Agnus Dei (Georges Bizet)

Talk of recycling or repurposing often includes tires, newspapers, pallets, books (shudder!), cooking oil and plastic bottles.  What does that have to do with music?  Of all man-made things, music is surely towards the top of the list of things that have been recycled.  A few notes, a phrase, a theme or entire song may show up again and again, sometimes with but more often without acknowledgment of the source.  This recycling did not begin with the internet.  It has likely been around as long as there has been music.

In 1872, French composer Georges Bizet wrote music for a play called “L’Arlesienne.”  The songs served the general purpose as a film score does today, and were written for chorus and small orchestra. Some of the tunes were original, but some were recycled from folk music.   Neither the music score nor the play were well-received.  Bizet recycled some of the music into an orchestral suite of four movements, which came to be known as “L’Arlesienne Suite No.1.”  From this suite came the song “March of the Kings,” a theme Bizet himself recycled from history.

After Bizet’s death, Ernest Guiraud arranged and published “L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2,” recycling more of Bizet’s themes, some but not all from “L’Arlesienne.”  The recycling continued when sometime later, Guiraud took the second movement (Intermezzo), added the sacred Latin text of Agnus Dei to it, and published the song independent of the suite.

The following video features a 1913 audio recording of Enrico Caruso.  While I prefer the full orchestral version to the piano and sparse instrumentation used in this recording, having the piano score as part of the video as well as Caruso’s historic interpretation is wonderful.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

The hymn, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People, has been around for hundreds of years, but it may not be as familiar as some hymns of the same age.  Why?  Maybe because we only sing it once a year, during Advent.  Maybe because some congregations do not observe Advent.  Maybe, sadly, because some congregations no longer sing hymns.

French Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561) wrote the tune GENEVAN 42, also known as FREU DICH SEHR, to accompany the text of Psalm 42.  In 1547, Bourgeois moved to Geneva and became the choirmaster for John Calvin.  His responsibilities included compiling, composing, and arranging music for the Genevan Psalter.  There was much controversy surrounding Bourgeois and his work.  He learned what we are still learning today  – change does not come easily.  He was jailed in 1561 for making alterations to popular hymn tunes “without a license.” After his release, he left Geneva, eventually moving to Paris where he died in 1561.

Bourgeois is credited with many of the tunes in the Genevan Psalter, a source for music in both the Reformed Church and the church in America.  Of all his compositions, perhaps the most famous is OLD 100th, which many protestant churches sing weekly as the tune for the Doxology.

The text of this hymn is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5, in which the prophet looks forward to the coming of Christ. More specifically, the coming of the forerunner of Christ,  John the Baptist, is foretold.  German hymn writer Johann Gottfried, better known by the Latin version of his name, Johannes Olearius, versified the biblical text into a hymn in 1641 in honor of Saint John the Baptist day.  In addition to being a hymn writer of over 300 hymns, Olearius was at one time a court chaplain, a professor of philosophy, and the author of a commentary on the entire Bible.

Olearius’s text was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and published in her Chorale Book for England (1863).  For a time, Winkworth lived in Dresden, Germany, and there developed an interest in German hymnody.  She is known for her well-crafted English translations of German hymns including Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Now Thank We All Our God.  In addition to her translation work, as a pioneer in promoting women’s rights,  Winkworth did much to encourage higher education for women.

The text of this hymn was meant to show the promise of better days ahead with the coming of the Messiah.  After the opening words of “Comfort, comfort ye my  people,” the remaining text describes how to impart that comfort.  This is not “comfort” in the sense of being “comfortable.” It is more like the comfort that a parent gives a misbehaving child after the consequences of his actions have been administered.   God’s comfort is more than empathy.  It removes the cause of the discomfort through healing.

“Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”

For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.

Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

I’m nervous around water.  Not the water-in-the-sink kind of water, but the it’s-over-my-head-and-I-can’t-swim kind of water.  Water makes a lot of people nervous.  Storms make a lot of people nervous.  Storms on the water can be downright terrifying.  Have you ever had any storms in your life?  Those can be terrifying, too.

