Service music

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity (November 10, 2019)

The Epistle reading for today is from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In it, we are exhorted to “be strong in the Lord” and to “put on the whole armor of God.” Our processional hymn describes the source of our confidence in the midst of spiritual combat, the foundation of our hope.

The author of “How firm a foundation” was identified simply as “K” when the hymn was first published in 1787, and his (or her) identity remains a mystery. The text’s remarkable popularity may account for the large number of tunes associated with it. In every previous edition of our Hymnal, a different tune was used. Back in July we sang the tune originally appointed in this edition: LYONS. This week, we sing (from the Supplemental Tunes section in the back of the Hymnal) the more primitive and probably more familiar FOUNDATION. Like many tunes based on folk melodies, FOUNDATION uses a pentatonic (five-note) scale, which means you can play it using just the black keys on the piano.

This simpler scale results in a very simple harmonic soundscape. Sung in the key of G (and G is the note on which we sing the word “firm” in the first stanza and the last note sung at the end of every stanza), this hymn would not suffer at all if the organ continuously played a low G on the pedals throughout the entire five stanzas. That harmonic simplicity lends a sense of stark confidence to the hymn, which is appropriate for the thrust of the message in the text.

Much of the text in this hymn is printed within quotation marks, indicating that the words are addressed to the congregation from God. The words from God are promises addressed to his people, especially in times of distress.

Two stanzas from the original are omitted in our Hymnal. Following the first stanza, this text once appeared:

“In every condition, in sickness, in health,
in poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
at home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be!”

And before the final stanza were these four lines:

“E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.”

Our sermon hymn takes up the martial imagery from the Epistle reading. “Soldiers of Christ, arise” gives us an excerpt from Charles Wesley’s “The Whole Armour of God,” a long hymn based on Ephesians 6:10-20. The original, published in 1749, has 16 eight-line stanzas (read the complete text here). Wesley strongly emphasizes the role of prayer in being equipped for spiritual combat, as is evident in these two stanzas:

To keep your armour bright, 
Attend with constant care,
Still walking in your Captain’s sight, 
And watching unto prayer;
Ready for all alarms,
Stedfastly set your face, 
And always exercise your arms,
And use your every grace. 

Pray, without ceasing pray, 
(Your Captain gives the word)
His summons chearfully obey, 
And call upon the Lord;
To God your every want
In instant prayer display,
Pray always; pray, and never faint,
Pray, without ceasing pray.

The Offertory anthem is the text from Psalm 114 chanted to one of the oldest chants in the Christian (and Jewish) tradition. The chant is known as the tonus peregrinus, for reasons which will be explained in a later post. The organ accompaniment is by David Wilcocks (1919-2015), who for many years directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Here is a recording of this Psalm chanted to this ancient tune during a choral Evensong at Durham Cathedral.

The Communion motet is a setting of Ave verum corpus by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). This text is a fourteenth-century Eucharistic hymn which has been set by many composers.

Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria Virgine, vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine. Cuius latus perforatum, Unda fluxit sanguine. Esto nobis praegustatum in mortis examine.

Hail the true body, born of the Virgin Mary: You who truly suffered and were sacrificed on the cross for the sake of man. From whose pierced side flowed water and blood: Be a foretaste for us in the trial of death.

Our first Communion hymn is “Thou, who at thy first Eucharist didst pray.” This hymn was written in early 1881 by William Harry Turton (1856-1938). Born in India and the son of an English army officer, Turton became a decorated soldier and amateur historian. His hymn emphasizes the Eucharist as a sacrament of the Church’s unity, rather than merely a memorial of personal devotion. The tune SACRAMENTUM UNITATIS was composed in 1885 by Charles Hanford Lloyd (1849-1919), a prominent Church musician, conductor, and music instructor.

The first two stanzas of our second Communion hymn — “Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless” — are from an 1832 Moravian hymnal. The last two stanzas are by James Montgomery (1771-1854), a Moravian journalist and political activist. Thirteen of his hymns are in our Hymnal, including “Angels, from the realms of glory,” “Go to dark Gethsemane,” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.”

The tune ST. AGNES was composed by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), a prominent Anglican Church musician and composer. His compositions provide our Hymnal with its largest single source of hymn tunes (22 tunes). For the composition of ST. AGNES, Dykes had in mind the text of hymn #462, “Jesus, the very thought of thee” (ST. AGNES is mentioned in small print as a third alternative to the two other options).

Our closing hymn is “Lead us, heav’nly Father.” It was written for the children of the London Orphan Asylum by James Edmeston (1791-1867), a London-born architect and surveyor who somehow found time to write over 2,000 hymns, often writing one a week for his Sunday morning family devotions.

The tune DULCE CARMEN has also been falsely attributed to J. Michael Haydn. It first appeared in plainchant notation in two voice parts in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant (1782).