Hymn of the Month: Hymns for September, October, and November

SEPTEMBER
Tell Your Children

September is a month of new beginnings for many churches. After a summer of travel and vacation, the community returns and seeks to be renewed through a new season of education and enrichment programs. "Tell Your Children/' a contemporary hymn that calls us as families and church family to retell "the Story" in the context of our covenant commitment with our God, is therefore very appropriate for September.

Grace Hawthorne, a free-lance writer from Georgia, based this hymn text on the theme of Psalm 145. The text celebrates our great God—praising God for wondrous acts of compassion and power.

Thomas Eugene Fettke, a senior editor for Word, Inc., composed the music for this text. The tune is framed by a repeated opening line and a repeated closing phrase. The refrain builds to a solid climax, with its highest tone on the word "Lord"—to whom this song directs our praise!

Liturgically, this hymn may be used in many ways. It is especially appropriate for use following infant baptism, profession of faith by younger children, a children's sermon, or in a service where the sermon focuses on family life.

If the children of the congregation are familiar with the Shema (Deut. 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one"), you may want to make the hymn part of your service of confession, as follows:

Call to Confession: Shema recited by the children

Reading of the Law: from Deuteronomy 5

Summary of the Law: either read from
Deuteronomy 6:5 or sung [PsH 155]

Call to Commitment: Deuteronomy 6:6-9

Hymn: "Tell Your Children"

This hymn has a very appealing melody and is very easily learned. In introducing it to your congregation, consider having either a strong instrument play the melody or soloing out the melody on a separate manual on the organ. It works well when sung antiphonally: the verse functions as a narration of God's work, the refrain as a response of praise to that work. An adult or children's choir could sing the stanzas with the congregation responding with the refrain. Another option would have the congregation (as parents and extended church family) retelling "the Story" in the stanzas with the children of the congregation singing the refrain—in effect accepting their part in the covenant by saying, "Yes, tell us! We want to know and we want to praise."

This hymn is suitable for both unison and part singing. Accompaniments could include the use of a brass ensemble and the free harmonization provided here for the final stanza.

Once your congregation has learned this hymn well enough that they "own it" as an expression of their faith, I would encourage its use only occasionally so that the freshness of its melody may be preserved.

OCTOBER
How Firm a Foundation

Celebration of our Reformed heritage has long been a focus of our October worship services, and the principle of Sola Scriptura—by Scripture alone—remains one of the fundamental affirmations of the Reformation.

Calvin, in the Geneva Confession of 1536 wrote,

First, we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as the rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other thing which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord.

While the sixteenth-century language of this confession may seem archaic to our twentieth-century ears, the truth of this confession remains unchanged for all time and ought to be very dear to us.

"How Firm a Foundation" is a hymn that pairs a strong, stable, dynamic tune with a text that reem-phasizes this principle of Sola Scriptura. The first stanza establishes the Word of God as the firm foundation of our faith, so completely firm that the author rhetorically asks "What more could he possibly say to you?" The remaining four stanzas are treasured promises that God has given through Scripture to us, his people, for our comfort and assurance. As each promise (Isa. 41:10, Isa. 43:2, 2 Cor. 12:9 and Heb. 13:5) unfolds, we are given cumulative evidence of God's faithfulness to us that bursts into the exclamation of stanza 5.

The author of this hymn text is known to us only as "K." The text first appeared in 1787 in Selection of Hymns published by Dr. John Rippon, pastor of Carter's Lane Baptist Church in London, England. Some hymnologists have speculated that R. Keene, the director of music at Dr. Rippon's church, authored the text, as later reprints acknowledge "Kn" and "Keen" as the writer. An American edition of the hymnal was published in 1820, and the text became widely used in all the states during the Civil War period.

The tune FOUNDATION, to which this text is commonly set, is a folk tune of the American South and its composer is unknown. It first appeared in Union Harmony, a publication of William Caldwell, in 1837. Many excellent choral, congregational, and organ resources are available for this hymn:

  • John Karl Hirten has arranged a meditative setting for SATB, keyboard, and optional handbell (GIA G-3223).
  • Emma Lou Diemer has arranged the hymn for SATB and congregation with organ and optional brass and percussion; the fourth stanza features a choral canon and the fifth verse includes a descant (Hinshaw HMC 527).
  • John Rutter has written a setting for SATB choir with organ that lends itself well to concertato use for choir and congregation. This piece includes a descant and an excellent free harmonization for the final stanza (Hinshaw HMC 667).
  • Margaret Cowen simply and efficiently arranged the tune for 4 octave handbells (Psaltery Music Publications M4-8, available through Jeffers Handbell Supply, Inc.).

For the organist there are settings arranged by Wilbur Held (7 Settings of American Folk Hymns, Concordia 97-5308), Jack Goode (7 Communion Meditations, Flammer HF-5084), Jean Langlais (American Folk Hymn Settings for Organ, HT. Fitzsimons F0623), and Claude Murphree (Toccata on "How Firm a Foundation," Grey 813). This latter piece is currently out of print but is well worth trying to find.

