Share |

Hymns for March, April, and May

March
We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder

I have a friend who says, "In Lent we ought to be singing less of 'O Sacred Head Now Wounded' and more of 'May the Mind of Christ, My Savior."' My friend's point is that often in Lent we tend to focus more on the passion of Christ and less on our spiritual journey. "Jacob's Ladder" is a hymn that does focus on our journey, calling us to be soldiers of the cross and to love Jesus.

The text of this spiritual was inspired, no doubt, by Genesis 28:10-17 In these verses we find the familiar story of Jacob's dream, in which he sees a ladder connecting heaven with earth, and earth with heaven. When he woke from his dream, the writer of Genesis tells us, Jacob thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

The well-known tune of "Jacob's Ladder" was first published in 1905 in a hymn collection entitled Joy Bells of Canaan, Burning Bush Songs No. 2. Certainly this tune was known before then, however, as it was first learned and taught in an impro-visational manner, like all spirituals.

The improvisational quality of "Jacob's Ladder" is a key to bringing this spiritual to life. It can be taught to your choir, Sunday school children, and congregation by rote. Not only will people be able to memorize the words and tune, but they will love to improvise their own harmonies with it. Free yourself and those you teach from the score! Since this song was originally conceived as an improvised piece, its notation in Western dress is deceptive. Color outside the lines! Let your musicians make this tune their own—even if that means that they want to alter slightly the rhythm or harmony. The singing of this hymn needs to be from the soul, not the printed page.

One more note on content: musicians and/or song leaders can create a climax with the line, "Christian do you love my Jesus?" (st. 2) by simply changing the rhythm from the quarter dotted-half pattern, to all quarters on the text "do you love my je-sus":

"Jacob's Ladder" works well during a worship service as a response to the Scripture lessons of the day and in preparation for the sermon. The final stanza can also provide an effective close to a service: have a choral reprise of "If you love him, why not serve him?" sung immediately following the benediction, just before the congregation leaves for a week of service.

Since we inherit this hymn from the oral genre, it makes sense to hear this piece as it is rendered by various groups. One excellent example of a soul-filled gospel rendition is recorded by Leon Roberts on Songs of Faith from Lead Me, Guide Me, Volume II(GIA 297). The St. Olaf Cantorei Choir, John Ferguson, director, also recorded the Daniel Kallman arrangement of "Jacob's Ladder" on their latest recording: Te Deum: A Festival in Song (GIA 321). Both of these will inspire your rendition of "Jacob's Ladder."

For choir directors wanting to use a choral arrangement of this hymn, several excellent arrangements exist: Calvin Hampton, "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" (Morning Star MSM-50-9015, difficult); Daniel Kallman, "Jacob's Ladder" (Morning Star MSM-50-9056, medium difficulty); and Lyle Heck, "Jacob's Ladder" (Augsburg 11-10303, easy). The Kallman gospel-style accompaniment would also serve well as an accompaniment for congregational singing. Many other choral arrangements generate a lot of energy that leads to a performance feel; but Kallman solves that problem with a quiet, diffused ending.

APRIL
Sing Praise to the Lord

Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) shows us that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to writing hymns. Though his output of hymn tunes is small, LAUDATE DOMINUM is a gem. Composed during the Victorian era of English choral music, this tune has grace and strength. Interestingly LAUDATE DOMINUM is actually extracted from a larger choral work composed by Parry.

The text is Henry W. Baker's paraphrase of Psalms 148 and 150 in which he calls on all things—loud organs, trumpets, angels, jubilant chords—to give praise to the One who brought us the "grace of salvation." With such a summons to praise, "Sing Praise" is a perfect psalm to sing during Eastertide.

Stanza 3 of the psalm gives an organist a golden opportunity to try his or her hand at a little improvisation. "Loud organs his glory tell forth in deep tone" can be registered with full organ (except manual reeds). Then try pedaling both the bass and tenor lines in the pedal one octave lower than written. The congregation will immediately sense the musically painted picture of "loud organs" and "telling forth in deep tone." For the last line—"and trumpets the story ... "—of course, add the manual reeds.

