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Praise, My Soul

“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”  Although he was an Anglican vicar, he had initially considered studying medicine. Although he was tolerant of his repeated transfers to different churches, he eventually gave up the ministry in an effort to regain his health. Although he published three volumes of poetry, only two of his texts remain in popular usage, “Abide with Me” and “Praise, My, Soul, the King of Heaven.”  Henry Lyte (1793-1847), an Englishman, seems to have been a writer who was profoundly mystified by the sadnesses of life.  In 1818, he was deeply moved by the death of a fellow clergyman, writing “He died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and be accepted for all that had incurred.” Lyte himself underwent a spiritual change as he continues, “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before;  and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.” He wrote “Abide with Me” in 1820 under similar circumstances. 

        This hymn is a free paraphrase of the praise-filled Psalm 103. Yet, this hymn is apparently not representative of his work, as one scholar observes that “it is with the tenderness and tearfulness of the Psalms that he is most deeply penetrated,” and that Lyte had a “habit of isolating the sad part of a psalm.” Perhaps that this hymn was based on such a joyous psalm has contributed to a longevity not experienced by Lyte’s other hymns. 

        As I consult with people to select music for their weddings, I am often admonished only to play “upbeat” music.  I am often left at a loss understanding exactly what is meant by this useless word.  We have also heard churches likewise praised for their “uplifting” music and worship, as if something narrowly-defined as “upbeat” and “uplifting” somehow qualifies as an encounter with God.  “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” is certainly a joyous expression of praise—no matter the tendencies of the hymnwriter—but it is also faithful to the theological nuances of the psalm.  The psalm begins with the “upbeat” litany, “Praise the Lord, O my soul;  all my inmost being praise His holy name.”  Yet, both the psalm (and consequently the hymn) continue with the reason why this praise is rendered;  we praise because it is God “. . . who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.”  In the paraphrased words of the hymn, we are “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.”  In verse 13 of the psalm, God is compared to a father, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.”  This is paraphrased in the hymn in stanza three as, “Fatherlike He tends and spares us; Well our feeble frame He knows;  In His hand He gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes.”  Is this good news or bad news?  Is this law or gospel?  Is this upbeat or unduly morose?  Many in our culture would find these lines depressing, for they acknowledge human frailty;  we have “foes” from whom we need rescuing.  We have diseases which need healing.  We sin constantly and need forgiveness. I have a suspicion that when people want Christianity that is “upbeat,” they want only “rescuing,” “healing” and “forgiveness.”  They want the gospel, but they do not want the law. What is the good news of the gospel without a knowledge of sin, from which the gospel saves?  This is no gospel at all! 

        This hymn is characteristic of all good hymnody (and of every psalm) in that law is presented with gospel.  The law without the gospel is depressingly burdensome, and cannot by nature be focued of Christ Jesus, who redeemed us from the law.  The gospel without the law cannot by nature be the true gospel, for it ignores the power of what Christ Jesus has accomplished.  The complexity of the Christian life is such that the sorrow and sadness of sin will be experienced by everyone on this earth.  But the joy of forgiveness and redemption will be experienced, too, at least by every Christian.  This hymn reminds of the natural tension between law and gospel, and the supremacy of the true gospel through Christ.

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Dear Christians One and All Rejoice

 

“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice”  This was Martin Luther’s first congregational hymn, published in 1524 in Etlich Christliche Lieder (also known as the “Achtliederbuch,” or “Eight Christian Hymns”) and representing the genesis of Protestant hymnody.  The printing press, which had been invented around 1450, had become a boon to the Reformation, as ideas and music could be spread quickly and cheaply;  no longer did each volume have to be copied by hand by a scribe.  Consequently, even average working families could afford books, and small pamphlets such as Etlich Christliche Lieder were a common means which Luther and others used to propagate the Reformation. 

            Of the eight hymns contained in this little volume, four were by Luther;  his choice of tunes to which his hymns were set manifest his acute concern that a hymn be “singable.”  This hymn tune was probably a secular folk tune from the late Middle Ages which Luther borrowed and used to set a sacred text.  This process, as readers of music notes will recall, is called “contrafactum.”  Contrafactum, or replacing an existing secular song’s text with a sacred text, was fairly common during the Reformation.  Luther and the reformers wished to engage the congregation in worship immediately, and whilst they made a concerted effort to teach singing and original hymnody, they also composed texts to already-familiar tunes so that people would already be familiar with half of the hymn before they even sang it!  Roman Catholic church music largely (but not exclusively—there were exceptions) excluded the congregation from singing.  Plainchant (or Gregorian chant) was the primary expression of medieval hymnody and consisted of free-flowing, florid, and unaccompanied vocal lines meant primarily as a vehicle for conveying the text.  Plainchant by nature was/is most appropriate for a choir (of monks) who have adequate time to rehearse and to learn this music;  plainchant is difficult for a congregation to sing.  Luther supplemented these chants with easily-sung congregational hymnody.  This hymn is one such example.

            Frequent readers of music notes at this point may surmise that the writer will now launch into another discussion of Luther and “bar tunes.”  If you know the falaciousness of this insidious misconception, you may quit reading here.  However, this bears continual repeating.

            This hymn, like “A Mighty Fortress” and like much medieval secular music, is musically repetitive.  Just as poetry has form and meter, so does music.  The form of this medieval secular music is known musicologically as the “bar” form.  Bar form means the music repeats in a certain way:  AABC (or coda [ending]).  In this hymn, the bar form is manifest as follows:

 

A:   “Dear Christians one and all rejoice, with exultation springing;” the music then repeats,

A:   “And with united heart and voice and holy rapture singing;” new music is then introduced,

B:   “Proclaim the wonders God has done, how His right arm the vict’ry’s won;”  which concludes with a brief coda,

C:    “What price our ransom cost Him!”

 

“A Mighty Fortress” is set to this same musical/poetic scheme.  Luther was aware that, not only were people generally familiar with these tunes, the tunes in essence taught themselves, as by the end of the second stanza one will have sung the A section a total of four times.  Plus, the melody of the B section is often related musically to the A section, so it will not sound “foreign” when the singer arrives there.  So, Luther never once used “bar” tunes, as the purveyors of shoddy church music would have us believe;  yet, he used a form that was recognizable and easy to sing.  We may not find this hymn today the easiest to sing;  we sing others that are more recognizable and probably more beloved.  However, seldom is Law and Gospel better proclaimed than in this Reformation hymnody, and we are fortunate to be able to sing it.

 

 

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