William Whiting was the headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers’ School in England.  In 1860, a student confided to Whiting that he was afraid of the ocean voyage he would soon be taking to America.  From a childhood on the coasts of England and a near tragedy at sea, Whiting’s faith in the God who ruled the oceans had grown strong.  He wrote the hymn poem Eternal Father, Strong to Save  to “anchor the faith” of his student.

Whiting found inspiration for his hymn in the words of King David.

Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.  They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.  For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.  They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.  They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,  and he brought them out of their distress.   He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.  They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.  Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. (Psalm 107:23-31NIV)

Whiting’s hymn became widespread throughout England.  Through the years, some verses of the hymn were modified and others added as the song was adopted by various branches of the armed services of the United States and the United Kingdom.   The version found in many hymnals today is an 1869 revision by Whiting.

In 1861, Anglican clergyman and composer John B. Dykes composed the powerful tune MELITA to accompany Whiting’s hymn.  “Melita”, now known as Malta,  was a colony of the British Empire, and significantly, the site of a shipwreck of the Apostle Paul, described in Acts 27-28.

During World War II, the hymn was used at the funeral for almost all sailors buried at sea. If there was no band or recording available, it was sung a cappella by the crew or the words were read by the commanding officer.  The song was used in services for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite.  It has been performed at memorials for the crews of USS Maine, USS Cole and many more.  It was the last hymn sung at the funeral of Claude Choules, the last living fighter from WWI, at his funeral in 2011.  It is sung at shipboard Sunday services on many vessels, and is said to be the last song sung during the Sunday Church Service on April 14, 1912, aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.

Whether we are experiencing the storms of weather or the storms of life, there is no reason to fear.  We serve the God who is greater than the forces in and of the earth.




Shall We Gather At the River

Multi-talented Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a professor of literature, a Baptist and a music editor at Biglow Publishing Company.  Dr. Lowry once said, “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” yet he wrote nearly 500 hymns and gospel songs, including Shall We Gather At the River?I Need Thee Every Hour, Low in the Grave He Lay, and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.
The tune is named HANSON PLACE in reference to the Hanson Place Baptist Church Lowry was serving when he wrote this hymn.  The text refers to the scripture passage that says,  “Then the angel showed me the river of life, as clear as crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lord…” (Revelation 22:1)

Lowry described the writing of the hymn this way:

“One af­ter­noon in Ju­ly, 1864, when I was pas­tor at Han­son Place Bap­tist Church, Brook­lyn, the wea­ther was op­press­ive­ly hot, and I was ly­ing on a lounge in a state of phys­ic­al ex­haust­ion…My imag­in­a­tion be­gan to take it­self wings. Vi­sions of the fu­ture passed be­fore me with start­ling vi­vid­ness. The im­ag­ery of the apoc­a­lypse took the form of a ta­bleau. Bright­est of all were the throne, the heav­en­ly ri­ver, and the ga­ther­ing of the saints…I be­gan to won­der why the hymn writ­ers had said so much about the ‘riv­er of death’ and so lit­tle about the ‘pure wa­ter of life, clear as crys­tal, pro­ceed­ing out of the throne of God and the Lamb.’ As I mused, the words be­gan to con­struct them­selves. They came first as a quest­ion of Christ­ian in­quiry, ‘Shall we ga­ther?’ Then they broke in chor­us, “Yes, we’ll ga­ther.” On this quest­ion and an­swer the hymn de­vel­oped it­self. The mu­sic came with the hymn.”

Shall We Gather at the River
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.


Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.


At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.


Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.


It Is Well With My Soul

Their story began quite happily.  Anna Larson was young, lovely and intelligent.  Horatio Spafford was a businessman and senior partner in a successful law firm.  They married in 1861 when Anna was 19 and Horatio was 33, and had a beautiful home in Chicago.  They were devout and active Christians, Ira Sankey and Dwight Moody among their friends.  Horatio was active in the abolitionist crusade and their home was a frequent gathering place for many of the reform movements of the day.  Life was good.

