Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Music: William Croft (1678-1727)
Tune name: ST. ANNE
Written in 1714 by Isaac Watts, this hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 90. Originally published with nine verses, most hymnals (including ours) include only six. In Great Britain, this hymn is regarded by many as a second National Anthem.
Ian Bradley, in The Book of Hymns, writes
It is said that when Dr. Benjamin Jowett, that most eminent Victorian who was master of Balliol College, asked a group of fellow Oxford dons to note down their list of favourite hymns, all of them independently put down just this one, which each felt fulfilled all the conditions of a perfect hymn.
This tune was probably composed by William Croft, possibly when he was organist from 1700-1711 at St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London, England. According to tradition, St. Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary. The tune was first published in 1708 as a setting for Psalm 42, but in the nineteenth century, it became the favored setting for “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
In 1921, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote an anthem that brilliantly interweaves the text of Psalm 90 — taken straight from the Authorized Version of the Old Testament and sung in chant-like lines — with a second choir singing Watts’s paraphrase to Croft’s tune. Here’s a performance of that work by the Elora Festival Singers, conducted by Noel Edison.