Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hymn Meters

The meter of a hymn text is not to be confused with the meter of the music. The meter of the music is the arrangement of the rhythm into regular patterns of stress called "measures", and is signified by the "time signature", a symbol at the beginning of the staff (e.g. 4/4, 6/8, etc.); the hymn meter is the pattern of syllables and stresses in the text itself. There is obviously going to be a relationship between the two, but they are not the same thing.

Finding the meter of a hymn text is simple--just count the syllables. For example, in the text "All people that on earth do dwell", we find the following:

All
1
peo-
2
ple
3
that
4
on
5
earth
6
do
7
dwell,
8
Sing
1
to
2
the
3
Lord
4
with
5
cheer-
6
ful
7
voice;
8
Him
1
serve
2
with
3
fear,
4
His
5
praise
6
forth
7
tell,
8
Come
1
ye
2
be-
3
fore
4
Him
5
and
6
re-
7
joice!
8

Each stanza of this text falls into four lines of eight syllables each, which can be expressed as "8.8.8.8" for short. Now look at "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow":

Praise
1
God
2
from
3
Whom
4
all
5
bless-
6
ings
7
flow;
8
Praise
1
Him
2
all
3
crea-
4
tures
5
here
6
be-
7
low!
8
Praise
1
Him
2
a-
3
bove,
4
ye
5
heav'n-
6
ly
7
host;
8
Praise
1
Fa-
2
ther,
3
Son
4
and
5
Ho-
6
ly
7
Ghost!
8

Notice in the third line that we have "heav'n-ly" instead of "heav-en-ly"; if we had kept all three syllables, the meter would be 8.8.9.8. The reader has probably already thought about the fact that "All people that on earth do dwell" and "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow" are sung to the same tune, OLD 100TH. The reason they both work with that tune, is that the OLD 100TH tune has four phrases, each of which can accomodate eight syllables of text. In fact, any other text in the hymnal that has a hymn meter of 8.8.8.8 can be sung to the same tune--but something that is 8.8.9.8 would run out of notes in the third line before it ran out of syllables!

Long Meter

8.8.8.8 is actually quite common, and is one of the original handful of hymn meters that the English psalm-singers of the Reformation used in their psalters. When Isaac Watts began to popularize the singing of original hymns, he stuck to these few patterns as well. 8.8.8.8 was called "Long Meter" or "LM" for short, because it has four long lines of eight syllables, as opposed to mixing in shorter lines as other meters did. You can still see the "LM" indication in many hymnals, above the author's name on the left-hand side.

The OLD 100TH tune is used in Praise for the Lord for yet another text, #64:

Be-
1
fore
2
Je-
3
ho-
4
vah's
5
aw-
6
ful
7
throne,
8
Ye
1
na-
2
tions
3
bow
4
with
5
sac-
6
red
7
joy!
8
Know
1
that
2
the
3
Lord
4
is
5
God
6
a-
7
lone;
8
He
1
can
2
cre-
3
ate
4
and
5
He
6
de-
7
stroy.
8

By now it should be apparent that there are many texts that fall into this "Long Meter" pattern, and that any melody that fits one should fit them all. For example, it is possible to sing the following with the OLD 100TH tune we have been discussing:

When I sur-vey the won-drous cross,
On which the Prince of glo-ry died,
My rich-est gain I count but loss
And pour con-tempt on all my pride.

And conversely, we could sing "All creatures that on earth do dwell" to the tune of "When I survey the wondrous cross". Not that it would necessarily be a good match; what is possible is not always musically satisfying. We could, for example, force the following Long Meter text to fit OLD 100TH:

Fa- ther and Friend, Thy light, Thy love
Beam- ing through all Thy works we see.
Thy glo- ry gilds the heav'ns a- bove,
And all the earth is full of Thee.

It has the right number of syllables, but the natural stress patterns of the words "Fa-ther" and "beam-ing" contradict the rhythm of OLD 100TH. A better adaptation would be to sing it to the tune of "When I survey the wondrous cross". And for an interesting recasting of a text, try singing "All creatures that on earth do dwell" to the mellow, quiet tune of "Father and Friend"!