The Spafford’s circumstances then began to change.  Scarlet Fever took the life of their 4-year-old son in 1870.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 took almost every real estate investment they owned.  After the fire, they put their faith into action, devoting many hours to the survivors.

In 1873, Spafford arranged for his family to go on vacation to rest and have time to recover from the tragedies.  Since their friend Dwight Moody would be preaching in England, they decided to join him there.  Last minute business delayed Horatio’s travel, but Anna and their four daughters,  Tanetta (11), Elizabeth “Bessie” (9), Margaret Lee (5), and Anna “Annie” (2) set sail aboard the S.S. Ville du Havre.

Nine days later, Spafford received news that the S.S. Ville du Havre  was in a collision at sea.  The ocean liner sank in just 12 minutes, and 273 perished.   Anna, found unconscious and clinging to a piece of wreckage, was among the 47 survivors.  All four daughters drowned.  Anna sent a cable to Horatio saying, “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”

As quickly as could be arranged, Horatio left for Europe to join Anna.  As he passed by the spot believed to be the final resting place of the Ville du Havre, he wrote, “It is well; the will of God be done.”  He wrote “It Is Well with My Soul” based on those words.  Spafford did not dwell on the tragedy.  He fully realized the comfort that only God can give, the peace that truly passes all understanding.  Horatio and Anna later had three more children, and moved to Jerusalem for mission work.

It Is Well

Horatio Spafford manuscript of “It Is Well with My Soul”

Composer Philip Bliss was moved by Spafford’s witness and powerful words.  He wrote a lovely melody specifically to go with the lyrics, and the song was first published by Bliss and Sankey in 1876.  Bliss named his tune VILLE DU HARVE, the name of the sunken ship.  Philip Bliss wrote many hymns and tunes, including “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Almost Persuaded,” and “(I Will Sing of) My Redeemer.”

Philip Bliss and his wife died in 1876, shortly after he composed the melody.  A bridge collapse caused a train wreck.  Bliss survived the accident but went into the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife.

These stories are tragic yet true.  Our lives are made up of joys and tragedies, too.  My prayer is for each of you to know the peace and hope Horatio Spafford knew.










O Love That Will Not Let Me Go

A personal favorite of mine, O Love That Will Not Let Me Go was written by pastor and scholar George Matheson, D.D. (1842-1906).  Matheson wrote, “My hymn was com­posed in the manse of In­ne­lan [Ar­gyle­shire, Scot­land] on the ev­en­ing of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time…Some­thing hap­pened to me, which was known only to my­self, and which caused me the most se­vere men­tal suf­fer­ing. The hymn was the fruit of that suf­fer­ing. It was the quick­est bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the im­press­ion of hav­ing it dic­tat­ed to me by some in­ward voice ra­ther than of work­ing it out my­self. I am quite sure that the whole work was com­plet­ed in five min­utes, and equal­ly sure that it ne­ver re­ceived at my hands any re­touch­ing or cor­rect­ion. I have no na­tur­al gift of rhy­thm. All the other vers­es I have ever writ­ten are man­u­fact­ured ar­ti­cles; this came like a day­spring from on high.”

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red
life that shall endless be.

English composer and organist Albert Lister Peace (1844-1912) wrote the hymn tune ST. MARGARET, the tune most commonly used for Matheson’s hymn.  Peace first played the or­gan pro­fes­sion­al­ly at age nine, and was a parish organist and recitalist for the remainder of his life. Peace said that this tune came to him quickly and he was able to write the tune in only five minutes, about the same of time that it took Matheson to write the text.

We do not know what “severe mental suffering” Matheson was experiencing when he wrote this hymn.  Whatever it was, the powerful poetic imagery of the hymn text declares his assurance of God’s hand in his life.