Augustine defines a hymn as |praise to God with song,| and another writer calls hymn-singing |a devotional approach to God in our emotions,| -- which of course applies to both the words and the music. This religious emotion, reverently acknowledging the Divine Being in song, is a constant element, and wherever felt it makes the song a worship, irrespective of sect or creed. An eminent Episcopal divine, (says the Christian Register
,) one Trinity Sunday, at the close of his sermon, read three hymns by Unitarian authors: one to God the Father, by Samuel Longfellow, one to Jesus, by Theodore Parker, and one to the Holy Spirit, by N.L. Frothingham. |There,| he said, |you have the Trinity -- Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.|
It is natural to speak of hymns as |poems,| indiscriminately, for they have the same structure. But a hymn is not necessarily a poem, while a poem that can be sung as a hymn is something more than a poem. Imagination makes poems; devotion makes hymns. There can be poetry without emotion, but a hymn never. A poem may argue; a hymn must not. In short to be a hymn, what is written must express spiritual feelings and desires. The music of faith, hope and charity will be somewhere in its strain.
Philosophy composes poems, but not hymns. |It is no love-symphony we hear when the lion thinkers roar,| some blunt writer has said. |The moles of Science have never found the heavenly dove's nest, and the Sea of Reason touches no shore where balm for sorrow grows.|
On the contrary there are thousands of true hymns that have no standing at the court of the muses. Even Cowper's Olney hymns, as Goldwin Smith has said, |have not any serious value as poetry. Hymns rarely have,| he continues. |There is nothing in them on which the creative imagination can be exercised. Hymns can be little more than the incense of a worshipping soul.|
A fellow-student of Phillips Brooks tells us that |most of his verse he wrote rapidly without revising, not putting much thought into it but using it as the vehicle and outlet of his feelings. It was the sign of responding love or gratitude and joy.|
To produce a hymn one needs something more exalting than poetic fancy; an influence
| -- subtler than the sun-light in the leaf-bud
That thrills thro' all the forest, making May.|
It is the Divine Spirit wakening the human heart to lyric language.
Religion sings; that is true, though all |religions| do not sing. There is no voice of sacred song in Islamism. The muezzin call from the minarets is not music. One listens in vain for melody among the worshippers of the |Light of Asia.| The hum of pagoda litanies, and the shouts and gongs of idol processions are not psalms. But many historic faiths have lost their melody, and we must go far back in the annals of ethnic life to find the songs they sung.
Worship appears to have been a primitive human instinct; and even when many gods took the place of One in the blinder faith of men it was nature worship making deities of the elements and addressing them with supplication and praise. Ancient hymns have been found on the monumental tablets of the cities of Nimrod; fragments of the Orphic and Homeric hymns are preserved in Greek anthology; many of the Vedic hymns are extant in India; and the exhumed stones of Egypt have revealed segments of psalm-prayers and liturgies that antedate history. Dr. Wallis Budge, the English Orientalist, notes the discovery of a priestly hymn two thousand years older than the time of Moses, which invokes One Supreme Being who |cannot be figured in stone.|
So far as we have any real evidence, however, the Hebrew people surpassed all others in both the custom and the spirit of devout song. We get snatches of their inspired lyrics in the song of Moses and Miriam, the song of Deborah and Barak, and the song of Hannah (sometimes called |the Old Testament Magnificat|), in the hymns of David and Solomon and all the Temple Psalms, and later where the New Testament gives us the |Gloria| of the Christmas angels, the thanksgiving of Elizabeth (benedictus minor), Mary's Magnificat, the song of Zacharias (benedictus major), the |nunc dimittis| of Simeon, and the celestial ascriptions and hallelujahs heard by St. John in his Patmos dream. For what we know of the first formulated human prayer and praise we are mostly indebted to the Hebrew race. They seem to have been at least the only ancient nation that had a complete psalter -- and their collection is the mother hymn-book of the world.
Probably the first form of hymn-worship was the plain-song -- a declamatory unison of assembled singers, every voice on the same pitch, and within the compass of five notes -- and so continued, from whatever may have stood for plain-song in Tabernacle and Temple days down to the earliest centuries of the Christian church. It was mere melodic progression and volume of tone, and there were no instruments -- after the captivity. Possibly it was the memory of the harps hung silent by the rivers of Babylon that banished the timbrel from the sacred march and the ancient lyre from the post-exilic synagogues. Only the Feast trumpet was left. But the Jews sang. Jesus and his disciples sang. Paul and Silas sang; and so did the post-apostolic Christians; but until towards the close of the 16th century there were no instruments allowed in religious worship.
St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers has been called |the father of Christian hymnology.| About the middle of the 4th century he regulated the ecclesiastical song-service, wrote chant music (to Scripture words or his own) and prescribed its place and use in his choirs. He died A.D.368. In the Church calendars, Jan.13th (following |Twelfth Night|), is still kept as |St. Hilary's Day| in the Church of England, and Jan.14th in the Church of Rome.
St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, a few years later, improved the work of his predecessor, adding words and music of his own. The |Ambrosian Chant| was the antiphonal plain-song arranged and systematized to statelier effect in choral symphony. Ambrose died A.D.397.