Short Meter

The next hymn meter we will look at is "Short Meter", abbreviated "SM", also one of the old psalm-singing meters. Its pattern is 6.6.8.6, alternating shorter six-syllable lines with one eight-syllable line.

One well-known Short Meter text is "Blest be the tie that binds":

Blest
1
be
2
the
3
tie
4
that
5
binds
6
Our
1
hearts
2
in
3
Christ-
4
ian
5
love;
6
The
1
fel-
2
low-
3
ship
4
of
5
kin-
6
dred
7
minds
8
Is
1
like
2
to
3
that
4
a-
5
bove.
6

Wesley's "A charge to keep I have" is also in Short Meter:

A
1
charge
2
to
3
keep
4
I
5
have;
6
A
1
God
2
to
3
glo-
4
ri-
5
fy;
6
A
1
ne-
2
ver-
3
dy-
4
ing
5
soul
6
to
7
save,
8
And
1
fit
2
it
3
for
4
the
5
sky!
6

Obviously you could sing "A charge to keep" to the tune of "Blest be the tie" with no problem. Another Short Meter texts is "Rise up, O men of God!"(PFTL#553):

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with les- ser things!
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of Kings!

This might be sung to the tune of "Blest be the tie", but that melody doesn't seem to suit it; it would work better to the tune of "A charge to keep". For that matter, the words of "A charge to keep" would be a good fit to the tune of "Rise up, O men of God!" if you wanted to try that.

Common Meter

"Common Meter" or "CM" is 8.6.8.6, and is called "common" because (for whatever reasons) it was the most used in the heyday of psalm-singing and early English hymnody. One of the most famous hymns in the English language is in Common Meter:

A-
1
ma-
2
zing
3
grace!
4
How
5
sweet
6
the
7
sound,
8
That
1
saved
2
a
3
wretch
4
like
5
me!
6
I
1
once
2
was
3
lost,
4
but
5
now
6
am
7
found;
8
Was
1
blind,
2
but
3
now
4
I
5
see!
6

Another Common Meter hymn is "I'm not ashamed to own my Lord"(PFTL#298):

I'm not a- shamed to own my Lord,
Nor to de- fend His cause,
Main- tain the ho- nors of His word,
The glo- ries of His cross!


The texts and tunes of these two hymns are potentially interchangeable, although the effect is a little odd. The tune AZMON ("I'm not ashamed to own my Lord") is also used in Praise for the Lord for the Common Meter hymns "O for a faith that will not shrink"(#462) and "O for a thousand tongues to sing"(#468); the latter hymn appears with another tune as well.

Why the big three?

Long Meter, Short Meter, and Common Meter were virtually all there was in the psalm-singing of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the first phase of hymn-writing (Watts) of the early 18th century. Why this was the case is question with some fairly interesting answers. First, the psalter translators, and the earliest hymn-writers (such as Watts) were amateur poets, and tended not to branch out too much or get too fancy. They stuck with patterns they knew.

Second, music was not printed on the page with the words in psalters or hymnals until well into the 19th century. When a new psalm or hymn was introduced, it was just sung to a tune that fit. (This is why you may run into a familiar text with an unfamiliar tune, or vice versa, in the hymnal of another religious group, or among our brethren in Great Britain; the text/tune matchup of one musical tradition may not be the same in another.) There were a number of good tunes that fit each of the three meters, so as long as you wrote a text in one of those, you could count on people being able to sing it.

There were several reasons for this situation. Music printing was a specialized skill that was not always available or affordable before the Industrial Revolution led to cheap, mass-market printing. On top of that, during the 1500s-1700s the ability to read music was for the most part restricted to those who could afford to study privately, which was a privilege (and status symbol) of the nobility and the upper middle class. But besides these practical reasons, there was an innate conservatism in the psalm-singing tradition that resisted making the music too much of the focus. A few serviceable tunes in each of the meters was considered good enough, and there was even a certain amount of resistance to putting music on the page with the words. (Interestingly, Alexander Campbell felt this way as well.)

When Isaac Watts came on the scene with original hymns, he was working in the context of the psalm-singing tradition and simply wrote in the meters with which he was already familiar. If he had decided to write in anything else, he would have had to find tunes to go with his new meters, and then would have had the challenge of getting people to learn them. It was enough of a battle to get people to accept the idea of singing anything but psalms.

