Hymns to Mark the Journey of God's People

Canticle of the Turning: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah; O God, Beyond All Praising

Canticle of the Turning, a Setting of the Song of Mary

Perhaps the sundry lyrical settings of the angel Gabriel’s Ave Maria have conditioned us to expect Mary’s response to be parallel in its tenderness. Indeed, many hymnic settings of the Magnificat pick up on the reflective character of the text, and rightly so. There is introspection here. But there are also other possibilities. Rory Cooney has picked up on the raw subversive qualities of Mary’s song by setting it to a raucous Irish jig. His paraphrase is equally boisterous. In commenting on this hymn Rory says, “The contrast between the woman of the gospels and the ‘lovely lady dressed in blue’ image was a problem for me. The gospel presents a young woman in a dangerous situation, in a whole array of dangerous situations, but who responds to grace with the full daring of humanity.”

Magnificats typically find their way into the Advent or Christmas section of a hymnal, but this setting defies such easy categorization. In recent hymnals it may be found in sections called Praise, Justice, Society, or New Creation.

There is an inherent danger in singing any text to such a propulsive tune. Care must be taken not to gloss over the text. The fires of justice are invoked against the empire builders of the age. God shames the proud and takes down the strong. Rather than follow the temptation to spiritualize the text, let it be a convicting one for us as we contemplate the future and our societal role in shaping it. How have we acquiesced to imperialist aspirations at the expense of the weak and poor? How do we resist God’s turning?

This is an Irish folk tune and one would do well to employ Irish traditional instruments such as a Celtic drum and a penny whistle. But it is more important to place the emphasis on the folk aspects of the tune rather than get hung up on “Irish performance practice.” The music translates well to almost any folk genre—the more primitive and unadorned, the better. If piano accompaniment is used, one could emphasize the rhythmic harmonic progression. Once the melody is established by the singers, percussively strike each new chord. Steer clear of the sustain pedal. This can be contrasted with arpeggiated sections where the text calls for a less strident accompaniment.

One reason this tune is easy to learn is that it is closely related to another Irish tune; in fact, star of county down is a variant of kingsfold. “Canticle of the Turning” is found in many recent hymnals; this setting was taken from Renewing Worship 5: New Songs and Hymns (2003), a resource prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for provisional use as the ELCA prepares the next edition of their denominational Lutheran Book of Worship to succeed the ground-breaking 1978 edition. Cooney has also prepared a choral octavo on this hymn for SAB or unison, with guitar, optional piccolo, and violin (GIA, G-3407).

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

As churches mark anniversaries and milestones, they are often drawn to the old familiar hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” The text is rich with the imagery of the people of the Exodus delivered from the yoke of slavery. With the Israelites of yore, we too are redeemed. The Lord (Yahweh by name) also leads us and provides for us. This provides hope for the future.

The Welsh text was composed by William Williams in 1745. It was translated into English by Peter and William Williams in 1771-2. The hymn was not widely known until it was popularized at Welsh hymn sings through the gripping tune cwm rhondda.

The African-American tradition, however, never latched onto this pairing of text and tune. The imagery of the Exodus was not lost on those who were enslaved in the United States. For them the text was authentic to their lives, and rather than needing a tune to popularize the text, they looked to tunes that expressed the text as they experienced it.

During my first year at Princeton Seminary an African-American student asked to sing the text according to the manner in which it was passed down to him in his Southern church. He sang the tune to me and I recognized it as a variant of the tune commonly known as arise. (See the first setting p. 32.) And so we sang it that morning in chapel—simply, unadorned, unaccompanied. Though most of us knew this hymn, we came to comprehend it in a new way.

Besides singing the text to established folk and hymn tunes, African Americans also rendered this text in a very free call and response style called “lining out.” See the second setting on page 32 for an approximation of this improvisatory way of singing found in the African American Heritage Hymnal (GIA, 2001). Rather than sensing any rhythmic pulse, the congregation might dwell on any syllable as the Spirit leads. William Heard refers to this style as devotional, contemplative. Last fall he led our seminary community in singing “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” in this style (listen at www.reformedworship.org). (For more on William Heard, see http://www.ptsem.edu/uploadedFiles/Publications/inspire/inSpire_summer-fall_205/

For those who would like to find a stepping-stone toward singing in such a free style, consider singing the familiar text to other tunes that follow the metrical pattern. The African American Heritage Hymnal actually includes three settings; the traditional setting to cwm rhondda, the short version mentioned above, and a setting to the well-known tune zion, presented here as well. Other 87 87 tunes could also be used by adapting the text slightly (repeating “Bread of heaven”); tunes with great potential for mining the text are beach spring, blaenwern, and ebenezer. Within a service one might even consider dividing the three stanzas and interpreting them with three different tunes. One could then conclude with the final stanza sung to cwm rhondda. It will change the way we sing “Songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever sing to thee!” In the context of honest lament, the praises soar higher.

O God, Beyond All Praising

This hymn by Michael Perry began making its way into hymnals in the mid 1980s and has since been included in numerous denominational hymnal supplements. The text, as a whole, speaks of the journey of life and the marking of time. We do not look to the future naively. The ills of the past suggest that there will also be ills to come. But the life lived in Christ is characterized by endurance and, in the end, triumph over sorrow. The expansive meter of the hymn (six lines of thirteen syllables each!) makes way for rich imagery.

For some reason the second stanza has been dropped from most hymnals. One could conjecture that the references to mortality with its attendant sorrows were too much of a “downer.” Indeed, there does seem to be an awkward shift from unbridled praise, depicted in scene one, to the dying flower at the opening of scene two. Actually, this “whiplash effect” reminds me of what transpires in so many psalms. After living with the full text I have come to consider the central stanza indispensable. The implication at the beginning of the final stanza (“Then hear, O gracious Savior . . .”) is that we are summoned back to praise. Without stanza 2, we have nothing to be summoned from.

The hymn was introduced to our community through a choral setting by Richard Proulx, scored for SATB choir and organ with optional brass and congregation (GIA, 3190). We first sang it at a memorial service for one of our faculty members. The community immediately resonated with the hymn and the soaring melody. The song seemed familiar to many, but they could not place it in their memory. For many, it was the melody thaxted that served as a point of connection. Gustav Holst composed this melody for his orchestral work The Planets, to depict Jupiter, and later arranged it into a hymn structure. The melody may seem daunting at first, but it is thoroughly winsome. It is difficult to hear this hymn and not sing along.

The setting provided here is taken from Voices United, the hymnal of the United Church of Canada.

Martin Tel (martin.tel@ptsem.edu) is the C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he directs the seminary choirs, facilitates the music ministry for daily worship, and offers courses in the area of church music.

Reformed Worship 80 © June 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.