Toward the end of the 6th century Christian music showed a decline in consequence of impatient meddling with the slow canonical psalmody, and |reformers| had impaired its solemnity by introducing fanciful embellishments. Gregory the Great (Pope of Rome, 590-604) banished these from the song service, founded a school of sacred melody, composed new chants and established the distinctive character of ecclesiastical hymn worship. The Gregorian chant -- on the diatonic eight sounds and seven syllables of equal length -- continued, with its majestic choral step, to be the basis of cathedral music for a thousand years. In the meantime (930) Hucbald, the Flanders monk, invented sight music, or written notes -- happily called the art of |hearing with the eyes and seeing with the ears|; and Guido Arentino (1024) contrived the present scale, or the |hexachord| on which the present scale was perfected.
In this long interval, however, the |established| system of hymn service did not escape the intrusion of inevitable novelties that crept in with the change of popular taste. Unrhythmical singing could not always hold its own; and when polyphonic music came into public favor, secular airs gradually found their way into the choirs. Legatos, with their pleasing turn and glide, caught the ear of the multitude. Tripping allegrettos sounded sweeter to the vulgar sense than the old largos of Pope Gregory the Great.
The guardians of the ancient order took alarm. One can imagine the pained amazement of conservative souls today on hearing |Ring the Bells of Heaven| substituted in church for |Mear| or the long-metre Doxology, and can understand the extreme distaste of the ecclesiastical reactionaries for the worldly frivolities of an A.D.1550 choir. Presumably that modern abomination, the vibrato, with its shake of artificial fright, had not been invented then, and sanctuary form was saved one indignity. But the innovations became an abuse so general that the Council of Trent commissioned a select board of cardinals and musicians to arrest the degeneration of church song-worship.
One of the experts consulted in this movement was an eminent Italian composer born twenty miles from Rome. His full name was Giovanni Pietro Aloysio da Palestrina, and at that time he was in the prime of his powers. He was master of polyphonic music as well as plain-song, and he proposed applying it to grace the older mode, preserving the solemn beauty of the chant but adding the charming chords of counterpoint. He wrote three |masses,| one of them being his famous |Requiem.| These were sung under his direction before the Commission. Their magnificence and purity revealed to the censors the possibilities of contrapuntal music in sanctuary devotion and praise. The sanction of the cardinals was given -- and part-song harmony became permanently one of the angel voices of the Christian church.
Palestrina died in 1594, but hymn-tunes adapted from his motets and masses are sung today. He was the father of the choral tune. He lived to see musical instruments and congregational singing introduced in public worship, and to know (possibly with secret pleasure, though he was a Romanist) how richly in popular assemblies, during the Protestant Reformation, the new freedom of his helpful art had multiplied the creation of spiritual hymns.
[Footnote 1: But not fully established in use till about 1625.]
Contemporary in England with Palestrina in Italy was Thomas Tallis who developed the Anglican school of church music, which differed less from the Italian (or Catholic) psalmody than that of the Continental churches, where the revolt of the Reformation extended to the tune-worship as notably as to the sacraments and sermons. This difference created a division of method and practice even in England, and extreme Protestants who repudiated everything artistic or ornate formed the Puritan or Genevan School. Their style is represented among our hymn-tunes by |Old Hundred,| while the representative of the Anglican is |Tallis' Evening Hymn.| The division was only temporary. The two schools were gradually reconciled, and together made the model after which the best sacred tunes are built. It is Tallis who is called |The father of English Cathedral music.|
In Germany, after the invention of harmony, church music was still felt to be too formal for a working force, and there was a reaction against the motets and masses of Palestrina as being too stately and difficult. Lighter airs of the popular sort, such as were sung between the acts of the |mystery plays,| were subsidized by Luther, who wrote compositions and translations to their measure. Part-song was simplified, and Johan Walther compiled a hymnal of religious songs in the vernacular for from four to six voices. The reign of rhythmic hymn music soon extended through Europe.
Necessarily -- except in ultra-conservative localities like Scotland -- the exclusive use of the Psalms (metrical or unmetrical) gave way to religious lyrics inspired by occasion. Clement Marot and Theodore Beza wrote hymns to the music of various composers, and Caesar Malan composed both hymns and their melodies. By the beginning of the 18th century the triumph of the hymn-tune and the hymnal for lay voices was established for all time.
* * * * *
In the following pages no pretence is made of selecting all the best and most-used hymns, but the purpose has been to notice as many as possible of the standard pieces -- and a few others which seem to add or re-shape a useful thought or introduce a new strain.
To present each hymn with its tune appeared the natural and most satisfactory way, as in most cases it is impossible to dissociate the two. The melody is the psychological coefficient of the metrical text. Without it the verse of a seraph would be smothered praise. Like a flower and its fragrance, hymn and tune are one creature, and stand for a whole value and a full effect. With this normal combination a complete descriptive list of the hymns and tunes would be a historic dictionary. Such a book may one day be made, but the present volume is an attempt to the same end within easier limits.