings.
One thing that surprised me over and over in learning about these hymns is how many versions they often went through before becoming the classics we now recognize. One such adaptation occurs in the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The text was originally written by Bernard of Clairvaux, in Latin, in 1153. Like other beloved texts, it was translated during the Reformation and set to music that was popular at the time. In this case, it was a secular piece by Hans Leo Hassler. He wrote it in 1601 and it had been unsuccessfully paired with several hymn texts before being matched with this one in 1656. This tune is also found in Bach’s works, and we borrow the current harmonization from him. Let’s sing v. 1&3, Pilgrim (Red) Hymnal #170.
We can’t talk about this time period without including Charles Wesley, an Anglican priest who helped to spread the Methodist movement founded by his brother John. He wrote the words to over 6,000 hymns. In 1747, he published a pamphlet titled: “Hymns for those that seek and those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ.” One of those hymns was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” arguably one of his best. The tune we know wasn’t written until 1870, 120 years later, by a German-born man named John Zundel. Zundel served as church organist for 28 years in the Brooklyn church where Henry Ward Beecher was minister. Thus, this popular tune is most commonly (and quite unfairly) known as BEECHER. Let’s sing Pilgrim Hymnal #228, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling: 1st & 4th verses.
Perhaps the most famous hymn writer of the reformation was Martin Luther. A theological and political leader, Luther also loved music from childhood. He worked with musicians to create new music for Christians in the common language. His most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written in in 1529, is a paraphrase of Psalm 46. Unlike many other famous writers I have mentioned, Luther wrote both text and tune. Reflecting on this hymn again, I was struck by the similarities of the theme it expresses to others we are singing today. During the Reformation, a time of great religious and political conflict and change, the steadiness and strength of God was a particular focus of hymnody. Perhaps it is not surprising that these same hymns rang true for those forming and revising the Pilgrim Hymnal, following the first and second world Wars.
This beloved hymn has been translated from German to English many times. It has also changed in both rhythm and harmonization over time; you can find both old and new versions next to each other in the New Century Hymnal. In a moment, Jim will play the tune in the old way, then I invite you to rise and sing the form familiar to us.
But, before we sing, after all that information, I invite you to take a deep breath. Consider the gift we have received, in the faith and artistry of so many writers and musicians, and the bravery of Christians living through so many challenges. Through the grace and inspiration of God, and the labor of many, we have music to share together that people of faith have been singing in many different forms for 3, or 4, or 500 years. Thanks be to God.