Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Music: William Croft (1678-1727)
Tune name: ST. ANNE
This hymn is one of the many Psalm paraphrases by Isaac Watts, in this case Psalm 90. It first appeared in 1719 in his Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. 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.
The hymn originally included three additional stanzas which are included below in italics and presented in their original placement.
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:
Under the shadow of your throne
thy saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone,
and our defence is sure.
Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting thou art God,
to endless years the same.
Thy word commands our flesh to dust,
“Return ye sons of men:”
all nations rose from earth at first,
and turn to earth again.
A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.
The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their lives and cares,
are carried downward by thy flood,
and lost in foll’wing years.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.
Like flow’ry fields the nations stand
pleased with the morning light;
the flow’rs beneath the mower’s hand
Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.
O God, our help in ages past
our hope for years to come:
Be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.
ST. ANNE is named in honor of the church in Soho where William Croft was organist, the church itself named in honor of the mother of the Virgin Mary. The tune was originally published in 1708 as a setting for Psalm 42.
The opening notes of the hymn tune can be heard in two great works by two of William Croft’s better-known contemporaries. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used this melodic motif in his Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552. In this analysis of the two-movement work, you can read how the structure of the piece evokes the Trinity. The “St. Anne” melody is used extensively in the Fugue, although scholars doubt that Bach was familiar with Croft’s hymn tune.
Below is a performance of the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major played by Michael Murray on the 1738 Christiaan Müller organ. This instrument, at the Grote Kerk in Haarlem, the Netherlands, was at the time of its completion the largest organ in the world and drew many famous musicians to its keyboards, including Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. Its legendary status earned it a mention in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), who reckoned its scale an apt likeness for the inside of the great whale’s mouth:
“Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?”
The opening notes of ST. ANNE can also be heard in a work by George Frideric Handel (1685-1757). “O Praise the Lord with One Consent” is the ninth of eleven anthems composed by Handel sometime between 1717-1719, while he was composer in residence at Cannons, the estate of James Brydges, who became the First Duke of Chandos in 1719. Each of these works for choir and chamber orchestra was based on texts from the Psalms. “O Praise the Lord with One Consent” uses verses from Psalms 117, 135, and 148. (The text for the entire work is presented below the performance video.) The ST. ANNE melody can be heard in the first of the eight movements of this work, with echoes of it showing up later in the fifth movement (“With cheerful notes let all the earth”).
Here is a performance of the entire work sung by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.
O praise the Lord with one consent and magnify his name.
Let all the servants of the Lord his worthy praise proclaim.
Praise him, all ye that in his house attend with constant care
with those that to his utmost courts with humble zeal repair.
For this our truest int’rest is glad hymns of praise to sing
and with loud songs to bless his name, a most delightful thing.
That God is great, we often have by glad experience found
and seen how he, with wond’rous pow’r, above all gods is crown’d.
With cheerful notes let all the earth to heaven their voices raise.
Let all inspir’d with godly mirth, sing solemn hymns with praise.
God’s tender mercy knows no bounds, his truth shall ne’er decay
then let the willing nations round their grateful tribute pay.
Ye boundless realms of joy exalt your Maker’s fame.
Hs praise your song employ above the starry frame.
Your voices raise, ye Cherubin and Seraphin, to sing his praise,
Here is a grand arrangement of “O God, our help in ages past,” sung by the Cambridge Singers, accompanied by John Scott at the organ and the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by John Rutter.
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.