If you have ever looked in the hymnal, you might have noticed the small print below the music. Typically there you will find the lyricist, the composer and other copyright information if the hymn isn’t public domain. You will also often find what is called the “Hymn Tune”…kind of a second title. Long before printed hymnals, people mostly learned sacred music by rote, meaning they memorized it by repetition. New texts would often be set to familiar tunes so that they might be learned and spread more quickly. Hence the use of hymn tunes, rather than the titles we are familiar with today.
- For instance, the hymn we sang this past Sunday, “All Creatures of Our God and King” is also known by the hymn tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN. This particular title comes from the original German lyrics written in 1625. This tune name comes from the original lyrics which, translated and with some spelling variances, were something like “Let us most heartily rejoice”. Hymn tunes are most often named after people, places, cities, even street names, but some have more interesting names than others. Here is just a small sampling:
- HYFRYDOL: Welsh for “cheerful”. We sing this tune regularly as “Our Great Savior” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”
- ASH GROVE: Another welsh tune, it comes from a folk song that told of a sailor’s love for “Gwen of Llwn”. We use the tune in “Let All Things Now Living”, a Thanksgiving hymn
- SAGINA: This is the Latin name for the flower dianthus. The tune was one of 23 which all had all been published in 1825 in a book called, appropriately, Bouquet. We sing “And Can it Be?” to this tune
- AURELIA: Comes from the latin term “aurum” meaning gold, and refers to a much older text “Jerusalem the Golden” than the one we currently use, “The Church’s One Foundation”
- O STORE GUD: Is Swedish for “O great God”, the title of the poem from which we now sing the words “How Great Thou Art”
- SLANE: This one is named after a hill in Ireland where St. Patrick is said to have lit a bonfire in defiance of a pagan festival. An unknown composer wrote this tune to celebrate the act. We now sing it as “Be Thou My Vision”
- AZMON: Hymn composer Lowell Mason tended to use obscure Biblical names for his hymn tunes. Azmon was a city south of Canaan, appearing in Numbers 34:4-5. We sing the tune to the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
- NICEA: This tune is named after the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) where church leaders began to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity to oppose the heresies of the time. The hymn title is “Holy, Holy, Holy”
- FINLANDIA: The tune is from a symphonic poem of the same title, written by Jean Sibelius, and was reworked into a stand alone piece by the composer to become a national song of Finland. The lyrics most often used in Christian music are “Be Still My Soul”
- ORWIGSBURG: Named after the home town (in Pennsylvania!) of the hymn composer and lyricist, Elisha Hoffman, we know this hymn as “I Must Tell Jesus”
- AMY: (My personal favorite) This is not a well-known song at all. The title is “Good Shepherd, Take This Little Child” and was written in the 1980s, has nothing to do with me at all, but I include it simply because it exists.
- RATHBUN: (My actual personal favorite and a great moral story for the chancel choir) The composer of this tune was an organist at a church in New England in 1849. One Sunday, during a series on the last words of Christ on the cross, only one choir member showed up, much to the composer/organist’s dismay. He went home that day and sat at his piano, contemplating the pastor’s sermon along with the text to a previously written hymn. He proceeded to compose a new hymn tune to the lyrics “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” and called it RATHBUN, after the only loyal choir member to show up that morning, Beriah S. Rathbun!
Standing on the Promises
It Is Well With My Soul
How Firm A Foundation
The Solid Rock
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Hosanna, Loud Hosanna
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today