Saturday, April 28, 2012

Come We That Love the Lord

Praise for the Lord #111

Words: Isaac Watts, 1707; chorus, Robert Lowry, 1867
Music: Robert Lowry, 1867

Sometimes a hymn can become a favorite on the strength of associations alone, but I think more often it is a really great hymn to begin with that, in combination with those associations, makes an impression that lasts a lifetime. I have loved this hymn since I was a little boy, just for its happy, upbeat tone. But in my teen years, I would remember it as the last hymn I led at the last worship service of the old Northside Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I grew up. And it was one of the songs I chose for my first time leading a worship service at the Brown Trail Church of Christ in Bedford, Texas, on a Sunday when one of the preaching students was delivering what may have been his first sermon there. Little did we know that we would someday be brothers-in-law, and would be blessed to fill those same roles in the same pulpit on many more Sundays!

This hymn originally appeared as hymn #30 in Book II of Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), the section titled "Composed on Divine Subjects." As usual with Watts's hymns, there were many more stanzas in the original--no fewer than 10 in this case--and later hymnals have culled these into various versions. Click here to see the full original text. Our four-stanza version here includes the stanzas most commonly known, and has only one change from Watts's original wording--"children of the heavenly King," instead of "favorites of the heavenly King," in the second stanza.

Watts gave the superscription, "Heavenly joy on earth," as the theme of his hymn, and it certainly is a hymn of pure joy, though admitting there are challenges in life. Yes, there will be scoffers "who never knew our God," and there are "tears to be dried;" but these are momentary, and our goal is eternal. The joy our God gives us, especially when we gather to sing His praises, swallows these up and overwhelms them.

Stanza 1:
Come we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.

The teachings of Jesus contain "hard sayings"(John 6:60), and these very often come in the form of a paradox. The Teacher who said, "Blessed are those who mourn,"(Matthew 5:4) is the same Teacher who said, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."(John 15:11) But a good definition of a paradox, as the old saying goes, is "truth standing on its head to get our attention." It is well worth our time to investigate what a Christian's joy really is.

First, it is closely associated with the new birth by the Holy Spirit; Paul in fact called it the "joy of the Spirit."(1 Thessalonians 1:6) It is a characteristic of the Spirit-born citizens of Christ's kingdom, exhibiting "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."(Romans 14:17) In Paul's list of the fruits of the Spirit, it is second only to love, the greatest Christian virtue.(Galatians 5:22) Peter called it "inexpressible and filled with glory."(1 Peter 1:8)

But this joy of the Spirit is not a light, giddy euphoria; it is a joy that exists alongside real problems and suffering. Paul said to the Corinthians, "In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy."(2 Corinthians 7:4) He also reported that the churches in Macedonia "in a severe test of affliction" and "extreme poverty" still had an "abundance of joy."(2 Corinthians 8:2) It is a joy that seems instead to thrive in adversity; James made the outlandish statement, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.(James 1:2-3) Perhaps this association is seen most clearly in Paul's blessing to the church in Colossae, "May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy."(Colossians 1:11)

So this is not a giddy, euphoric joy such as we might feel at a sporting event. It is a joy that exists in spite of sorrows, and in full recognition of them, not in their denial. It is a deep, solemn joy, somewhat like we might feel in connection with a graduation, or a marriage, or the birth of a child--full of cheer, yet not unmixed with serious contemplation. But it is also a joy that should be known! The Psalms call on us again and again to sing and shout for joy, and Psalm 107:2 says pithily, "Let the redeemed of the LORD say so." As Isaac Watts expressed so well in another hymn (Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book 1, Hymn #39), unfortunately not so common in modern hymnals but familiar to Sacred Harp singers:
Now let my inward joys arise,
And burst into a song;
Almighty love inspires my heart,
And pleasure tunes my tongue.
It seems no accident that in the the parallel passages on Christian song found in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the prerequisite for praise is to "be filled with the Spirit,"(Ephesians 5:18) and to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly."(Colossians 3:16) When this true, abiding Christian joy fills our hearts, it overflows in our outward words and deeds.

We're marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We're marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

The chorus, of course, is an addition of the composer, Robert Lowry. Though it is not of a piece with the style of Watts, it is not so jarringly different as is the chorus tacked onto "Alas! And did my Savior bleed?" Lowry took the "marching" image from Watts's final stanza and spread that active, restless metaphor across the entire hymn. He also focused the singer's attention on the Christian's goal, the "city of God," which Watts introduced only in the next-to-last stanza. So if Lowry altered the presentation of Watts's ideas somewhat by adding this chorus, at least it was a sensible interpretation!

