Hymns: the great and the ghastly

July 12, 2010

During the past week, over at the First Thoughts blog, there has been a lively argument about a proposed list of “worst hymns”.  There are so many nauseating ones in circulation that, naturally, quite a few commentators felt that the really worst ones had been left off the initial list.  A second block of comments challenged the whole idea of the list, alleging either that there aren’t any bad hymns, or that there are but it is uncharitable to say so.  (That last is nonsense, of course.  If the hymns are bad, it is uncharitable not to say so, lest the already battered aesthetic sensibilities of our co-religionists be further eroded and destroyed utterly.)

Upon seeing that list, I had the idea to compile a counterweight hit parade of the best hymns.  But, with one thing or another intervening, I haven’t had time to do it properly, and now the folks at First Thoughts have gone and beat me to it.

But here’s the thing: they did it wrong.  They forgot to include some of the very greatest hymns.  In fact, although their list includes some fine hymns, my top ten favourite hymns are not represented on their list at all.  For the record, my choices are, in rough descending order of superiority:

  • Come Down, O Love Divine
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • All Glory, Laud, and Honour
  • O God, Our Help in Ages Past
  • Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
  • Amazing Grace
  • All People That On Earth Do Dwell
  • Hail Thee, Festival Day
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
  • I Know That My Redeemer Lives

I am also very fond of these two lesser-known hymns:

  • Now God Be With Us : a Compline hymn
  • Let Saints on Earth in Concert Sing : a funeral hymn

I learned both from an Anglican hymnal.  As far as English-language hymns go (and, if it were not already obvious, I am limiting myself to English-language hymns here) Anglican hymnals are generally vastly superior to Catholic.

What are your favourite hymns?

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22 Responses to “Hymns: the great and the ghastly”


  1. Anglican hymnals tend to be better musically than Catholic hymnals, but we have our own, perhaps more insidious problems, such as the ongoing neutering and editorial alteration of older hymn texts, and the composition of new, flaky and/or heretical texts, which are made palatable by setting them to well-known, popular hymn tunes. It thus become possible to maintain the appearance of musical traditionalism while undermining catholic doctrine.

    In any case, here are my fifteen favourite hymns this afternoon (leaving out non-English hymns, Christmas carols, and hymns that I enjoy ironically, such as “God of concrete, god of steel”):

    Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendor (St Osmund)
    Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy)
    My song is love unknown (Love Unknown)
    The church’s one foundation (Aurelia)
    Hail, thou once despised Jesus (In Babilone)
    O Word of God incarnate (Munich)
    Holy, holy, holy (Nicaea)
    Be thou my vision (Slane)
    The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended (St Clement)
    Ye watchers and ye holy ones (Lasst uns erfreuen)
    Praise, my soul, the king of heaven (Lauda anima)
    When I survey the wondrous cross (Rockingham)
    Hail thee, festival day (Salve, festa dies)
    O thou who camest from above (Hereford)
    Christ is made the sure foundation (Westminster Abbey)

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Osbert. I notice that, being a church musician yourself, and having nearly 500 years of experience under your belt, you are able to name the tunes as well as the texts. I wish I knew enough about tunes to name them correctly, because on lists like these they are at least as important as the words. I’ve heard Now God Be With Us sung to two different tunes, but it is only one of them — name unknown — that I am praising.

    It is a shame to hear that modern Anglican hymnals are being subjected to the same inglorious revisionism as ours. Who will deliver us from these meddlesome busybodies? My wife and I were commisserating over exactly this point a few days ago, and we speculated that, in addition to the motives of political correctness, there is probably also a pecuniary, copyright-related motive behind all the niggardly tweaking. Anyway, I found my good hymns in an old hymnal — one of those really old, small ones with no printed music.

    I really like your list of hymns. It overlaps a little with mine, and also with the one posted at First Thoughts. Some of the hymns on your list I do not recognize (“O Thou who camest from above”, “Hail, Thou once despised Jesus”). How does it happen, though, that “Come Down, O Love Divine” is not on your list?

    Since you are such a master of church music, I must take this opportunity to ask of you a hymn-related question: What is the name of that Easter hymn in which each stanza ends with a single, rising, unresolved “Alleluia!”? The Alleluia bit was tacked onto an older melody by a distinguished British composer, though I forget which one. Elgar or Vaughan Williams or Howells or somebody like that. Any idea?


  3. Here is a recording of “O thou who camest from above” as sung by the choir of Rochester Cathedral – it’s a splendid text which fits perfectly with its tune, and I can’t understand why it’s not sung more frequently. (I understand it’s a favourite of the current Anglican bishop of Toronto, so hopefully he will have some positive influence in this capacity.

