I will sing to the Lord all my life
I will sing praises to my God as long as I live.
– Psalm 104:33
Last night in Wanganui the Friends of Christ Church Organ gave Wanganui locals a chance to do precisely that. Singing is an integral part of Christian worship, received from its Jewish roots. The book of Psalms in the Bible is the hymn-book of the Jewish faith, and has been passed down over thousands of years to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
But in this day and age, who would turn out at seven o’clock on a Saturday night just to sing a few old songs?
The answer, it seems, is rather a lot of people. I arrived just before the scheduled starting time and had to drive around the block to find a carpark. Hurrying in as the opening bars of the first hymn (‘Praise, My Soul, The King Of Heaven’) began to sound, I was waved to the only remaining seating in the balcony.
What unfolded was a two-hour exploration of 1,200 years of sung Christian worship, from the traditional eighth-century Irish ‘Be Thou My Vision’ to 1960s America’s ‘Because He Lives’.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.
– Ephesians 5:19
Methodist founder Charles Wesley, who composed over 6,000 hymns over the course of his lifetime, was represented by two offerings, and a surprise to me was an organ medley of three hymns composed by the great 19th century hymnist Sir Arthur Sullivan – better known today as one half of the light opera composing team Gilbert and Sullivan. The tune of the final piece in the medley, St. Gertrude, had the audience tapping their feet to a tune better known today as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’.
Another treat was the original composition ‘The Sacred Rose’, played by its composer Bruce Stem. A partita built upon the tune of the Swedish folk-song ‘I Know Of A Lovely Rose’ it was a slow, spare, soft piece played in a melancholic minor key and an absolute privilege to hear.
The major festivals of the church were represented by three hymns: ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ (Christmas), ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ (Lent/Good Friday) and ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today’ (Easter Sunday).
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sing a personal favourite, ‘Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind’, which I was fascinated to learn was originally composed by a Quaker. The humble simplicity of this hymn was a stark contrast to that which followed, William Blake’s punchy, patriotic, enduringly-popular but regrettably theologically unsound (a common judgement with which I have to agree) ‘Jerusalem’.
Sixteen hymns were played in all, some well known, some made new and unfamiliar again by the passage of time. I was especially lucky to be sitting next to an older gentleman whom I discovered afterwards had been a member of a church choir in his youth, and who supplied beautiful harmonies to a number of pieces.
I left feeling uplifted, and deeply privileged to be heir to such a glorious musical tradition.
‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
– Matthew 26:30
What follows is a list of all the hymns in the order they were sung:
Praise, My Soul, The King Of Heaven (words: Henry Lyte 1793-1847, music John Goss 1800-80)
Be Thou My Vision (8th century Irish, translated by Eleanor Hull 1860-1935, music traditional Irish)
I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship (William Fullerton 1857-1932, music traditional Irish)
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (Charles Wesley 1707-88, music William Rowlands 1860-1937)
And Can It Be That I Should Gain (Charles Wesley 1707-88, music Thomas Campbell 1825-76)
Angel Voices Ever Singing (Frances Pott 1832-1909, music Edwin Monk 1819-1900)
For The Beauty Of The Earth (Folliott Pierpoint 1835-1917, music traditional English)
All Things Bright And Beautiful (Cecil Francis Alexander 1818-95, music William Monk 1823-89)
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Edward Seans 1810-76, music Sir Arthur Sullivan 1842-1900)
When I Survey The Wondrous Cross (Isaac Watts 1674-1748, music Edward Miller 1731-1807)
Jesus Christ Is Risen Today (words and music Lyra Davidica 1708)
Because He Lives (Gloria & William Gaither 1942-, music William Gaither 1936-)
Lord For The Years Your Love Has Kept And Guided (+Timothy Dudley-Smith 1926-, music +Michael Baughen 1930-)
Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind (John Greenleaf Whittier 1807-82, music Charles Hubert Parry 1848-1918)
Jerusalem (William Blake 1757-1827, music Charles Hubert Parry 1848-1918)
Now Thank We All Our God (Martin Rinkart 1586-1649, music Johann Cruger 1598-1662)