A baritone singing this hymn from the back of a sanctuary, accompanied by handbells (playing an open 5th "G" and "D" chord each measure) provides a simple and moving introduction for your congregation. In succeeding weeks, a bell anthem and choral anthems could be used.

My favorite arrangement of this hymn is a "design your own" concertato for choir, congregation, handbells, trumpet (optional), and organ in which a combination of resources is used. The congregation and choir sings stanza 1 as it appears in the hymnal: stanza 2 is sung in unison, accapella, with accompaniment by handbells free ringing a quarter-note pattern, using only the five notes of the melody, in any octave range. The choir sings stanza 3 in a 2-part canon, men beginning, women following one measure later. The choir sings stanza 4 in a 4-part canon—basses, sopranos, tenors, and altos each entering after one measure. Both of these stanzas have a canonically arranged organ accompaniment available in Donald Busarow's All Praise to You, Eternal God (Augsburg 11-9076). Following a brief organ interlude which includes a modulation (see example given), the congregation joins the choir in unison on stanza 5. John Rutter's free harmonization and descant (played by trumpet) taken from the final stanza of his hymn-anthem provides a stirring accompaniment. Each stanza musically builds on the previous one in terms of intensity, reaching a climax in the powerful exclamation of the final stanza. It provides a strong congregational response in a Reformation Festival Service.

NOVEMBER
Sing To the Lord of Harvest

The text of this hymn is freely based on Psalm 65, particularly verses 9-13. It is a hymn for thanking the Lord for the harvest (stanzas 1-2) and for offering to God the harvest of our lives (stanza 3). This text, by John Samuel Bewley Monsell, was originally in four stanzas and was published in his Hymns of Love and Praise (1866). The Psalter Hymnal gives the 3 stanzas that are in common use, with minor word changes. The simple, vivid language of this text is paired with a melody that conveys energy and joy.

The tune, originally a love song composed in 1575 by Johann Steurlein for "Mit Lieb bin ich Umfangen," was first used as a hymn tune in 1581 (in David's Himlische Harpffen published by Gregor Gunderreitter). It was then associated with Martin Behm's text "Wie lieblich ist der Maien," from which is derived its present tune name. Steurlein's tune and Monsell's text were first combined in Garrett Horder's Worship Song (1905) and then popularized through the hymn-anthem by Healy Willan in 1954 (whose harmonization was simplified for the Psalter Hymnal).

This tune is rounded barform (AABA') and its melodic variations in the fourth line can challenge a congregation. It would be wise, therefore, to alert the congregation to the change in the melody before they attempt to sing it. A verbal reminder followed by a stanza played through as an introduction should eliminate their uncertainty. A tempo marking of J=60 provides the spark the melody requires to be sung in four-measure phrases. The organ registration needs to be bright, and the hymn should be played with a light touch.

Liturgically this hymn may be used in any service celebrating harvest or Thanksgiving. You might consider using it as a congregational response to the reading of Psalm 65, perhaps read from Psalms Now (Concordia). The third stanza, with its emphasis on offering our gifts and our lives for kingdom service, marks the hymn as a hymn of dedication.

Healy Willan's arrangement, published by Concordia, is available in many different editions: SATB (98-2013), SSA (98-1450), SAB (98-1451), and Junior-Senior Combined Choirs (98-1454). The accompaniment, while scored for organ, is also arranged for brass ensemble (97-4501 through 97-4507). I recommend the combined choir edition. While the Junior Choir part is very challenging for a children's choir, it could easily be sung by the women of the adult choir as an added first soprano line. A trumpeter could also play this part as a descant on the concluding stanza. Augsburg has published a SATB anthem by Robert Wetzler incorporating 4 stanzas of the hymn (11-1901). Organists may wish to use the accompaniment of this anthem as a variation from the hymnal harmonization. S. Drummond Wolff has written a concertato for mixed choir, 2 trumpets, organ and congregation (Concordia 98-2137). Stanza 2, set for choir and trumpet, will take advance preparation, but is well worth the effort. Again, organists should note the possibilities for varying their congregational accompaniments using these settings by Wolff.

The range of the melody of this hymn is very accessible to children. Its light and free-flowing character can be communicated well by the quality of children's voices, and they will enjoy singing it. While the text may seem too "wordy" for young children, I would recommend its use by a Junior Choir. Included here is a piano intonation that could serve either as an introduction to congregational singing or as an accompaniment for a children's "anthem," with the opening eight measures serving as the introduction and interludes between stanzas.

Enjoy the sparkle of this hymn as you gratefully express your love and praise in worship!

Norma de Waal Malefyt (nld2@calvin.edu) is Resource Development Specialist in Congregational Song for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan.