Music Notes | Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

Two of our hymns this Sunday were first published, in collections dealing with the Church year, in 1827, when hymn-singing was slowly beginning to find official support in the Church of England.

‘Bread of the world, in mercy broken’ [301] was written by Reginald Heber, a parish priest (and later briefly bishop in India) who sought, but did not gain, official recognition for his collection of Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This hymn’s two original four-line stanzas were combined into one eight-line stanza for use with the Genevan Psalm-tune ‘Rendez à Dieu’ in the Hymnal 1982, but some of its successful features are perhaps slightly clearer in its original form. The whole text is marked by a number of felicitous repetitions and reversals: lines 1–2 and 5–6 end with the same pair of words (‘broken‘, ‘shed’); ‘life’ and ‘death’ are contrasted in lines 3 and 4; ‘in mercy’ appears in 1 and 2; ‘look on the…’ begins 5 and 6; even the entirety of lines 4 and 8 could be said to stand in contrast: ‘and in whose death our sins are dead’ / ‘that by thy grace our souls are fed’. These serve to point up the (entirely lopsided) reciprocity between Christ’s sacrifice and our humble response: he let his body be broken and his blood spilt; we have only broken hearts and shed tears to offer. His words of life led to his death, but his death led to our life. The hymn was originally inscribed ‘Before the Sacrament’, and indeed it serves well as a prayer before receiving (even at the Breaking of the Bread), or, according to another meaning of ‘before’, as a devotion in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

‘New every morning is the love’ [10] was written not as a hymn, but as a devotional poem, by John Keble, another literary Church of England priest (soon to be a leader in the ‘Oxford’ or ‘Tractarian’ Movement in the C of E), in The Christian Year, though excerpts from this collection began to be used as hymns not long after. Keble recognizes a new day as filled with opportunity: to experience God, God’s mercy, and the Christian hope afresh; to deny ourselves and to offer our whole lives – even the most mundane parts thereof – as a sacrifice; to draw ever nearer to God and ‘to live more nearly as we pray’. Perhaps only the fourth of the present six stanzas veers from a rather chaste register into something more picturesque (‘Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be’) – but the next line (‘as more of heaven in each we see’) brings us right back to the oft-quoted promise to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons…’ in the 1979 Prayer Book Baptismal Covenant. The hymn is paired in the Hymnal 1982 with the folk tune ‘Kedron’ (misattributed in the Hymnal, according to the Hymnal Companion), whose vigor perhaps contradicts, or perhaps one could say minimizes, any sentimentality of which the text might be guilty. On the other hand, sung to a plainsong tune, all but stanza 4 could easily be mistaken for a translation of an early medieval Latin Office hymn (which translations abounded in the mid-19th century) and serve a similar purpose today.

A third hymn we will sing this Sunday was written (though not published) one year after the two preceding hymns were published: ‘Praise the Lord through every nation’ [484]. The author, British Moravian hymnist, journalist, and abolitionist James Montgomery, based his text loosely on a Dutch Reformed hymn for Ascension Day published about twenty years prior; the references to the Ascension are much softened in the paraphrase, resulting in a text that more generally acclaims and adores Christ as Savior-King. The hymn gains much from its pairing with a great tune, that written for ‘Wachet auf’ (‘Sleepers, wake!’ [61]) and would be improved by the replacement of ‘minstrelsy’ with a less quaint and less (in the American context) negatively burdened word.

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