In this stretch of the Season after the Epiphany, we encounter, after reading of the calling of the first disciples, a series of accounts of Christ healing various kinds of ailments. Our Hymnal does not contain many entries dealing directly with this subject, but this week and next we will sing several of them.
‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ is almost certainly the best known, if perhaps not the best, text of Charles Wesley, the 18th-century Church of England priest who remains the most important, most prolific hymn-writer in the English language. This text, titled ‘For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion’, famously commemorates the occasion on which Wesley experienced a strong sense of assurance of the efficacy of Christ’s work for his (Wesley’s) own salvation. The first several of its eighteen original stanzas recount this experience; the latter few urge notorious sinners and what he might have called heathens to accept the same (the latter, regrettably, in terms we would no longer countenance). The central portion of the hymn, recounting the spiritual and physical healing which Our Lord wrought and continues to work, is the basis of the familiar text. (What is now the final stanza, and quite effective in that position, was the original first stanza: a striking introduction to the far-ranging text.)
A setting of Psalm 111 (appointed for the day) by the great 17th-century composer Heinrich Schütz continues the more general theme of the wondrous deeds of the Lord, as does the much-loved song ‘How great thou art’, offered as the prelude. The latter has an interesting history: the original text was written in the late 19th century by a Swedish preacher, poet, and MP, Carl Gustaf Boberg. The English text by Stuart Hine, an English missionary who worked with Slavic people in both Eastern Europe and in Britain, is a translation of (of all things) a Russian version of a German translation of the Swedish original. Both the Swedish original and the English text are sung to a Swedish melody.
Our other hymn, ‘From God Christ’s deity came forth’, deals both with the theme of Christ’s concern for those in need and with his identity and origin as the import of the Epiphany continues to play out in the Gospel and in the liturgical year: ‘he taught as one having authority’, our Evangelist says, and (even) the unclean spirit rightly identifies him as ‘the Holy One of God’. The text, selected and translated purposely for the Hymnal 1982 to include a representative of the Syrian hymnographical tradition, is derived from the first of a collection of Easter hymns by St Ephrem, the great fourth-century Syrian theologian, educator, and writer who is one of the most important hymn-writers in the Eastern Churches. (A later author wrote that Ephrem recruited all-female choirs to sing his hymns embodying Nicene Christian Orthodoxy, set to folk tunes with lyre accompaniment, in the public square, countering similar performances by heterodox groups – parallelling the reason his contemporary Hilary of Poitiers, and the slightly younger St Ambrose of Milan, introduced hymn-singing in the West.) The versification by F. Bland Tucker, a number of whose translations and versifications of early texts enrich the Hymnal, retains the sense and form, including, more or less, the meter, of the original: stanzas consisting of two couplets (the parallelism, often a contrast, between the members of each couplet being a commonality between the Aramaic original and the linguistically and culturally related Biblical Hebrew poetry) concluded by a sort of refrain.
The simple, strong, concentrated text is given even greater impact by the outstanding music by Ronald Arnatt. The first phrase introduces the three main motives: an arch-like shape consisting of the first four notes; a continuation of the stepwise motion, ending with a skip (that is, the four notes in the second bar), and a dotted rhyhm (in the same bar). The second phrase begins as an inversion (upside-down version) of the opening motive, but its first full bar is also an inversion of the second motive, while its second bar echoes the dotted-rhythm figure. The whole second phrase is then repeated sequentially (that is, a similar melodic shape is used at ever higher pitches) to form the third and fourth phrases, the rising lines, rising overall range, and dotted rhythm lending it great sweep and momentum. The final phrase, setting the ‘refrain’, makes a bold statement by starting on a strong beat, with a longer note, and eschewing the dotted rhythm; at the same time, it repeats the first five pitches of the tune to round it out.
The modal nature of the tune (it never deviates from the G-aeolian scale), always a source of strength, is enriched by some chromatic inflections (notes outside that scale, in this case more than once appearing in close proximity to, or alternation with, the ‘native’ notes) in the accompaniment. The melody’s shape is further complemented by the bass line, which sometimes follows it (especially in phrase 2) and often proceeds in motion opposite to it (most of the rest of the time). The ‘walking’ quarter-note movement in the bass throughout also propels the music forward (for both the modal tune and the walking bass, compare more than one hymn setting by Vaughan Williams, for example). Both tune and text are very fine; their combination forms one of the best things in the Hymnal.