The matter of words
I like hymns with good words. A hymn ought to be able to be prayed without its music, which is very handy at the moment when we aren’t allowed to sing in many of our churches. A lot of modern hymns are disappointing in this aspect, not able to sustain the weight of prayerful attention and lacking in solid theology, but older hymns are a wonderful resource which it is a shame to neglect.
Words and/or music
The best hymns, of course, are those memorable for both words and tune, but a set of really good words or a really good tune can keep a hymn going on its own. Here is a hymn with good words and an excellent tune, from the Germans who gave us so many of our best tunes (and a couple of beloved composers as well). Holy God, we praise thy name (with more or fewer capital letters) was a staple in all the hymn books we used at school and growing up. In later life, I discovered it was a favourite with many American friends, who had even chosen to sing it at their weddings. I hadn’t gone that far, but I loved the fine rolling tune and the way the words followed the roll so exactly, especially in the second verse.
A version of the Te Deum
As so often, the story is more complicated than at first appears. The words are an adaptation of the Te Deum laudamus, one of the oldest Church hymns, so old that we don’t even know who was responsible for it. Both St Ambrose and St Augustine have been suggested, but the hymn is thought to be even older than those names would indicate. As a text, I find it a little unwieldy, in both Latin and English. It feels like a set of sentences laid out on the page with minimal organisation. It is a hymn of sorts, but it’s written in prose. The last part is a collection of what we would nowadays call ‘arrow prayers’, taken from the psalms. The Te Deum divides antiphonally with ease. This probably led to the myth of Saints Augustine and Ambrose creating it spontaneously together, like a two-man rap, but its rhythms are not patterned until it comes out of the Latin , and the standard English version in the Book of Common Prayer keeps stopping and starting. It has been a part of the liturgy for centuries, and is one of the prayers which is really useful ecumenically : most Anglicans are more familiar with it than Catholics, as it plays a central role in Matins.
The translator (into German)
The version we have in our (older) hymnbooks has three or usually four verses, but the Te Deum is quite a bit longer than this. Our version comes via a German paraphrase of the Latin, in twelve verses, by Ignaz Franz (a Catholic priest), in 1771. He does a fine job, metrical without being forced, and even elegant in places. He edited it later down to eleven and then eight verses and it occurs in several different hymnals in several different versions. It was a Catholic hymn originally, and then was adopted by the Protestants. It became frequent in Protestant hymnals only in the twentieth century, according to wikipedia, but the tune is slightly different (it goes up instead of down at the end of lines 1 and 3, which makes a surprising amount of difference).
It then went through a bad patch, acquiring an extra verse in praise of Hitler, and being adopted as a military machismo hymn, which is unfair if you read the lyrics. The Poles have a version; the Swiss have an extra pacifist verse; and I’m certain that I have sung it in Czech. This happens with a lot of the good German hymns : their words fit the tune so well that they can often be translated into related languages with minimal adjustment, and the tunes export with no problems at all. The tune we sing was actually written for the (German) words; you can tell because it’s named from the first words of the verse, like a Bach chorale.
Moving into English
The German words are solid and straightforward. The English ones are not always quite so felicitous, but when the number of verses was reduced, we lost most of the awkward lines. I regret the loss of two parts in particular, though it was probably a wise decision. First this one, because it sounds completely Gilbert and Sullivan, the tune emphasizing ‘tri-bu-tary’ just like ‘tutelary’ in The Mikado (and it just means ‘subject’):
Thou art King of glory, Christ:
Son of God, yet born of Mary;
For us sinners sacrificed,
And to death a tributary:
First to break the bars of death,
Thou hast opened Heaven to faith.
and then these lines:
When Thy voice shall shake the earth,
And the startled dead come forth.
because I like that ‘startled dead’ so much. It is not in the German.
The translator into English
However, let me get back to the version that we actually sing. The English version was translated by Clarence A. Walworth in 1858. He was an American (note the spelling of ‘scepter’) lawyer who studied for the Episcopal ministry but then later converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He wrote poems (which Oscar Wilde was rude about), and translated the German version into English, which was then published in the Catholic Psalmist, Dublin 1858. The long text is in the wiki article, but here are the verses in our modern hymnals. Sometimes they are slightly modernised (you/your instead of Thee/Thy, which works easily because it’s an unstressed syllable).
1. Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.
2. Hark! the loud celestial hymn
Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising,
Fill the heavens with sweet accord:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord.
3. Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.
4. Spare Thy people, Lord, we pray,
By a thousand snares surrounded:
Keep us without sin today,
Never let us be confounded.
Lo, I put my trust in Thee;
Never, Lord, abandon me.
Matching the words to the music
I think the power of this hymn comes partly from the complete correspondence of tune and words. The words roll on, like the waves of the sea, measured and rhythmic, each verse apart from the first being a single sentence (spot the German influence, although there are more full stops in the German version). The rhymes are solid and show little strain, alternating simple and composite very effectively (apart from the unconvincing ‘claim’ in the first verse, which has always niggled at me; sometimes it’s replaced by ‘own’, but that messes up the rhyme). In the second verse, the singers accumulate as the lines roll out, culminating effortlessly in the first line of the Sanctus, and by then we too are singing with the angels, as part of the mighty chorus. It works beautifully.
On the whole the English translation is more self-conscious and affective, certainly more adjectival, than the German. I would almost say ‘more Counter-Reformation’, except I’m not sure how much to ascribe to that movement in the Chuch and how much Father Walworth’s version is coloured by an American rather than a European idiom. The whole hymn would be too much, but the reduced version works well.
The last verse as a contrast
The last section of the Te Deum, the short collection of arrow prayers or one-liners, is much reduced in the translations. Even in the German, it is limited to a single verse, and Walworth does the same. I particularly like the way that the orotund majesty which informs the first three verses contrasts with the simplicity of the petitions in the last verse. The English version is more acute and emphatic, mainly because it changes from the plural to the singular in the last two lines. The German, like the Latin, uses the plural throughout, but the sudden change here in the English version to the specific and individual is arresting.
Changing the focus from ‘we’ to ‘I’
The psalms that use the plural throughout tend to be the more ceremonial ones, the Songs of Ascents, the Temple celebrations, the laments. The psalmist is singing to God; about various things, about his life, about what’s going on. He’s not singing to other people, but sometimes he sings about the group to which he belongs. By the rivers of Babylon/ there we sat and wept (Ps 136/137). In the same way, the Te Deum is almost like the Creed or the Gloria. It is a set of statements of belief, and the people are plural. The singular on the other hand tends to be for the more intimate psalms, the penitentials, the yearning psalms. The Lord is my shepherd (Ps 22/23). Any dialogue is between God and the individual, never two human beings, one reason why the psalms belong to anyone who reads them.
From risk to reassurance
Often the narrative in a psalm is of the individual set against an undifferentiated crowd of enemies, and that is what is evoked here in the last verse of the hymn. The first four lines are a simple statement of being beleaguered, or ‘tempested, travailed and afflicted’, as Julian of Norwich puts it. But then the last two lines move from the political to the personal, with a cry for help : Lo, I put my trust in Thee,/ Never, Lord, abandon me. This sudden shift to the first person singular, in the last two lines and falling on the last, heavy note of the whole hymn, is very striking, and paradoxically comforting, because we can all instantly identify with it.
The power of the personal
It reminds me specifically of Psalm 118/119, the longest psalm in the Psalter, which I have written about before, a long, mainly tranquil, even rather smug treatise-poem on the beauties of the Law and how much the psalmist loves it. It’s an alphabetical psalm, and it just keeps on moving on letter by letter, explaining to God how virtuous and remarkable the speaker is, until the last stanza, where suddenly the psalmist, this great and eminent jurist, this expert in the Law as given, blurts out ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant/for I remember your commands’ , and the psalm ends abruptly. Just as in the psalm we move from the majesty of the Law to the rescue of one individual, so we move in the hymn from the enormous majesty of God in mighty chords of music (and you really do need an organ for this hymn) to the singer’s own complete dependence upon him. In contrast to the tune, the words here are broken and almost breathless, with those two commas : this is entirely down to the English translation, as the German words here are sonorous and smooth. Breathless but not desperate, because the singer here is as confident as the one in Psalm 62/63 : ‘My soul clings to you;/your right hand holds me fast’ (v.9). Very personal; very close; very comforting.
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