    A good reference hymnal to have around is the Canadian “Book of Common Praise” of 1938 – having used a variety of hymnals I can testify that it’s significantly better than any of the American or British equivalents, and leagues beyond any modern hymnal currently in the pews. There is also a very fine selection of Gregorian office hymns, in English translations by Neale, Dearmer and the usual suspects. As far as I know the only parish that still uses it on a weekly basis is St. Thomas’s, Huron Street, which is a great pity.

    “Come down, O Love divine” would be on the list another day. It’s a fine hymn, but not my absolute favourite – the tune is a bit static. In any case, the whole ranking process is rather arbitrary.

    Could your mystery Easter hymn be “Jesus lives! thy terrors now”? The Alleluia is part of the original tune, though, which is by Henry Gauntlett (of “Once in Royal David’s City” fame). The only other Easter hymn I can think of that fits that description is “The strife is o’er”, if you use the tune “Victory” (adapted from Palestrina by W. H. Monk).

  4. Christina A. Says:

    A very enjoyable discussion, Gentlemen!

    I agree with Mr. Parsley’s comment ending with: “It thus become possible to maintain the appearance of musical traditionalism while undermining catholic doctrine.”
    I recently attended a high mass at the Anglican Cathedral in Kingston and it was “all pomp and no circumstance” so to speak. A whole lot of processing and altar rail kneeling and a choir larger than the congregation, but stripped of any substance or connection to the day’s readings or the eucharist.

    Craig, you might also have noticed the neutering of nursery rhymes, stories and songs these days too. Some of the books that I have in the house and some of the songs I’m hearing in government sponsored infant groups have been changed.
    The Little Piggy is “having fun” instead of “having none” and no one’s got the plague in Ring Around the Rosy anymore.

  5. cburrell Says:

    At first I thought the choir of Rochester Cathedral was going to be from Rochester, NY, but if the gowns didn’t clue me in, the teeth certainly did. I know that melody (HEREFORD!), though I know it married to the text “O Saving Victim, opening wide”.

    My books are all packed up still, so I cannot look at what edition of the old hymnal I have, but it might be the Canoodlian one you mention. That parish on Huron St. is the same one where I’ve heard many of these hymns. You’ve been there, I gather. Small world!

    I am definitely wary of the PC-ing of children’s songs and books, Christina, but so far I haven’t run into much of it. We try to get old books for our little one, and we stay far, far away from government infant groups.

    The one example I can think of is a book we bought about the song “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly”. It goes through the whole song, ending each stanza with “Perhaps she’ll die”, and then when she finally eats the horse it ends with “She’s full, of course.” Idiots.

    All of which is very interesting, but what about your favourite hymns?

  6. KathyB Says:

    I am personally a fan of “Jesus Christ is Ris’n Today”. I got to be cantor on Easter Sunday a couple years ago and was so excited to lead this song that I messed up the lyrics, alas.

    Most of my favourites are on your or Osbert’s list. I also like:

    “O Sacred Head Surrounded”
    “For the Beauty of the Earth”

    Incidentally, if you were at St. Basil’s on Sunday you would have had a chance to sing “Come down O love divine”.


  7. I’m disappointed but not particularly surprised by Christina’s anecdote, which I can’t confirm or deny having had no experience with Kingston diocese. There’s something about our diocesan politics, though, that works against any sort of serious theological reflection at the cathedral level, a pattern I’ve seen in at least four other dioceses in Canada, and two in the States. A far cry from the original teaching office of the bishop!

    The point illustrated by the “old lady who swallowed a fly”, of course, is that in most cases you simply can’t alter a non-PC text in a consistent manner. I recently had the misfortune to sing from the current United Church hymnal, which systematically removes all masculine pronouns referring to God – which is fine until you get to a hymn like “Be thou my vision,” which can only be emasculated by completely rewriting the poetry of every verse, or “Let us with a gladsome mind,” with its refrain “For his mercies aye endure/ Ever faithful, ever sure.” The editors didn’t dare to change the familiar refrain, and so their bungled attempts at emendation elsewhere in the hymn came out as all the more incongruous.

    I actually have longstanding connections at St T’s – John Tuttle was my first organ teacher, and I maintain some relationship to the parish through my work with the Prayer Book society. As it happens I will be playing for Sunday services there for two weeks in August while the organist and choir are on tour (the 8th and 15th) – do say hello if you happen to be in the neighbourhood!

  8. Christina A. Says:

    You see, Osbert, I also failed to mention the dreaded Sunday at 7:30pm mass at the Kingston Catholic Cathedral featuring what I refer to as the “Hippy Choir”. They sing horrible hymns mostly written by Jesuits in the late 1970′s and sing them out of tune, too slow and with choristers out of sync with one another. The song book doesn’t have music, just lyrics, so it’s hard to join in as the tunes are unpredictable. This is meant to lure a generation of young people into church, but that generation is well into their 40s/50s and I’m not sure what meaning it has for anyone else.
    Luckily the Sunday morning masses have much, much better music.

