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Hymn of the Month

Hymns for September, October, and November
Hymns for September, October, and November

For many—especially in our churches and schools—autumn is a time of new beginnings. What better time to sing to the Lord some new songs?

September
Earth and All Stars

"Let them praise the name of the Lord!" The words of Psalm 148 exhort all creation to join in praise of God. In a similar way, Herbert Brokering's hymn text, "Earth and All Stars," calls the universe to unite and "Sing to the Lord a new song."

In addition to addressing the natural universe that Psalm 148 catalogs ("mountains and hills," "beasts and cattle," "birds of the air," etc.), "Earth and All Stars" also calls on music, industry, construction, education, sports, philosophy—in short, the entire human enterprise to join the song. Each image is strung, bead-like, on the recurring phrases (based on Psalm 96) that thread through the poem: "Sing to the Lord a new song! He has done marvelous things. I too will praise him with a new song!"

Herbert Brokering, a Lutheran minister born in 1926, composed this text in 1964 on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Knowing this, it is easy to understand the references to the academic world in stanzas 5 and 6. These same references make "Earth and All Stars" an ideal hymn for September, when our children and their teachers head back to school.

The hymn tune, also called EARTH AND ALL STARS but just as widely known by its other name, DEXTER, was written by the late David N. Johnson, then Professor of Organ at St. Olaf. DEXTER is a rousing tune, and, like Brokering's text, a modern classic: though just over twenty-five-years old, it has found its way into most American hymnals.

People of all ages enjoy singing this hymn. Even the youngest children can appreciate the vivid word-pictures in the text, and if they cannot read or remember entire stanzas, can still sing the repeated phrase "Sing to the Lord…" and the marvelous refrain.

In fact, singing the piece respon-sively is a good way to introduce the hymn to any age group. A choir or soloist can sing the stanzas, with the congregation joining in on the repeated phrases. Be sure to call attention to the wonderful melisma (many notes to one syllable) on the word marvelous in the refrain. It is a stroke of hymn-writing genius and a joy to sing!

Later in the month, when the congregation is more familiar with the hymn, why not have different groups lead different stanzas? For instance, try this: stanza 1, all sing; stanza 2, women; stanza 3, choir; stanza 4, men; stanza 5, children; stanza 6, all; refrains, everyone. Singing the hymn in this fashion will not only make the words come alive, but will also keep people on their toes!

A hint: "Earth and All Stars" works best at a fairly brisk tempo, with a strong downbeat pulse, almost one-to-a-bar. Your final tempo will depend on many factors: the size and acoustical properties of your sanctuary, the size and age of your congregation, whether you use organ or piano, and so on. At United Reformed Church I play this hymn at a metronome marking of about J =138. This seems energetic enough to move the congregation quickly through the many stanzas, but still leaves everyone enough room to breathe and enough time to think.

Organists who wish to play works based on "Earth and All Stars" are encouraged to look in book 3 of David Cherwien's fine Interpretations (published by AMSI). Sue Mitchell Wallace lists the hymn in her Hymn Prisms (Hope Publishing Co.), and Alec Wyton also has a setting, called Variants on Earth and All Stars. Probably most important, though, is Dr. Johnson's own setting of his tune, which, like the Wyton piece, is published by Augsburg.

October
Built on the Rock

In Matthew 16, Jesus tells Simon Peter that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. In a very real sense, all Christians are the living building blocks of the church. But more than that, Christ dwells in each Christian heart so that we ourselves become his temples, both individually in our bodies and corporately in our church.

This is the central message of "Built on the Rock." It is a crucial bit of theology. Fortunately for the church throughout the ages, there has been no shortage of saints who could make theology "sing." One of these was Nikolai Grundtvig (1783-1872), the Danish poet whose words (in translation by Carl Doving) are the basis of this hymn of the month. His hymn text, with its commentary on the true nature of the church, is especially poignant this month as we observe Worldwide Communion Sunday and Reformation Day.

"Built on the Rock" is always paired with KIRKEN, a strong and severe tune by Grundtvig's contemporary, the Danish composer Ludwig Lindeman. KIRKEN is a proud melody; it suits the text admirably and is very satisfying to sing.

To help you introduce this hymn to your congregation, I composed a concertato on "Built on the Rock" (see excerpt on these pages). It is scored for a 2-part mixed choir (or, with minor changes, any 2-part choir), 2 octaves of handbells, congregation, and keyboard. The handbell part is entirely optional and may be safely omitted. Or it may be played on a second keyboard instrument, such as celesta, synthesizer, or piano. {Note: If you use a piano, be sure to play the part up an octave—handbells sound one octave higher than written pitch.)

Stanzas 1 and 2 of the concertato are intended for the choir, with the congregation joining on stanza 3. However, if desired, the congregation may sing stanza 1 as well.