Lowry's phrase "marching to Zion" has become an ingrained part of the religious vocabulary of the United States, and a lightning rod in some worthwhile discussions on the role of the church in this world. It is a metaphor that tells the simple truth: "My kingdom is not of this world."(John 18:36) The people of Jesus Christ are " strangers and exiles on the earth."(Hebrews 11:13) But if the body of Christ is sojourning here, with citizenship in another kingdom, does that mean we are (in the words of the secularist) promising "pie in the sky in the sweet by and by" instead of working to make the world better here and now? Some put it even more bluntly: "the beneficiaries of the social system appealed to a future world to encourage their subjects to remain docile."(Yoder, 241)

No one denies that this has been done, just as people have always "twisted" the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) to suit their own ends. But when we look at the first-century vision of the kingdom, as John Howard Yoder points out,
In the worldview of that time the gap between the present and the promised was not fundamental. What we are now doing is what leads to where we are going. Since the "this-worldly" and the "otherworldly" were not percieved in radical dichotomy, to be "marching through Immanuel's ground" today is to be on the way to Zion.(Yoder, 241)
Jesus set up a kingdom "not of this world," but He also calls on the citizens of that kingdom to be salt and light in this world while we are here.(Matthew 5:13-16) These "good works"(v.16) are not what save us, but they are what obedient saved people do--they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners.(Matthew 25:35-36) As Runyon points out, "there is no dichotomy between 'Marching to Zion' and marching from Selma to Montgomery."(Runyon, 52) There is a danger, of course, that the church can become mired in politics (as it can on any issue of this world). There is a danger as well that accommodation to the world can tempt the church to emphasize an earthly mission of good works at the expense of the far less popular mission of preaching of the gospel. The church is about saving first, then about serving. But there is a danger just as perilous, that this becomes an excuse to ignore the crying needs of a hurting world. We can stand to do a lot more of both, and saving and serving work best hand in hand.

Stanza 2:
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heav'nly King
May speak their joys abroad.


When Watts speaks of those "who never knew our God," who did he mean? He certainly faced atheists in his day. (His hymn "Shall atheists dare insult the cross?" puts forward his point of view firmly!) But there is a wide chasm between a mere assent that God exists, and the Scriptural concept of "knowing God." As James pointed out, "Even the demons believe, and tremble."(James 2:19) The Pharaoh of the Exodus scoffed, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go." He came to know better, but it could hardly be said that Pharaoh knew God except that he assented to the Lord's reality and sovereignty.

"Knowing God" in the Scriptural sense begins at that point, but does not end there. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."(Proverbs 9:10) It begins with understanding the unique sovereignty of God over our universe, and our total dependence on Him for all things, spiritual and physical. "I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know Me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides Me; I am the LORD, and there is no other."(Isaiah 45:5-6)

The proper response to this understanding is a desire to know more. As David so beautifully said, "Make me to know Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day long."(Psalm 25:4-5) This desire is based in loving trust in God's goodness: "Those who know Your name put their trust in You, for You, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek You."(Psalm 9:10)

But those who choose this path must do so seriously, with a commitment of the head and the heart. Lack of consistency was a perennial issue with the ancient Israelites, for which the prophets frequently admonished them. The Lord said through Jeremiah, "I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be My people and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart."(Jeremiah 24:7) A whole-hearted commitment to knowing God was the ideal, but they often fell short--as do we all. Paul, by contrast, had found this driving desire to know his God: "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."(Philippians 3:8) He was in prison at the time, under threat of execution; but the only thing he cared about was the one thing his enemies couldn't take away.

If we truly come to "know God" in this way, it will affect not only our minds and hearts, but our actions. It is all too easy to fall short here, becoming like those whom Paul said "profess to know God, but deny Him by their works."(Titus 1:16) John likewise warned that, "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love."(1 John 4:8) There is an interesting application of this principle in Jeremiah's prophecy against Shallum (Jehoahaz), one of the last kings of Judah:
For thus says the LORD concerning Shallum the son of Josiah, king of Judah, who reigned instead of Josiah his father, and who went away from this place: "He shall return here no more, but in the place where they have carried him captive, there shall he die, and he shall never see this land again. 
"Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, 'I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,' who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion.  
"Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know Me?"declares the LORD.(Jeremiah 22:11-16, emphasis added)
This passage illustrates another concern we must have about knowing God--the absolute necessity of passing on this knowledge to the next generation. Shallum, an abysmal failure as a spiritual leader, was the son of Josiah, one of the great reformers! But this kind of "failure to launch" happened early and often in the history of Israel: "And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that He had done for Israel."(Judges 2:10) We do well to teach our children to know about God--would that all parents would do that much!--but we need to lead them, as they mature spiritually, to "know God" in the greater sense. If we do not, the leadership of the church falls quickly into the situation of Jeremiah's day: "The priests did not say, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who handle the law did not know Me; the shepherds transgressed against Me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit."(Jeremiah 2:8) King David had this concern on his heart in his final charge to Solomon.
And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve Him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever.(1 Chronicles 28:9)
It is a tragedy not to know the Lord; but for those who do (better perhaps to say, who aspire to do so), we can rejoice in that knowledge!
Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD."(Jeremiah 9:23-24)
Stanza 3:
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heavn'ly fields
Or walk the golden streets.


