Favorite hymn no. 6
‘Joyful, joyful, we adore thee’, like last week’s no. 7, ‘All creatures of our God and King’, takes nature as inspiration to praise God and live in harmony with one another. It was written in 1907 by Henry van Dyke, a prominent Presbyterian minister, English professor, author, and sometime diplomat, on a holiday in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.
The hymn has, of course, achieved much of its sustained popularity through its association (intended by the author) with a tune taken from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The adaptation of congregational hymn-tunes from large-scale choral works or operas by the likes of Handel, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms was popular in a nineteenth-century America anxious to feel less provincial; the sources and original texts (if any) are sometimes well known (Beethoven’s tune set a poem, ‘An die Freude’, by Schiller) and sometimes not (the tune named for its composer Mendelssohn, to which we sing ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, was part of a patriotic oratorio celebrating the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s perfection of printing from moveable type).
The familiarity of Beethoven’s tune (and of its original setting), however, can easily overwhelm the text. It might also be said that, though the sentiment of Van Dyke’s hymn can hardly be faulted, its familiarity (not to say conventionality: the rhyme scheme and frequent alliteration have not here, as they sometimes can, prompted much unexpected insight) can make it hard for it to have a deep impact. We should most certainly adore the Lord with joy and do well to believe in and take inspiration from the praises of all creation, as this hymn and the Psalms call us to do. But perhaps the most striking – also the most simple – line in this text is the penultimate: ‘Teach us how to love each other’. That prayer, often repeated, and the answers that will undoubtedly come, have the power to change everything.