Music Notes | Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Favorite Hymn No. 9

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

This week we begin our countdown of favorite hymns of St. David’s, which parishioners selected from a list of hymns best known and best loved in the parish. Our first, ‘I want to walk as a child of the light’, is also the newest song among our finalists, dating from 1966. Somewhat unusually for traditional hymnody (though perhaps not for religious song of the last 50-plus years; compare, for example, three other items in the Hymnal written and composed – also by women – within the same period: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’, ‘I am the bread of life’, and ‘The first one ever, oh, ever to know’), the text and tune were written by the same person, Kathleen Thomerson (who has now been an Austin resident for some years).

A personal statement of faith by its author and a personal prayer on the lips of the singer, the text draws richly upon Scriptural light-imagery: the phrase ‘children of light’ is found in several places in both Gospels and Epistles; the stars naturally figure in several of the creation accounts (not only in Genesis but in the Psalms as well). Christ calls himself the Morning Star in Revelation 22.16, and the author of II Peter speaks of the morning star rising in the hearts of his readers (1.19). The refrain furthermore draws upon I John 1.5, Psalm 139.11, and Revelation 21.23, and ‘Sun of righteousness’ is a phrase from Malachi 4.2 found in several texts in the Hymnal. A language of discipleship and its ultimate goal also runs through the text: in stanza 1 ‘walk’ and ‘follow’; in 2, ‘path’ and ‘way’; in 3, ‘run…the race’.

Along with using a straightforward register, the text, lIke many modern English-language hymns and religious songs, eschews rhyme; like many folk songs, it does not use an entirely regular syllabic pattern (compare both ‘Be thou my vision’ and ‘Lord of all hopefulness’ and the way in which these texts, in a fairly similar poetic meter to ‘I want to walk’, fit their tune, which is in the same musical meter as the present setting). The melody is unified by reappearances of the opening motif, given grace and ease of singing by the use of many small intervals (seconds and thirds), and given shape and movement by the shift to the upper half of the scale at the beginning of the refrain (a leap upward of a fourth at this point being presaged by another rising fourth in the last line of the verse) and finally by the climax, one note above the upper tonic, at the beginning of the third line of the refrain (the leap of a fifth to this highest note being the skillful and slightly surprising mirror image of the drop of a fifth at the beginning of the previous line).

Though ‘I want to walk’ is, naturally enough, associated with a broad category of religious song – and religion in general – originating in the 1960s and 1970s, the well-crafted melody (and perhaps its presentation with four-part harmony), drawing upon both folk and classical tradition, has helped ‘I want to walk’ to transcend its origins and secure a place in both the official repertory and the hearts of the people.

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