King David was a man who knew a rough, difficult life, whether as a shepherd in the field, an unintentional revolutionary on the run, or a king defending his throne. But his simple faith served him well (as long as he followed it), and he found a joy in life despite these things. In comparison to those who lived at ease, he could say to his God, "You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound."(Psalm 4:7) The Christian likewise gives up certain things, and takes on others, that the worldly person would rather not; but there are joys in abundance, even in this life.

One of those joys is common to every person upon this earth, if we will just learn to see it: "Every blade of grass is a study," said Abraham Lincoln, and there is not a place on this earth where the vibrant life of God's natural world does not show itself in some fashion. Even away from this earth! I recently read that one of the experiments on the International Space Station is a zucchini plant, which is so beloved by the crew that it has its own blog. The 92nd Psalm says, "For you, O LORD, have made me glad by Your work; at the works of Your hands I sing for joy."(Psalm 92:4)

There is even greater joy in God's work of salvation, extending His forgiveness to us. David said, "May we shout for joy over Your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!"(Psalm 20:5) The 71st Psalm expands this theme: "My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to You; my soul also, which You have redeemed."(Psalm 71:23) This joy leads to other joys, in personal devotions and public worship. The 119th Psalm, that great hymn of praise for the written Word, says, "Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart."(Psalm 119:111) David says, again, "I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD."(Psalm 27:6) Worship here is a foretaste of that heavenly worship we long to reach someday, and we can always find joy in the presence of the Lord. Even when we do not feel joy coming in to the assembly, we can find it once we are there if we obediently seek Him. May we learn to say with the Sons of Korah, "My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God."(Psalm 84:2)

One "this-world" joy mentioned often in the New Testament is the joy found in fellowship in the body of Christ. Of course we cannot imagine that they always got along, even in the apostolic age. We see personal conflicts even among the apostles themselves--Paul once disagreed sharply with Barnabas over John Mark,(Acts 15:39) and withstood Peter "to his face, because he stood condemned" by his relapse into discrimination against Gentiles.(Galatians 2:11) But these Christians also rose above these things for the sake of the cause of Christ. Paul spoke later of John Mark as a man "profitable to me for the ministry."(2 Timothy 4:11) Peter called the man who had publicly called him out, "our beloved brother Paul."(2 Peter 3:15) If we will devote ourselves to the cause of Christ, and to the building up of our fellow Christians, we will know that joy of which Paul so frequently wrote, and which John summed up so well: "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth."(3 John 1:4)

Stanza 4:
Then let our songs abound,
And ev'ry tear be dry;
We're marching through Immanuel's ground
To fairer worlds on high.


John records that in the hours before Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane He gave the disciples a series of discourses to strengthen and encourage them for what was to come. In the last of these, He referred to the emotional tumult they would soon experience:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.(John 16:20-23)
If our hope is in Christ, then regardless of what this life brings us, we know our sorrows will give way to joy. The promise is that "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."(Revelation 21:4) I do not pretend to understand how God will heal all the hurts received in this world, but I trust that He knows more about joy than we have ever imagined, and it is a problem safely left with Him. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning."(Psalm 30:5)

In the meantime, we can press on joyfully, knowing that even here in this world, we are on a march to ultimate victory. If we are Christians, we are on "Immanuel's ground" already--inside the territory of His kingdom, where His authority and protection are unassailable. And as Jesus said later in the same passage from John, "I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."(John 16:33) John remembered these words, no doubt, when he wrote, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith."(1 John 5:4) By faith we can see up ahead the end of our long march, and we can savor a foretaste of the joys to come.
About the music:

Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a professor of literature at what is today Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and also served as a minister in Baptist churches. He was a music editor for Biglow & Main, frequently teamed with William Doane. Among the songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics are such fine examples of the gospel style as "Nothing but the blood," "Low in the grave He lay," "Shall we gather at the river?" and the lovely "How can I keep from singing?"(Cyberhymnal) His very best musical setting, in my opinion, is that for Fanny Crosby's "All the way my Savior leads me."
I have been unable to determine the first publication of "Marching to Zion," though it appears with the copyright date 1867 in several early hymnals. The earliest instance of the song that I have found is in The Victory, published in 1870 by Biglow & Main, the New York music house for whom Lowry did most of his music editing. "Marching to Zion" was picked up by Ira Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos and Gospel Hymns series, which assured its quick and wide dissemination.

The practice of adding a chorus to an existing hymn goes back (at least) to the large camp-meetings of the early 19th century, such as the famous Cane Ridge Revival. This event was one of those "only in America" situations; despite the racist system of slavery and segregation that was in place, many African American slaves participated in this massive outdoor event. What followed was inevitable; though segregation was maintained formally, musical ingenuity is stubbornly indifferent to color and custom. Isaac Watts could hardly have imagined, a century earlier, that his hymns would be blended with the shout choruses of the descendants of African slaves, or that it would work so well! But the stern language of Isaac Watts suited the apocalyptic message of the preachers, and the fervent singing of repeated choruses suited the spirit of the crowds.(Music & Richardson, 307) Robert Lowry's addition of a chorus to Watts's "Come we that love the Lord" was a successful repeat of that process; though this song was not actually a camp-meeting revival song, it certainly could have been.

