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Hymn of the month

MARCH

Christ, the Life of All the Living

Lent is a time of introspection, of examining ourselves as we remember the cost of our salvation. Sometimes it takes suffering in our lives to bring us to a point where we turn to Christ. That was the case for Ernst Homburg (1605-1681), a lawyer and secular poet in Germany, well-known for his love and drinking songs. After a time of domestic problems, including the illness of himself and his wife, he turned to writing hymns, primarily as private devotional poetry.

In 1659 Homburg published Geistlich-er Lieder (Spiritual Songs), which included the Lenten hymn "Christ, the Life of All the Living." The text was originally entitled "Hymn of Thanksgiving to His Redeemer and Savior for His Bitter Sufferings."

In 1863, Catherine Winkworth translated several stanzas of the hymn, three of which are provided here. The text reflects on the agony, mockery, insults, and derision that Jesus suffered to heal our afflictions. The refrain, "Thousand, thousand thanks are due, dearest Jesus, unto you," is a humble attempt to express our thankfulness to the Son of God for what he has done.

The tune, dating from 168^ is named after the original German first line, Jesu, meines Lebeiis Leben, though the tune is also associated with another German hymn: "Alle Menschen miissen sterben." The repetition of the first line and the simple stepwise motion make this tune very accessible to congregations.

There are many options for learning and singing this Lenten hymn. A soloist or choir could introduce the hymn on the first Sunday, with the congregation joining on the refrain. Or the whole congregation could simply sing this hymn each Sunday during Lent (see its placement in the services on pages 18 and 24).

The descant provided here is by Dale Grotenhuis, one of my colleagues at Dordt College. Choirs may be also be interested in a short cantata by the Lutheran composer Dietrich Buxtehude, "Jesu meines Lebens Leben" which is available in a revised edition in Buxtehude's Collected Works (ix, 91, edited by Kerala J. Snyder et al.). The cantata can be sung by an above-average church choir and is scored for two violins, two violas, violone and basso continuo.

Organists may be interested in the following compositions, based on this tune:

  • Alle Menschen miissen sterben by Johann Sebastian Bach (from "Orgelbuchlein," Concordia edition). Beautiful and easy to learn.
  • Michael Burkhardt's setting in Easy Hymn Settings—Lent (Morning Star Music Publishers MSM-10-315). A very accessible hymn introduction in two parts without pedal.
  • Jesu, meines Lebens Leben by Johann Ludwig Krebs (in an edition by Bre-itkopf, 8415). Medium difficulty.
  • A lively setting, easy-medium, by Willem Van Twillert (in the collection Drie bewerkingen over Passiekoralen, published by M Musiscript MG 004, Universal Songs B.V Postbus 305,1200 AH Hilversum in the Netherlands.)
  • Jacobus Kloppers's marvelous piece (in 5 Chorale Preludes, Concordia 97-5733). Not difficult.

 

 

APRIL

Psalm 118: Give Thanks to God for All His Goodness

Psalm 118 is the appointed lectionary psalm for Easter Sunday, and no wonder. Stanley Wiersma, who versified Psalm 118 for the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, earlier wrote a delightful poem reminiscing on the Dutch tradition of singing Psalm 118 on Easter Sunday mornings—especially the verse that started "De steen die door de templebouzvers . . ." ("The stone the builders had rejected is now the foremost cornerstone").

As a young organist in 1946, Wiersma was more interested in having the congregation sing "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" to begin the service, but his minister objected:

De steen die door de templebouwers is five centuries earlier than the first Easter, Jesus himself quoted the psalm to predict his resurrection, Paul and Peter both identify the stone of this psalm as Christ, the Old Testament Easter lesson in the medieval church was this psalm, John Calvin started all festive services with this psalm, and all Dutch Easter services since the Reformation have begun with "De steen die door de templebouwers."

