Another good old hymn : Holy God we praise thy name

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.

a hymn book without the music is a prayer book
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).

Protestant hymnal 1901, with the variant in the tune
Classic Mitteleuropean

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.

The Lord himself as the first of the ‘startled dead’

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.

Angel choir
angel choirs enabling a singalong

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.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
I need help here
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.

David and tongue
just the psalmist and God in this conversation
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.

Beautiful tents
my enemies encamped around about me
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.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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A bad Response can happen to a good psalm

New Responses for old psalms

I’m currently setting the daily psalms (Australian Lectionary) for a friend in Adelaide. Some of them are already available on the website, either because they are for special feasts so they exist already, or because they are identical to Sunday psalms for other dates. But there are quite a few which I have to write from scratch, and even more where I have to alter the arrangement of stanzas. Very commonly I need to write a new Response for an already familiar psalm, and this can in fact be quite challenging.

Woman explaining to man
me struggling to write a new Response in time for Volmar to post it on line
To change or not to change

If I like the previous version of the psalm, and especially if the stanzas haven’t changed, I have to think of a tune which will fit the words of the new Response but sound and feel as though it was written at the same time as the tune for the stanzas.  Sometimes the mismatch is too great, and I have to start all over again.  One of the favourite ways to change a Sunday psalm to a weekday one is to put the stanza breaks in different places, and this can skew the tune totally.  Then my effort is to forget what I wrote before and write a new tune which pauses in the right places.

Small changes can be very tricky
variations differing only in minor features

It’s difficult sometimes to imagine what is going on in the heads of the men who appoint the different versions of the psalms to be used day by day.  I’m not always convinced that the changes are intentional; sometimes they read like a memory which no one has checked.  This happens quite a lot with the Gospel Acclamations or Alleluia verses, where slightly different versions mean that you can end up with several possibilities and it’s hard to keep track (I talked about this a propos of Lent Gospel Acclamations and their sneaky ways).

Psalm Responses not made of psalm

Psalm Responses are often tricky.  They can be too short, too long, plucked from a totally different bit of the Bible, almost unsingable (I grit my teeth for that ‘almost’), and it’s hard to justify this when the Psalms were so clearly written to be sung by people who knew what they were doing, and have indeed been loved and sung by generation after generation, as it says in Ps 144/145.  Taking pieces out of Paul’s epistles to be a psalm response happens occasionally and it always presents problems, because Paul’s words are part of a prose text which was not intended to be sung when it was written (obviously I’m not discussing the parts where he quotes an early Christian hymn or poem); but even more cogently, it was translated as a piece of prose which was not meant to be sung.  It’s not rhythmical; it’s not patterned; it has no balance;  it’s not even particularly well-put, some of the time, as Paul grapples with the problem of formalising this new doctrine and theology for a wide range of audiences: faithful Jews (Hebrews); pagans (Romans); cultured Greeks (Corinthians) and so on. 

A case in point : Psalm 1

But if a Response is set to be sung, I try and write a tune for it exactly as it occurs in the Lectionary.  That’s what I do.  I don’t usually even moan about it, much.  Currently, though, I am sorting out the psalms for the last week of October (30th Week, Yr II), and I have found possibly the worst psalm response ever.  I thought at first it was a misprint of some kind, as it didn’t seem to make sense.  Here it is :

Behave like God as his very dear children.

It’s for Psalm 1, which is the psalm for St David’s Day , and also occurs on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary time, Year C.  It’s a good short psalm, an excellent one to open the collection for any Temple musician, and we  simply sing the whole text straight through without any alteration as our Responsorial Psalm (and without leaving anything out), which is quite rare.  There are three  6-line stanzas, the first about the just man and what he does, the second an extended metaphor about him being like a tree by the river, and the third about the wicked man in contrast, and how he is heading to perdition.  Usually the Response is some variant on ‘Happy the man who trusts in the Lord’, adjusted occasionally to make it less exclusive.

Willows on the riverbank
a just man happy in his proper place
Where is the Response from?

This new peculiar Response is a reworking of Ephesians 5.1, so it’s not even the exact text, which might excuse it.  This version of the words, as often for the OZ and CAN Lectionaries, is from the text of the US psalm as set for the day, word for word, but I looked up the original Ephesians 5 in the US Lectionary, and it does at least make more sense : Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  Still not easily singable, but at least it is easier to grasp on reading.  I was so baffled by the actual Response that I thought it must be wrong, but it isn’t; and then I thought it was just me being dense, so I ran it past whichever of my children was around when I had it to hand.  To a man or woman, they looked at it, took the copy from me, read it again, and then said ‘What?’

No time to waste
12 armed woman
maybe semaphore would help…..

When you’re giving out a Response to be sung as part of the liturgy, you have only a little time.  You need people to grasp the words quickly, because they also need to grasp the tune, and unless you are very lucky, you won’t get any rehearsal time.  With this Response, I think you would have to tell them the words first, and then sing it to them.  It slows things down, but that is better than having the whole congregation (except those with a written text) look at you totally blankly and then not manage to join in.  They need to know that they have it correctly.  (Those with a written text are probably already looking at you blankly.)

A different version (not much better)

I looked up the UK and Eire Lectionary, for purposes of comparison.  The Response there is : Try to imitate God, as children of his that he loves.  This is still clunky, but at least it makes sense.  The exact text is identical to the US version, ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children’ (RSV).  The new Jerusalem Bible translation has  ‘As God’s dear children, take him as your pattern’ , which I rather like, but you’d have to turn it round to make it work as a Psalm Response (Take God as your pattern, as his dear children).  Even though ‘as’ appears twice, that is still easier to understand than the ‘like[…]as’ in the Psalm Response I am struggling with.

Practical considerations

Still, ours not to reason why, so how do I set it?  This psalm has a folk-song tune (it even quotes The Ash Grove) because I wrote it originally for St David, and the stanzas are identical, so I decided to stick with it.  I couldn’t make the words run too quickly, because they are so unclear, but I didn’t want to slow the verses down too much; it needs to keep on walking, like most folksong tunes.  And it needed to stay simple, partly to make it easy to pick up on first hearing.  The original verse tune has some runs in it, for the water imagery, and I wanted to link to that as well.  In the end it came out as six bars.  Ideally a Response fits into four, but it always depends on the rhythm of the words, and this set of words is ungainly, so I couldn’t disguise that totally.

God’s very dear child being looked after
Time for reflection

I tried shifting the rhythm of the words around, to see if that would make the sentence easier to grasp, but it didn’t help.   In the end, I just kept it simple, but I did put a little pause at the end of it so that everyone has a moment to think before embarking on the next verse.  The Response and the stanzas are addressed to two different groups, which I think is part of the problem, so a pause to redirect your gaze is actually helpful.  The verses are good, with some word-painting and a nice contrast between the good man whose ways will all prosper (and the tune goes up), and the evil man, who is heading straight for doom (and the tune goes down).  Simple, but (I hope) effective.  I hope the straightforward nature of the tune will give the congregation time to understand what the Response means, because there’s nothing wrong with the concept, just the expression.

Woman with sword
me going into battle on behalf of my congregation
Psalms are for singing

The whole point of the psalms is to sing them.  The Psalter is the original and best hymn book.  Even though many of us are not allowed to sing in our churches at the moment, at least we can sing in our hearts.  Familiarity is actually an asset for congregational singing; there is no need to keep altering the shape of any given psalm.  Imagine if each Christmas we rewrote the words of carols so that the verses came out differently.  You want people to focus on the sense, not the way it is being conveyed.  It would be good if those who appoint the texts for singing – Responses, Acclamations, set dialogues – could at least consider how easily they trip off the tongue.  David and the other psalmists gave us one of the Church’s most precious resources.  In our own day we need to stay faithful to the essence of their gift.  That means keeping the Response singable.

let’s all keep singing

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass  with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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