Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Forgotten Verses

Years ago, I was helping a very elderly widow plan the music for her funeral. She wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t sing anything from “that horrible new hymnal.” I said mildly that some of her favorites were bound to be in the ’82 Hymnal. “You mean 1882?” she asked confusedly. No, I meant the 1982 we were using now, I responded. “Oh, good heavens, I can’t even read the print in that awful thing,” she said. “No, no, when I talk about that horrible new hymnal I mean that blue one…you know…” It turned out the “Horrible New Hymnal” was the Hymnal 1940. She had managed as a young woman to get used to the Episcopal Hymnal 0f 1916 – though her childhood predated even that one –but had been in a state of barely suppressed rage for decades over the 1940 Hymnal leaving out “all my favorites.” So her funeral used entirely hymns which we copied from the 1916 version, including Barnby’s setting of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” (number 412 in the Hymnal 1916):

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of time and place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Well, that one was lovely, actually. I was less impressed with the sixth verse (most hymns had at least six or seven verses in those days) of Hymn 407, “One sweetly solemn thought”:

Feel Thee near when my feet
Are slipping o’er the brink;
For it may be I’m nearer home,
Nearer now than I think.

Perfectly true, of course, but not entirely relevant once one has actually died. This, and some of her other choices, were from the “Visitation” section of the 1916 Hymnal – “Visitation” referring to the Visitation of the Sick in the 1892 Book of Common Prayer – (a very conservative revision of the 1789 Prayer Book, unlike the more controversial and revisionist 1928 book, which introduced “popish” practices and gave further ammunition to the breakaway denomination called the Reformed Episcopal Church). Most of the hymns in that Visitation category were easily long enough for you to die in the course of their being sung; I wonder if that was the point? I guess people had more stamina in those days – the lady’s funeral was almost two hours. I recall enjoying Hymn 399, “At even, when the sun was set” for its fourth verse (of seven verses):

And some have found the world is vain,
Yet from the world they break not free,
And some have friends who give them pain,
Yet have not sought a friend in Thee.

Mercifully, she was talked out of some of her favorite “Mission” hymns, including “From Greenland’s icy mountains” (“though every prospect pleases and only man is vile”) and “Savior, sprinkle many nations.”

Of course, the 1940 Hymnal still had a few gems that would raise eyebrows even when I was growing up. Do you remember

I heard a sound of voices
Around the great white throne,
With harpers harping on their harps
To him that sat thereon…(?)

and “Remember all the people who live in far off lands,” with its remarkable second verse, beginning

Some work in sultry forests
Where apes swing to and fro
Some fish in mighty rivers,
Some hunt across the snow…

But there is much that I miss in the Hymnal 1982, including the best verse of “It came upon the midnight clear” from the 1940:

O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low;
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! For glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

Verses omitted from the 1982 Hymnal range from the sublime – which make you wonder resentfully why they were left out – to the appalling. Also in the Christmas section, “Angels from the realms of glory” originally closed with the verse:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pain,
Justice now revokes your sentence,
Mercy calls---break your chains;…

“Angels we have heard on high” used to begin:

(piano) When the crimson sun had set
Low behind the wintry sea,
On the bright and cold midnight (crescendo)
Burst a sound of heavenly glee:
(forte) Gloria in excelsis Deo…

To turn to something more seasonal now that summer has come, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small” is one of our favorite hymns for Rogation Sunday, when the weather finally gives us hope for getting our gardens in:

Each little flower that opens
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

The hymn, from Hymns for Children (London, 1848), by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), originally included these two stanzas to give thanks for God’s creation:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly
And ordered their estate.
All things bright and beautiful…
The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water
We gather every day.
All things bright and beautiful…

The less said about the first omitted stanza the better. The gathering of rushes is regrettably no longer as common as it once was, though it would still have been known in rural England in the 1840s.

Another favorite children’s hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus,” used to conclude with two verses that were translated from the German original of 1662, verses which many commentators (and I) would like to see put back in:

All fairest beauty, heavenly and earthly,
Wondrously, Jesus, is found in thee;
None can be nearer, fairer or dearer,
Than Thou, my Savior, art to me.
Beautiful Savior! Lord of the Nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
Now and for evermore be thine.
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