Lowry's setting is a military march in 6/8 time, in the American style--somewhat swaggering and boisterous compared to the European origins of that genre. Wind band music had grown hugely during the Civil War, and the decades immediately following saw the rise of the great early bandmasters such as Patrick Gilmore ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home") and Claudio Grafulla ("Washington Grays"). Though John Philip Sousa was still a boy when Lowry wrote "Marching to Zion," the characteristic style was well established.

Of course Watts's original hymn was sung for a century and a half before Lowry's gospel song adaptation, and it was and is associated with a number of other tunes. Chief among these is ST. THOMAS by Aaron Williams, better known among Churches of Christ, at least in the U.S., with the text "Awake and sing the song," or as the older tune for "Rise up, O men of God." The Cyberhymnal page on "Marching to Zion" lists several alternate tunes.


Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972.

Runyon, Theodore H. "Aging and a meaningful future." Gerontology in Theological Education, ed. Barbara Payne and Earl Brewer. Binghamton, New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

Lincoln, Abraham. Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society (30 September 1859). Abraham Lincoln Online

"Robert Lowry." Cyberhymnal.

Music, David W., and Paul A. Richardson. "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story": A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2008.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"The Fruit of Our Lips": A Cappella Praise through the Centuries (Part 1)

One of the regrettable misconceptions held about, and even sometimes within the Churches of Christ, is the idea that a cappella singing in worship is one of "our" peculiarities, as though it were a novel and recent development. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though all do not defend the practice on the same doctrinal grounds, a cappella praise in Christian worship is really the historically dominant practice, and can be found not only in the past but in our own times. In this series of posts I want to highlight some of the great Christian a cappella traditions, past and present.

Chant in the Early Church

There is no real question that the early church sang a cappella. This is the only practice of church music clearly taught by the apostles (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18-19), and confirmed by their example (1 Corinthians 14:15) and by the example of Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 26:30). The Jewish Christian would be unlikely to have carried over the instrumental practices of the temple into the early church; these were seen as proper to the temple itself (2 Chronicles 29:27), so historically the singing of the synagogue was unaccompanied. The video below is the 22nd Psalm sung according to the Yemenite Jewish tradition.

Perhaps Greek Christians could have adapted the tradition of hymns to Apollo, which were accompanied by the harp-like kithara; but though there may be some influence from the overall style of this genre (Pliny the Younger, c. 112 A.D., described them singing "a hymn to Christ, as to a god"), there is no evidence they used the instrumental accompaniment. (For more on the histoy of a cappella singing in the early church, see the work of musicologist James W. McKinnon.)

The earliest known Christian hymn (so far) for which we have music is the Oxyrhynchus Hymn, found on a scrap of papyrus during the 1918 excavations at the Egyptian city of that name.

A portion of the Oxyrynchus Hymn. The small marks above the line
of Greek text are modified letters indicating notes of the scale.

The text as reconstructed in The MacMillan Book of Earliest Christian Hymns reads:
May none of God's wonderful works
Keep silence, night or morning.
Bright stars, high mountains, the depths of the seas,
Sources of rushing rivers:
May all these break into song as we sing
To Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
May all the angels in the heavens reply:
Amen! Amen! Amen!
Power, praise, honor, eternal glory
To God, the only giver of grace.
Amen! Amen! Amen!

This hymn was an unusual find, because very little music in the ancient Greek letter notation has been found at all. It would be centuries before the modern system of graphic notation (notes moving up and down on a staff) would develop, and for much of this earliest period we simply have lyrics alone. Comparison of surviving oral traditions to the existing manuscript version from later eras sometimes allows a fairly good reconstruction of the music.

Chant in the Orthodox Churches of the Mediterranean World

As Christianity spread, a number of different musical traditions emerged. The biggest difference, of course, was that of language--Christians in the eastern part of the Roman Empire used Koine Greek, whereas the western Christians began to use Latin as their common language. Within each of these areas there were regional traditions as well, and traditions in the vernacular languages of different regions.

The churches in the east remain a cappella to this day, with the exception of the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. There are several different liturgies (written-out orders of service including prayers, scripture readings, chants, etc.) still in use that date back to very early times. The oldest still in use is probably the Liturgy of St. James, which traditionally is said to reflect the practice of the early church in Jerusalem. It is still used by the Syriac Orthodox church (headquarters in Damascus), and occasionally by the other branches of Orthodoxy. The next video shows students from the Malankara (Indian) branch of the Syriac tradition, learning to chant the ancient service.

The Eastern Orthodox churches in the heartland of the old Byzantine Empire used Greek koine liturgies, usually those attributed to John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea, both incredibly important figures in the eastern churches of the 4th century. Over the centuries, a great many chants have been added, and the harmony has become more complex, though remaining within the bounds of a certain solemn simplicity. The next video is the 1st ode for Christmas Day, written in the 8th century by Cosmas of Jerusalem. The text was translated by John Mason Neale in his Hymns of the Eastern Church, whom the English-speaking world owes a great debt for the rediscovery of this treasure trove of hymns.

