Friday, 28 October 2016

Program Notes for Six Hymns

For special occasions (in my case, pastoral installation), it is appropriate for a worship leader to include program notes for the hymns to be sung in a given service. The well trained church musician should be able to say some thoughtful words about both the hymn tune and its text. The model followed here is somewhat akin to that found in the program notes of a classical concert, although other models might be followed (background information, testimonial, etc.).

The majestic hymn melody soars to heights, befitting the praise of the one who is the king of heaven. Stressed notes of equal proportion lead to climatic alleluias, with final declarations to conclude each verse. The hymn is sometimes sung to other more familiar tunes. Lauda Anima (Goss) is the tune selected for our service, for its meaningfulness to the Leonards since it is the tune of Regent College’s anthem, Pastor Jim’s alma mater.

The Celtic text is ancient (Rop tú mo Baile) and is attributed to the Irish monk Dallán Forgaill (c. 530-598). The tune is an Irish folk tune, not published until the early 20th century, but now interlocked with the English translation of the ancient Celtic text. This familiar hymn emphasizes Christ as the object of passionate affection and devotion, and as a guiding light that consumes all else. Pastor Jim claims this as his life hymn.

Full of allusions to biblical texts, this favorite hymn borrows the theme of God’s great promise of his enduring faithfulness and mercy from Jeremiah’s great lament over Jerusalem’s destruction. The repeated text “Great is Thy faithfulness” is a refrain that the members of First Baptist Church Morgantown may claim as their own, given the Lord’s goodness and provision through 175 years of ministry, whether through seasons of celebration or seasons of difficulty and lament. The hymn promises God’s continued faithfulness in the coming years of ministry.

Full of chordal sequences that convey mystery and ecstasy, the hymn text itself touches several scenes in the book of Revelation, including the parade of “blood-washed overcomers” who welcome the Lord’s return and who will “walk with him in white.” The Revelator writes, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear …” (Rev 19:6-8). The climactic phrase in the third line is breathtaking both musically and textually: “O may I know the joy at his appearing….” Although the hymn gained popularity in the mid-20th century, newer hymnals are not retaining it, and it is likely to be soon forgotten, to the great loss of future congregations. The hymn is sung today in honor of those who founded First Baptist Church, Morgantown, 175 years ago, and to those who have sustained its ministry ever since. We long for that day when we shall join those overcomers and walk with the Lord in white.

The hymn and hymn tune both derive from Wales and have been closely associated with the Welsh revivals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The tune itself was composed during a Baptist worship service. The lyricist composed many hymn texts and was known as the “(Isaac) Watts of Wales.” The text is heavily laden with biblical allusions and is well informed by a sound biblical theology. The Christian life has as its model Israel’s pilgrimage out of Egypt to the Promised Land, with a strong emphasis on God’s leadership and provision. Specific to our situation, First Baptist Church may sing this hymn confident of God’s divine guidance into this new era of ministry.


Given its demanding bass melody and four-part harmonization, this famous hymn may not be regularly sung on any given Sunday. Nonetheless, it’s robust musical lines, paired with memorable text, and celebrative feel make it a most favored hymn for special occasions, especially with a full house of singing congregants. The chorus begins with the male voices making general pronouncements about the grace of God, with the women echoing in like manner. The rolling and cascading melody climaxes with a powerful doxological cadence: O magnify the precious name of Jesus, Praise his name!

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