The setting of stanza 3 may be extracted and used as an alternate harmonization to spice up an otherwise "straight" rendition of the hymn when a choir is not present. Likewise, a creative organist can play the 11-bar introduction as a hymn intonation anytime. But whenever the concertato is performed in its entirety, stanza 2 must be sung by the choir alone, and an announcement to this effect should be placed in the worship service bulletin.

Naturally, the concertato can also be sung entirely by the choir as an anthem. (Perhaps this is the best way to "break it in," especially if your congregation is a bit on the shy side when it comes to new music!) But there is also plenty of other choral music based on this hymn. Concordia publishes a concertato by Paul Bunjes, and hymn-anthems abound by Barthelson (G. Schirmer), Christiansen (Augsburg), Hokansen (Flammer), and Lorenz (Lorenz). E. C. Schirmer publishes Katherine K. Davis' "Long Hast Thou Stood, O Church of God" (a textual variant) in several voicings. (Note: Whenever you use choral pieces to teach hymns, be sure to check the anthem texts carefully against the hym-nal's version. Discrepancies may force you to drop or add stanzas or alter words to match the hymnal.)

There are also several organ settings of KIRKEN. Joan Ringerwole's Bibliography of Organ Music (CRC Publications) lists two settings each by Hor Peeters and Paul Manz, one by Gordon Young, and one by the twentieth-century Czech composer, Janacek, which might prove interesting. In addition, there is a brief prelude and intonation on KIRKEN by Robert Powell in the Concordia Hymn Prelude Series, volume 29.

The concertato "Built on the Rock" by Alfred Fedak is available from CRC Publications for $1.00 US/$1.20 CDN each (see order form inside back cover).

November
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is rightfully considered the father of English hymnody. Psalm 23 is the best known and best loved of all the psalms. And RESIGNATION, a nineteenth-century tune from southern Appalachia, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies ever composed. All three—poet, psalm, and music—unite in this hymn to give us a new vision of the providence of God.

Isaac Watts, the English Congregational minister, theologian, and writer, was a prolific hymnodist who penned about six hundred sacred songs, forever changing the course of English-language hymnody. Apparently he began writing hymns in his youth, when one day, returning home from church and complaining about the poor quality of the metrical psalms that had been sung at that morning's worship, he was challenged by his father to "Try… to produce something better." He did, and Watts's hymns still appear in every hymnal. (The Psalter Hymnal includes 10; Rejoice in the Lord, 33!)

"My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" dates from Watts's 1719 collection, Psalms of David, and concludes with his remarkable interpretation of the psalm's last verse: "No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home."

The tune RESIGNATION, by an unknown composer, first appeared in the 1835 hymnbook Southern Harmony, a collection of church music from the rural American south. The melody is disarmingly simple. Like much folk music, it is entirely pentatonic—that is, it uses only a five-note scale analogous to the black keys on the piano. The formal pattern of the tune is AA-BA; the first, second, and final phrases are identical. And every phrase comes to rest on the tonic, or key-note. For all this simplicity, RESIGNATION is still an eloquent piece of music. It is the perfect vehicle to carry Watts's paraphrase straight to the heart.

Perhaps the most effective way to introduce this hymn is also the most authentic to the spirit and history of the music. Have a soloist—a person with a clear, pleasant, natural voice—sing the first stanza simply and directly, without accompaniment. On stanza 2, the choir may sing in unison, still unaccompanied. By stanza 3, the congregation will want to join in. For those of us who play and hear hymns on the organ week after week, unaccompanied unison hymn singing can be a powerfully moving experience.

When you do perform this hymn with accompaniment, though, the organist or pianist should take special care to play the spirit of the words. A clean legato is best here; try not to let the jagged bass line "bump." When the congregation is comfortable with the hymn, you may wish to try the alternate free harmonization that is included with this article. It is meant to be played on the final stanza.

There are many choral settings of "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need." Probably the best known is the highly recommended setting by the late Virgil Thomson (Belwin-Mills), available in several voicings (again, be sure to check the texts and adapt where necessary.)

Several attractive organ settings are also available. Gilbert Martin's prelude in Hammer's second Bristol Collection of 1975, and David Schack's setting in his Augsburg publication Preludes on Ten Hymntunes are listed in the Ringerwole bibliography. Besides these, Belwin-Mills publishes New Jersey composer Louie White's Reflections on Southern Hymntunes, which includes a lovely canonic arrangement, and Carl Schalk has a prelude on RESIGNATION in volume 36 of the Concordia Hymn Prelude Series . Enterprising organists will locate still more.

Many handbell arrangements also exist for choirs who wish to ring the hymn. Look for pieces by Dick Averre (Presser), Douglas Wagner (Sacred Music Press), David Schwoebel (Lorenz, with C instrument), and even an arrangement for handbell solo by Wall (published by Jeffers), complete with accompaniment cassette!

However you present this hymn, it is certain to become one of your congregation's most beloved favorites. Enjoy!