The music in the previous video has the very simplest kind of harmony--long, low notes supporting a more rapidly moving melody in a higher register. This is one of the most common ways to add other voice parts to a melody, and is seen in many different kinds of vocal and instrumental folk music around the world. Decorating chants in this fashion is documented in western Europe toward the end of the first millennium, and was an important stage in the development of more complex harmony singing; but it is very beautiful in its own right!

Chant in the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe

Missionary efforts from within the Byzantine Empire established Christianity throughout the near East and eastern Europe, and thus there are a cappella Orthodox musical traditions in many other languages besides those of the Mediterranean world. Each country brought its own musical style to bear on the simple framework of harmonized chant; western ears will particularly note the use of a rich variety modal scales, far beyond our typical experience of major and minor! The video below presents the first three Psalms sung by monks of the Romanian Orthodox church.

Many of these Orthodox churches of eastern Europe are well represented in the Americas, in particular the Russian Orthodox community. The different traditions of singing of the Old Slavonic liturgy (shared by many countries) seem to have in common a performance practice that uses very thick harmonies supported by incredibly low bass singing. The lowest notes in this next video go into as many as three ledger lines below the bass staff.

A Cappella Chant in Western Europe

The early church in western Europe also had several different chant traditions, but by the end of the first millennium these had largely yielded to a hybrid liturgy combining the Gallic and Old Roman traditions. The standard language of worship in the west was Latin, though with a few Greek holdovers (such as the "Kyrie eleison"). This drive toward a unified liturgy reflected in part a desire for a unified western Europe in the wake of the collapse of the western half of the Roman empire. Powerful leaders such as Pope Gregory the Great (for whom "Gregorian chant" is named) and the emperor Charlemagne took an active interest in establishing a common rite of worship.

In order to replicate this body of chants, it was necessary to put them in written form and have them taught. At first just the words were given, then around the beginning of the second millennium scribes began to place marks above the words to indicate the rise and fall of the melody. With a system of lines to indicate the degree of rise or fall (a staff), and a letter "C" to indicate middle C (the C clef), a the basics of modern music notation emerged.

One area that still lacked, however, was the notation of rhythm. There is still a certain amount of debate about how to perform Gregorian chant because of this, but the free-flowing, unmetered style is what is best known to most listeners. The following recording is by the monks of the Solesmes Abbey in France, one of the most historically significant institutions in the preservation and modern study of Gregorian chant.

Toward the beginning of the second millennium, the practice of harmonizing chant, known as organum, began to appear in the Gregorian tradition. Just as happened in the east, one of the earliest methods was simply supporting a rapidly moving upper melody with long, low notes. Typically the slow-moving lower voice sang the notes of the original Gregorian chant, while a soloist sang the upper part. Organum was seen as a means to glorify the text for a special occasion; most of the music in a service was still sung as unison chant.

As this music became more and more elaborate, certain monasteries and cathedrals became known for their highly developed musical styles and skilled choirs. The most famous in this time was the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. During the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a distinctive school of organum composition emerged there, eventually expanding the practice to include two or even three voices above the original chant in the slow-moving lowest voice. (One result of this development was that it forced scribes to come up with a method of showing rhythmic values, so that the parts could have some hope of staying together!) The four-part organum below is attributed to the Notre Dame composer Perotin, and probably dates from the early 1200s.

In a later post I hope to look at the more "classical" a cappella choral music that grew out of these early beginnings, particularly in the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox traditions.

Postscript: When Were Instruments Introduced in the West?

A question that naturally arises in the discussion of the music of the medieval Catholic church is the date of the introduction of musical instruments. Bartolomeo Platina, head of the Vatican library in the 15th century, claimed in his Vitæ Pontificum ("Lives of the Popes") that Pope Vitalian (657-72) introduced the organ into the worship service, but this is not well supported. The article on "Organ" in the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that "a strong objection to the organ in church service remained pretty general down to the twelfth century," though the author surmises this was owed to the poor quality of instruments up to that time.(Bewerunge) I believe the evidence supports John Caldwell's theory that the introduction of the musical instruments into Catholic worship occurred in earnest in the late 12th century, coinciding with the development of the more complex part-singing seen in the previous video example.(Caldwell, 14) This does not preclude the possibility of isolated instances prior to that time.