Charles Wesley, however, was in a different situation. For one thing, the Methodist movement moved in social circles that had more access to formally trained church musicians, and made more pretense to poetic sophistication. Wesley still wrote many hymns in Long Meter, Short Meter, and Common Meter, but he also wrote in a variety of other meters as well. For example, he wrote several popular hymns in 7.7.7.7 D (the "D" means "doubled"), such as:

Hark! The he- rald an- gels sing,
"Glo- ry to the new- born King!"
Peace on earth, and mer- cy mild;
God and sin- ners re- con- ciled!
Joy- ful, all ye na- tions rise,
Join the tri- umph of the skies!
With an- ge- lic hosts pro- claim,
"Christ is born in Beth- le- hem!"

and

Je- sus, Lo- ver of my soul,
Let me to Thy bo- som fly
While the near- er wa- ters roll,
While the tem- pest still is high.
Hide me, O my Sav- ior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe in- to the ha- ven guide,
O re- ceive my soul at last.

It would be possible to sing "Jesus, Lover of my soul" to the tune of "Hark! The herald angels sing", but the cultural association of that melody would make it a surreal experience to say the least.

Wesley also wrote some texts in 8.7.8.7 D as well:

Love di- vine, all loves ex- cel- ling,
Joy of heav'n, to earth come down,
Fix in us Thy hum- ble dwel- ling,
All Thy faith- ful mer- cies crown;
Je- sus, Thou art all com- pas- sion,
Pure, un- bound- ed love Thou art;
Vis- it us with Thy sal- va- tion,
En- ter ev- 'ry trem- bling heart!

and

Come, Thou long- ex- pec- ted Je- sus,
Born to set Thy peo- ple free.
From our fears and sins re- lease us:
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Is- rael's Strength and Con- so- la- tion,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear De- sire of ev- 'ry na- tion,
Joy of ev- 'ry long- ing heart!

Both of these texts have lovely tunes in our hymnal, and either tune would do well for either text.

Over the years, as possibilities broadened and the old tradition of mixing-and-matching tunes gave way, there even more complicated hymn meters. One example of a fairly complex hymn meter that would still allow an interchange of text and tune is the following:

Un- to the hills a- round do I lift up
My long- ing eyes.
O whence for me shall my sal- va- tion come,
From whence a- rise?
From God the Lord doth come thy cer- tain aid;
From God the Lord, Who heav'n and earth hath made.

and

Lead, kind- ly Light, a- mid th'en- circ- ling gloom;
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet, I do not try to see
The dis- tant scene; one step e- nough for me.

Both of the preceding have a stanza structure of 10.5.10.5.10.10, and their tunes would be interchangeable.

Another aspect in which the Wesleys were also quite influential was the encouragement of learning new hymn tunes. The singing-school movement in the American colonies, and the music education movement of the 19th century, ensured that eventually there would be fewer reasons to rely on a mix-and-match approach. As printed music became cheaper to produce, and as the gospel song movement introduced popular-music styles to church music, it became more expected to introduce a new hymn with new music written specifically for that text.

Why does it matter?

Even though we don't do it much any more, it is worth knowing that the mix-and-match approach existed, because it is still possible for a congregation to sing an entirely unfamiliar hymn using a familiar tune. Suppose, for example, that you want to sing "O God, our help in ages past" (PFTL#470), but the congregation doesn't know the tune. Above the author's name you notice "CM", or "Common Meter". Looking in the Metrical Tunes index in the back of the book, you find a list of over 50 other hymns that are in Common Meter. Looking through these, you try a few out with this text:

O God our help in a- ges past,
Our hope for years to come;
Our shel- ter from the stor- my blast,
And our e- ter- nal home!

Our old standby AZMON ("I'm not ashamed to own my Lord") would fit. So would NEW BRITAIN ("Amazing grace"). ORTONVILLE ("How sweet the name of Jesus sounds") is another possibility. It would even be possible to use ORLINGTON ("The Lord's my Shepherd", PFTL#642) if you could get the repeat right on the third line. At any rate, there are possibilities to work with here. My pick would be NEW BRITAIN ("Amazing grace")--everybody can sing it from memory, and it has an appropriate mood. That, of course, is a matter of taste!

No comments:

Post a Comment