[From Purpaleanie and Other Permutations, by Sietze Buning (pen name of Stanley Wiersnia), Middleburg Press, Box 166, Orange City, IA 5L041]

This psalm was a festal procession sung by the Israelites as the final psalm in the "Hallel," the group of "Hallelujah" psalms sung during Jewish liturgy at the great religious festivals. Because Psalm 118 is structured antiphonally, each time "His love forever is the same" or the equivalent phrase on each verse occurs, it could be sung or played by a different group of people. Sometimes I play that phrase on a different manual to highlight the antiphonal character of the text.

The tune for Psalm 118 is more often associated with Psalm 98. Indeed, in the Genevan Psalter that tune was used for three psalms: 66,98, and 118. But 118 was the original association, set to Clement Marot's versification of Psalm 118 in Calvin's Genevan Psalter of 1543. The first three words of the French text are often given as a tune title: "Rendez a Dieu louange et gloire." The harmony here is the original Goudimel bass line; however, the melody was originally in the tenor, so the other parts have been adjusted to place the melody in the soprano.

Organists may appreciate the following easy compositions based on RENDEZ ADIEU:

  • "Intonatie Psalm 98 (66, 118)" by Willem van Twillert (from Muziek voor de Eredienst, published by Ars Nova [1385002], Oranje Nassaulaan 25-1075 AJ Amsterdam).
  • "Bread of the World" by Henry Coleman (from Twenty-four Interludes Based on Communion Hymn Tunes).
  • "Father, We thank Thee" by Richard Peek (from Hymn Preludes for the Church Year).

Excerpt
UPCOMING HYMNS
OF THE MONTH

June: There's No God As Great
July: God of Great and God of Small
August: Come Bless the Lord (Psalm 34)


MAY

The Head that Once Was Crowned with Thorns

This hymn celebrating Christ's ascension was written by an Irish poet, Thomas Kelly (1769-1855). Kelly wrote over 765 hymn texts, several of which are of great merit, even if they are relatively unknown. This hymn, one of his best, is found in most hymnals today. The text, found in Kelly's Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture (1820), is based on Hebrews 2:10. It speaks of Christ's victory over death and his reign on high in heaven.

The tune ST. MAGNUS was composed in 1707 by Jeremiah Clark, an English composer who was organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Clark also wrote the popular wedding trumpet tune and voluntary formerly attributed to his contemporary Henry Purcell. The tune first appeared in Divine Companion, 2nd edition, 1707, where it was set to Psalm 117 .

A concertato for SATB voices, organ and brass quartet by John Ferguson (G.I.A. Publications, Inc. 7404 So. Mason Ave. Chicago, IL 60638), would be a fantastic way to introduce this hymn to your congregation. As the composer indicates, this piece could also be performed without the brass, and the brass parts could be played on the organ. Because this hymn is so grand, John Ferguson cautions the musician not to play it in a rushed or hurried way. It is important for congregations to have time to sing and concentrate on the text.

The alternative accompaniment given here is by Alan Gray, as found in the Scottish Psalter of 1929. It may be played for some of the more festive stanzas, perhaps stanzas 3 and 8. Choose a rich and warm registration, and perhaps have the sopranos and/or a trumpet turn the top line into a descant. Again, don't rush this short tune; give it the breadth it needs.

Organists may also be interested in the following settings for ST. MAGNUS:

  • Two settings by T Tertius Noble (Fifty Free Organ Accompaniments to WelT Known Hymn Tunes, J. Fischer & Bro., Glen Rock, N.J., No. 8430). The settings are in two keys so B instruments could play one.
  • "Prelude and Chorale on St. Magnus" by Ray Haan (in O Worship the King,

published by Broadman Press). The harmonization of the chorale may be used to accompany a unison congregational singing of the hymn.

  • C.S. Lang's prelude or offertory (from Twenty Hymn-Time Preludes, First Set).
  • Healey Willan's composition (from 36 Short Preludes and Postludes on Well-Known Hymn Tunes, Set 1).