Even at that late date, there is good evidence that this innovation was not welcomed by everyone. There is an oft-repeated quote on this subject from Thomas Aquinas: "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize." This passage, usually quoted from Bingham's Antiquities, is from Thomas's Summa theologiae, and comes from a context that needs explanation. It occurs in the course of answering the question, "Should God be praised in song?,"(see citation below) in which Thomas was defending the practice of singing itself. The statement quoted above is not from Thomas himself, exactly, but is one of his imagined objections raised to the practice of singing:
Objection 4. Further, in the Old Law God was praised with musical instruments and human song, according to Ps. 32:2,3: "Give praise to the Lord on the harp, sing to Him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new canticle." But the Church does not make use of musical instruments such as harps and psalteries, in the divine praises, for fear of seeming to imitate the Jews. Therefore in like manner neither should song be used in the divine praises.
Thomas's answer to this objection is interesting for what it does and does not say:
As the Philosopher says (Politics viii, 6), "Teaching should not be accompanied with a flute or any artificial instrument such as the harp or anything else of this kind: but only with such things as make good hearers." For such like musical instruments move the soul to pleasure rather than create a good disposition within it. In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal--so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises--and because these material instruments were figures of something else.
Though Thomas's purpose in writing was to defend the practice of singing in worship, we can safely deduce this much about his view of instrumental music in worship: he accepted without comment the imagined objector's assumption that it should not be used. Not only did he make no attempt to defend the practice (which must have been known to him in Paris), but rather used an argument based on type vs. antitype, carnal vs. spiritual (Hebrews 8, Colossians 2), to explain why they were not used in the Christian dispensation.


Pliny the Younger. Letter to Emperor Trajan.

Bewerunge, Henry. "Organ." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Caldwell, John. "The Organ in the Medieval Latin Liturgy, 800-1500." Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association , 93rd Sess., (1966-1967), pp. 11-24.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologiae, Part II, 2nd part, Question 90.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Come, Ye Disconsolate

Praise for the Lord #110

Words: Thomas Moore, 1824; altered, Thomas Hastings, 1832
Music: CONSOLATOR, Samuel Webbe, 1792

Yes, it is that Thomas Moore (1779-1852), the famed Irish poet best remembered for his Irish Melodies. Moore gave the world sweet ballads such as "The last rose of summer" and stirring patriotic lyrics such as "The harp that once through Tara's halls." It seems fitting that the two best-known of his songs in the United States reflect both the tears and laughter that so characterize his writing. "The minstrel boy," brought to these shores by Irishmen fighting in our Civil War, has become a part of the funerary traditions of our military, firefighters, and police forces. On the other hand, "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms" is the song that launched a thousand Warner Brothers cartoon gags involving exploding pianos.

But though his fame is by far owed to his secular songs, Moore was also a significant biographer, critic, and historian. A rather nominal Catholic much of his life, he found his early success primarily in English Protestant circles; but by middle age he increasingly identified with the faith of his youth and the plight of his people. His later works included the semi-autobiographical Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion.(Catholic Enc.) And during the period when he was so occupied with his popular Irish Melodies, Moore put forth his efforts in a religious bent as well, issuing his Sacred Songs in two editions, the first in 1816, and the second in 1824.

A search of shows that many of these were quite popular up into the early 20th century, but "Come, Ye Disconsolate" is the only one now found in common use. By 1903, C. Litton Falkiner could say that the famed poet's hymns "have little to commend them."(Falkiner, 346) I have found relatively little comment on these works in scholarly sources. What caused the indifferent reception of these works in more recent times?

Though Moore obviously wrote his sacred texts to be sung (the original edition had music composed or arranged by Sir John Stevenson, with whom Moore worked so successfully in the Irish Melodies), they freqeuntly range into the sphere of sacred art songs, rather than the humble verse of congregational singing. In his memoir of Moore, Francis James Child said, not disparagingly, that "the Sacred Melodies [Moore] himself regarded as feats of dexterity."(Complete Poetical Works, v.1, lxviii) I suggest the problem was that they were neither fish nor fowl--not quite practical as Sunday-to-Sunday church music, but owing to their subject matter, awkwardly different from his popular nationalist poetry.

Consider, for example, the treatment given the first edition of Sacred Songs by the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, when Moore was in high estimation and his style was squarely in the mainstream. The reviewer cited a want of "that sublime simplicity, that solemn severity, that chastity of thought and expression . . . that inspires our prayers to the creator."("Sacred Songs," 383) By contrast, he claims, Moore's poetry is too clever by half: "The lines are smooth and polished, but there is a luxurious, not to call it a voluptuous tone and spirit, breathing throughout both language and imagery, which does not accord with the intent." As an example, the reviewer cites Moore's paraphrase treatment of Psalm 74:17, "Thou hast made summer and winter."
When youthful spring around us breathes,
Thy spirit warms her fragrant sigh,
And every flower the summer wreathes
Is born beneath that kindling eye.
The reviewer notes wisely that "fine sensibility and a brilliant imagination are always in danger of falling into this error."(386) For contrast's sake, compare Isaac Watts's less polished rendering:
Hath not thy power formed ev'ry coast,
And set the earth its bounds,
With summer's heat, and winter's frost,
In their perpetual rounds?
I would never place Watts in the league of Moore as a poet per se; but in this genre, Watts brought to bear a lifetime of deep study and a plain, frank, and humble style that is better suited to the subject. In the same way, Moore's better efforts in the Sacred Songs coincide well with the weightiness of their material. One of the best, and deserving of a revival, is "The bird, let loose in eastern skies," which plays upon a common metaphor in the Psalms (11:1, 55:6); this vivid poetic image was better suited to Moore's strengths. "Come, ye disconsolate" likewise called forth his ability to relate to the disillusioned and hurting, and perhaps foreshadowed his return to faith later in life.

