A Hymn by Any Other Name

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With thanks to Paul Cienniwa, organist, for this reflection.

You may have noticed a change to how hymns are being presented in the Sunday bulletin. In addition to the hymn number and hymn title, we’ve also been including the hymn tune name. Following tradition, the hymn tune name appears in all-caps. For instance:

Hymn 78          O little town of Bethlehem                  FOREST GREEN

Before you begin to sing “O little town,” note that Hymn 78 is set to the tune FOREST GREEN. FOREST GREEN appears in our hymnal three times: O little town; I sing the almighty power of God (398); and As those of old their first fruits brought (705). 

Being American, you are probably thinking of:

Hymn 79  O little town of Bethlehem ST. LOUIS

That’s the familiar setting that we all think of. And, no, ST. LOUIS doesn’t appear elsewhere in the hymnal.

And this leads me to a glaring omission from The Hymnal 1982:

Hymn 101 Away in manger CRADLE SONG

Often referred to as the “English version,” we are much more familiar with the tune MUELLER. Alas, the publishers of The Hymnal 1982 seemed to want us all to sing to our Anglican heritage and avoid the “American” tune altogether, as they didn’t include MUELLER in the hymnal.

We tend to think of hymns as a combination of words and music. A hymn itself, however, is generally just the text, and that text, depending on its poetic rhythm, can be set to any number of tunes that fit the poetic rhythm. (There are some exceptions, in which the author is also the composer or the author and composer worked closely together to create a perfect marriage of tune and text.) It is for this reason that there is no great artistic sacrilege when one sings, say, “Yankee Doodle” to “Angels we have heard on high” or “Hark! the herald angels sing.” (Try it!) All three have repeated seven syllable rhyme schemes, and the texts are completely interchangeable with each melody. Just don’t try singing Yankee Doodle on Christmas Eve!