Because the text calls for all things to give praise, this hymn also offers an opportunity to invite instrumentalists from the congregation to join in accompanying the singing. Even middle school instrumentalists should be able to play this hymn.

For choir directors who want to use this piece as a choral anthem, Parry himself has composed a hymn-anthem on this tune. "Hear My Words Ye Peoples" (Novello 442) was composed for the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Association in 1894. Massive in scope, the entire work calls for double choir and semi-chorus. The piece concludes with this hymn, and for stanza 3 Parry has written a marvelous marching-bass for the organ that would serve well as a hymn accompaniment (see this page).

Other choral arrangements for the hymn include the following:

■ Paul Sjolund wrote a lively concertato for organ, brass, choir, and congregation based on this hymn ("Sing Praise to the Lord," Hinshaw Music Publishers HMC-1H5, medium difficulty).

■ Dede Duson arranged the hymn for choir in a setting published by Van Ness Press (4171-85, easy).

■ One final note about tempo. This is a hymn from the era of English cathedral music. Though not all of our sanctuaries have the resonance of St, Paul's cathedral, the effect should be grand—not rushed. When congregations are given a wonderful tune such as this, they will want to enjoy every note!

MAY
By the Sea of Crystal

This hymn is a product of a hymn contest sponsored by The Banner (periodical of the Christian Reformed Church) in 1933 to help prepare the denomination for hymn singing. Before that time, only psalms were sung in public worship.

The text was written by William Kuipers in 1932. Kuipers was a minister in Passaic, New Jersey, who had written other hymns, poems, and psalm versifications. After hearing a men's chorus sing a poem to the stirring music of El-gar's "Pomp and Circumstance," Kuipers decided to try his hand at a text for the same tune. But since Elgar's music was copyrighted and very expensive, Kuipers sent his hymn text to The Banner and suggested a tune contest for new music to fit his text. The Banner agreed, and the search was on.

The winner (a ten-dollar prize) was Siebolt Frieswyk from Whitinsville, Massachussetts, a music student at Harvard. Frieswyk's picture and tune were featured on the cover of The Banner (May 5,1933) along with a report naming second- and third-place winners and six honorable mentions. However, the hymnal committee bypassed Frieswyk's tune for one of the honorable-mention tunes, composed by John Vanderhoven, an organist at the Burton Heights CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was Vander-hoven's tune that was published in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal and in each succeeding edition.

"By the Sea of Crystal" has enjoyed unprecedented popularity within the Christian Reformed Church—in part because of its glorious doxological text taken from the book of Revelation, but also because the Back to God Hour, a broadcast ministry of the Christian Reformed Church, has used this hymn as their theme song since the 1950s.

The doxological character of this hymn suggests a triumphant, march-like tempo. Song leaders should be aware that stanzas 2 and 3 are actually one thematic unit. One way to achieve this unity is to play from stanza 2 to 3 without pause, using the formula printed here. But if you choose to do so, be sure to prepare the congregation ahead of time. It would probably work best to have the choir model this transition by having them sing it through once for the congregation. At the very least warn the congregation that stanzas 2 and 3 will be sung without pause. A descant is also provided for stanza 3.

For those who are interested, Larry Visser has written a partita on "Crystal" for organ. These variations can be obtained by writing to: Larry Visser, 3562 Greenbrier No. 386A, Ann Arbor, MI 48105. ■

Excerpt
COMING NEXT TIME

In place of the regular Hymn of the Month column, RW 35 will present the winners in the first Reformed Worship hymn search for new hymns on the theme "Your Kingdom Come." Five texts were selected from twenty-seven entries, arid then thirty-seven new tunes were submitted for those five texts. At this writing, the selection of the winning tunes is still in progress.