The version of the text most commonly used in the United States was altered by Thomas Hastings for Spiritual Songs for Social Worship, edited by Hastings and Lowell Mason (Utica, N.Y.: Hastings, Tracy, and Williams, 1832). Besides a few minor changes in the first two stanzas, Hastings completely replaced the third stanza. These differences are noted below.

Stanza 1:
Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish;
Come, at the mercy seat fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav'n cannot heal.

The second line of Moore's original reads "at God's altar," which Hastings changed to "at the mercy seat." Perhaps Hastings wanted to avoid what could be considered a reference to the literal altars used in Catholic and some Protestant worship traditions. I really doubt Moore meant this literally; though his language strikes Protestant ears as referring to an "altar call," that could hardly have been his intent!

Moore chose the word "disconsolate," which is not common in American English; the Oxford Dictionaries Online define this as "very unhappy and unable to be comforted." It is not just being unhappy and in need of consolation, but implies instead that consolation has been attempted and has failed. It is closer, then, to our more common expression, "inconsolable."

There is something innately incomplete in us, whether we call it the "human condition" or some other philosophical term. My cat eats, drinks, hunts, and sleeps, and by any conceivable measure appears to be content with her lot. (Her hunting is almost always unsuccessful, but the prowling and stalking provide hours of diversion.) We too need the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, but once these are relatively secure, we still want something else. People try to fill up this "something else" by many means--drugs in the literal form, or the drug of accumulation of material wealth, or the drug of power and perceived importance. Sometimes, of course, our better instincts incline us to fill this void with the love of family and friends, or even better, with good deeds for humanity at large.

But the hole is still there; or, stated positively, there is something within us, when it has a chance to awaken, that is meant for more than just survival or physical and emotional comfort. The latter impulses just mentioned--devotion to family and friends, and the desire to do good for humanity--can sometimes be twisted to wrongheaded ends, but they are symptoms of something better. It is the image of God in us, that spark of the soul that is more than the 100 trillion or so cells that make up the human organism.

Though Moore did not provide a Scripture reference as he did to some others of his Sacred Songs--and given his broad style of interpretation, it is hard to read between the lines--a likely Scripture starting point for this hymn seems to be Matthew 11:28-30. Here Jesus directly addresses the "disconsolate" state of the human soul:
Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.
Note that Jesus did not promise an unqualified, unlimited freedom; He has a yoke of discipline and burden for us to bear, just as He did himself. The Savior to whom we submit also said, "I seek not My own will but the will of Him who sent Me."(John 5:30) And Moore calls us to "kneel" before God, a posture of humility and servitude that comes hard to many of us. But consider the Beatitudes--Jesus said we are "blessed" if we are poor in spirit, mourning and meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness.(Matthew 5:1-6) It is this recognition of our need for God, our incompleteness without Him, that is necessary before we can get into a right relationship to Him. We must kneel before He can lift us up.

Stanza 2:
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure;
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
"Earth has no sorrow that heav'n cannot cure."

Jesus told His apostles shortly before His crucifixion, "So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."(John 16:22) This same group of men, according to what history we have of them, all died violent deaths with the exception of John who was exiled. Paul, who was not present of course on that occasion, gives a lengthy list of the trials of an apostle in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. He summed up the privileges of this exclusive fraternity thus: "We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things."(1 Corinthians 4:13) But their joy in Christ was never taken away! Paul, even under threat of death in prison, repeatedly admonished Christians to "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice!"(Philippians 4:4)

Jesus offers hope, as well, but not the flimsy sort of grasping at straws that we sometimes associate with that word. On several occasions when Paul was called on to explain himself before the authorities (Acts 23:6, 24:15, 26:6-7, and 28:20), he placed a certain "hope" at the center of his preaching. In the first two of those instances, Paul said it was a hope associated with the resurrection of the dead; in the second two, he identified it with the promises made to Israel, finally summing it up in Acts 28:20 as "the hope of Israel." To the faithful Jew this "hope" was no nebulous abstraction, it was an article of faith. It was real enough to the Pharisees, in fact, that Paul successfully used it to drive a wedge between them and the Sadducees in his hearing before the Sanhedrin.(Acts 23:6) This hope was a confident expectation in God's deliverance through a Messiah, and a coming age of better things; Paul's message was that Jesus of Nazareth was that Hope of Israel, who became also the Hope of all the world.

Did Romans 15:13 cross Moore's mind when writing this stanza? "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." In John 14 Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit as the "Comforter" who abides with Christians forever.(John 14:26) And how many are the blessings of this Spirit! The "gift of the spirit" to each new Christian (Acts 2:38) is far greater than those outward miraculous signs that confirmed the Word at first, and that some (such as the Christians in Corinth) mistakenly overemphasized. In just a single passage, the 8th chapter of Romans, we find these promises:
  • "The law of the Spirit of Life has set you free"
  • "To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace"
  • "He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you"
  • "By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body"
  • "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God"
  • "the Spirit helps us in our weakness"
  • "The Spirit himself intercedes for us"
Jesus did not leave His followers on their own! We have all the help we need, for the asking, if we will diligently seek it.

