Music Notes | Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

On the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany our series of healing accounts from the Gospel of Mark continues with the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and many who were sick or possessed by demons. Our service thus includes two classic hymns on the subject of healing. 

‘Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old’ was written by Edward Hayes Plumptre, a Church of England priest, educator, and translator; it was originally titled ‘A Hymn used in the Chapel of King’s College Hospital’, and entered the wider repertory in an 1868 supplement to the seminal collection Hymns Ancient and Modern. Language that by today’s standards would convey negative attitudes toward those with illness, injury, or differences in physical ability was emended for the Hymnal 1982, but the hymnist’s original, relatively inclusive, conclusion stands: ‘…that whole and sick, and weak and strong, may praise thee evermore.’ The original third stanza does not appear in the Hymnal; it rather interestingly admits that many in the modern West do not (often or ever) experience or acknowledge the miraculous but have available, perhaps by way of compensation, the knowledge and abilities brought about by modern science:

Though love and might no longer heal

by touch, or word, or look;

though they who do thy work must read

thy laws in nature’s book;

yet come to heal the sick man’s soul…

The melody was first printed in an English metrical psalter in 1708, accompanied by a bass line but no other harmony. Many of the passing-tones (moving quarter-notes), however, and the quite chromatic harmonization found in the Hymnal version (uncredited in the Hymnal and its commentary), are more typical of the era in which the text was written and have the tendency to slow down, not to say to congest, the singing of the already long (eight-line) stanzas. Though the present music might well be a fitting garment for phrases such as ‘by restless couch’, the hymn as a whole might benefit from singing to another tune, perhaps one of several suitable ones from the British-American folk tradition in common use.

The original text of this week’s other hymn, ‘I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath’, was part of a metrical version of Psalm 146 by Isaac Watts, often considered the father of English-language hymnody. John Wesley was particularly fond of the text (and is reported to have sung it on his deathbed), and shortened and revised it for his Collection of Psalms and Hymns, published in ‘Charles-Town’, in the Carolina colony, in 1736 when the brothers Wesley (both priests of the Church of England) were briefly serving in the neighboring colony of Georgia. (This Collection was the very first hymnal published anywhere since the Reformation for Church of England use.) The present, powerfully moving, text begins and ends with a statement of intent, hope, even confidence in an eternal life of everlasting praise, while the middle stanzas acknowledge the (wondrous – and ancient, found in pre-Hebrew Semitic religion concerning ‘El, the father/sky-god and taken over into the Psalms) belief and experience that the very Creator of the universe also deigns to care for those in the lowest circumstance and greatest need – and does so not grudgingly, but lavishly: ‘the Lord pours eyesight’ and does not just visit those in prisons of whatever kind, but ‘grants [them] sweet release’. 

The tune to which this hymn is set (which Watts intended to accompany his version of Psalm 146), now called ‘Old 113th’ by English speakers, is of great importance in the history of modern hymnody. It was originally written around 1525 at Strasbourg for a German metrical version of Psalm 119, which had 14-line stanzas. It subsequently entered and influenced both the Lutheran and Calvinist streams of congregational music, coming into the English-speaking world (in which the tune was shortened to its present 6-line form in the eighteenth century) through the latter; its broad lines, restriction to two note-values, and general avoidance of large intervals helped to establish the style of melody eventually used in the complete Genevan Psalter. The tune has supported not only the aforementioned paraphrases of Psalms 119 and 146, the 113th of the tune name, and Calvin’s own version of Psalm 36, but also the Lutheran Passiontide hymn ‘O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß’ (O Man, bewail thy great sin), which Bach famously set in a beautifully, profusely ornamented version. This week we hear the second and third of three variations for organ on the tune by influential 16th/17th-century Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck; in these variations the tune is found in the middle of three, and lowest of four, voices respectively.

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