    Craig – my favourite hymn? I don’t know if I have one in English. Chalk it up to too many years spent under the careful tutelage of Dr. R. Toporoski and Fr. G.A. Trudel. The first one that comes to mind in latin as a favourite would be “Personent Hodie”.

    My more hilarious side would consider poem X from the great Archpoeta my favourite hymn.
    It begins with: “Estuans intrinsecus ira vehementi” at: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/archpoet.html
    Wikipedia will explain the humour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archpoet

  9. Janet Cupo Says:

    All good lists. It’s too hard to choose. I don’t think I saw None Other Lamb on any of them. That would probably have to be on my list.

    AMDG

  10. Janet Cupo Says:

    And I really hate that “she’s full, of course.” We somehow ended up with a copy of that book. Of course she’s dead! After eating all that, death would be a mercy.

    Shelley Duvall Faerie Tale Theater is the pits. The Snow Queen turns out to be good! Bah!

  11. KathyB Says:

    I forgot to add “Lord who throughout these 40 days”, a lenten favourite, mostly because of the 1st lne of the 2nd verse: “You fought with Satan, and you won”. I think that is the most succinct line in any hymn I’ve ever heard.

  12. cburrell Says:

    I like that Lenten one too, Kathy. Your other choices are also good, though personally I find that the melody (what’s it called?) of “Jesus Christ is Ris’n Today” a little too bouncy. But the Alleluias are great. I know the Passion week hymn as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”. Which of us has the original text?

    Janet, I’ve never heard “None Other Lamb”. I’ll look for it.

    Christina, I like “Personent Hodie” too, though I was (implicitly) leaving Christmas songs to the side. Still, it’s a wonderful song. I didn’t know about the Archpoet. What a bastard. Do you know if Carl Orff used any of his texts in his Carmina Burana?

    Osbert, I try to get to Evensong at St.T’s at least once a month, though lately it has been more like once a quarter. I do hope that I can make it during one of the weeks that you are there. It would be great to hear you play, and meet you in the flesh.

  13. cburrell Says:

    And by “original text” I mean “original English text”. I think that hymn was originally German.

  14. Janet Says:

    I can’t find anything on YouTube with the melody I’m talking about.

    AMDG


  15. With apologies for answering questions that weren’t actually directed to me, but:

    -”Estuans interius” (Archipoeta X) appears in Orff’s Carmina Burana (and is, indeed, the only non-anonymous poem in the collection!)

    -”O sacred head” was originally “Salve caput cruentaturn,” the last of a set of medieval poems addressed to various body parts of the crucified Christ. There’s a deep irony here, in that the quintessential Passiontide hymn of Lutheranism was actually probably written by St Bernard of Clairvaux.

    In any case, the hymn appeared in German in the mid-17th century (in a translation by Paul Gerhard), and was translated into English by James W. Alexander for an 1830 hymnal – with the original first line “O sacred head, now wounded”. However, there are at least two other competing translations (including an 1861 version called “O sacred head, surrounded” which bears almost no relationship to the Latin/German original. Modern hymnal editors have hopelessly muddied the waters by mixing and matching elements from all three versions, not to mention adding politically correct emendations of their own, so the version in any given hymnal could come from any number of sources.

  16. cburrell Says:

    Ah yes, “Estuans interius”, one of the rousing tavern songs. I once heard a performance of Carmina burana at a church in Toronto, and afterwards the minister wondered aloud about whether the building needed to be re-consecrated. (Incidentally, the performance was given by John Tuttle’s Exultate Chamber Singers.) My favourite of Orff’s tavern songs is “In taberna quando sumus”. I imagine it appeals to many of us who were raised on rock ‘n roll.

    Thanks for the background on “O sacred head”, Osbert. Now that you name the Latin original, I think it was used in Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, if memory serves. I guess the Germans were very fond of it.

    I’ll look for a recording of that hymn on eMusic, Janet. I can often find things there that are not on YouTube.

  17. Janet Says:

    Well, listen to a couple on YouTube to see what it isn’t. ;-)
    AMDG

  18. cburrell Says:

    Over the past couple of days I thought of two other hymns that I love:

    –”Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending”
    –”And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”

    I think the music of the latter was written by Parry.

  19. Adam Hincks Says:

    No I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say? Added bonus: Ralph Vaughn Williams has great compositions based on both of its excellent musical settings.

    George V was in favour of changing Britain’s national anthem to Jerusalem (i.e., “And did those feet”.)

  20. cburrell Says:

    I can’t keep I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say straight in my mind. It keeps morphing into a Christmas carol:

    I heard the voice of Jesus say
    The old familiar carols play
    And wild and sweet the words repeat
    Of peace on earth, goodwill to men humans

    Re: George V. That was a good king.

  21. Adam Hincks Says:

    Follow-up: Colbert’s interpretation of a golden oldie:

  22. cburrell Says:

    I don’t know if that is quite great, nor quite ghastly. We may need a new category.


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