Hastings made a couple of minor changes to the second stanza: in the 2nd line, the original reads, "Hope, when all others die" instead of "Hope of the penitent," and in the 3rd line the original reads, "in God's name saying" instead of "tenderly saying." Neither change seems that significant, and I do not see an obvious reason for the alteration.

But the third stanza is another matter! Hastings wrote an entirely different stanza for the conclusion; Moore's original is totally different in theme, and deserving of notice:

Go, ask the infidel, what boon he brings us
What charm for aching hearts
he can reveal,
Sweet as that heavenly promise Hope sings us--
"Earth has no sorrow that GOD cannot heal."

The first question is, did Moore mean "infidel" in the archaic sense of a believer in another deity (as it was once used mutually by Christians and Muslims), or in the more modern definition--a person who does not believe in a deity at all? After searching through a few volumes of Moore's works, I found Moore did use the term in both meanings, though with some qualification. When using the term in the older sense, he almost always put it in the mouth of one of his characters, as a revelation of the person's attitude toward others; Moore's own heritage made him take a dim view of bigotry toward those of other beliefs. He did, however, use the term directly to describe the growing numbers of Europeans during the 19th century who rejected religion outright, and I believe this is the point of his original closing stanza to this hymn.

The person who is looking to win a debate will not be impressed with Moore's logic here, but those who have sought and found this answer in their own lives will understand. Rational arguments about the existence of God aside, if there is no God, then... what? I have looked over the edge of that cliff once or twice myself, and it was not fear that caused me to step back from the howling chaos below--it was the decision to live a life full of meaning, despite some questions, rather than a life of no meaning and no answers.

Stanza 3:
Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heav'n can remove.

This stanza, of course, is entirely by Hastings, who is better known as a tunesmith (TOPLADY, ORTONVILLE). The rush of metaphors he introduces--though all quite Scriptural--seems out of character with the rest of Moore's text. Perhaps the best understanding of it is a consummation of the promises of the preceding stanzas, and of the refrain line, "Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove."

The image of the heavenly banquet runs throughout the Bible, as seen in the dramatic invitation of the 55th chapter of Isaiah:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, My steadfast, sure love for David.(Isaiah 55:1-3)
Jesus took up this theme in his parables (Luke 14, Matthew 25), illustrating the lavish generosity of God, and at the same time the fact that many would reject His offer through disregard or through negligence. Many were willing to come, of course, when Jesus offered the literal loaves and fishes; but in response to their repeated requests for more, the Savior echoed the words of Isaiah:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal.(John 6:26-27)
It is a spiritual feast to which God invites us; Jesus himself is the sweet relief of those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness."(Matthew 5:6) Expanding on His theme in John chapter 6, He said, "Jhn 6:35 ESV - Jesus said to them, "I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst."(John 6:35)

During the summer of 1986 several college friends and I rented an old farm house that was supplied with well water. Among many memories that linger about that place was the taste of that water, which was not quite right--I believe my father suspected it of being "gypsum water," as the country folk call it. No matter how much of that stuff we drank, we remained just as thirsty as before.

That is just what we try to do as humans, in our rebellion against our Creator; there is a spiritual thirst we cannot deny, and we try to quench it with everything in the world, but to no avail. Everything in the world is not enough; we need that true, pure, refreshing water that comes from God's fountain of life. What a joy to know that this is available to every man and woman, perfectly free for the asking!

About the music:

Moore's original publication of this text had a musical setting, by Sir John Stevenson, which I have not been able to find. The tune commonly used in the United States comes from a solo voice setting of the Marian hymn "Alma Redemptoris Mater" by Samuel Webbe, Sr. (1742-1816), published in his Collection of Motetts and Antiphons (London, 1792).( Webbe was better known as a composer of light secular choral music, but his sacred collections were quite popular among English Catholics during the early 19th century.(Catholic Encyclopedia) Click here for a later version of Webbe's setting of the Latin hymn.

Thomas Hastings, Lowell Mason's right-hand man in the Boston-centered movement toward the use of more classical church music, arranged this in two parts and matched it to Moore's text in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (Utica, N.Y., 1831). Though I have not been able to examine Webbe's original version, from comparison to the later Catholic version, it appears Hastings did a fair amount of adaptation of the tune, whether by intent or through a faulty copy.

I have not led this hymn much, but I have only heard it sung tediously slowly, and that may be the problem. Looking at these earlier versions--especially Hastings's original, in cut time--I think I have not used the right approach. A quicker feel, in light 2/2 time, makes it a very different hymn, and perhaps suits the tone of Moore's poetry better as well.


"Thomas Moore." Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).

Falkiner, C. Litton. "Thomas Moore." Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature. London: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd., 1903. Volume III, pages 345-350.

The poetical works of Thomas Moore, with a memoir by Francis James Child, 6 volumes. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1857. Volume 1:

"Sacred Songs." The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, volume III (1818), pages 383-387.


"Samuel Webbe." The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).