Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Hymn from this Past Sunday

Besides teaching and getting a dissertation prospectus turned in, I of course am still a church organist. This past week we sang "If You Will Only Let God Guide You," yet another hymn that is often sung during Lent, solely because it's in a minor key. The three verses in our hymnal, Hymns for the Family of God, really have little to do with Lent at all. Here's all the verses, as Catherine Winkworth has translated them:

If thou but suffer God to guide thee
And hope in Him through all thy ways,
He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love
Builds on the rock that naught can move.

What can these anxious cares avail thee
These never ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help if thou bewail thee
O’er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.

Be patient and await His leisure
In cheerful hope, with heart content
To take whatever thy Father’s pleasure
And His discerning love hath sent,
Nor doubt our inmost want are known
To Him who chose us for His own.

God knows full well when time of gladness
Shall be the needful thing for thee.
When He has tried thy soul with sadness
And from all guile has found thee free,
He comes to thee all unaware
And makes thee own His loving care.

Nor think amid the fiery trial
That God hath cast thee off unheard,
That he whose hopes meet no denial
Must surely be of God preferred.
Time passes and much change doth bring
And set a bound to everything.

All are alike before the Highest:
’Tis easy for our God, We know,
To raise thee up, though low thou liest,
To make the rich man poor and low.
True wonders still by Him are wrought
Who setteth up and brings to naught.

Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
Perform thy duties faithfully,
And trust His Word: though undeserving,
Thou yet shalt find it true for thee.
God never yet forsook in need
The soul that trusted Him indeed.

Our hymnal, as many others, includes the first, third and last verses, albeit in a more modern fashion which takes Winkworth's translation and removes archaicisms. It was originally written by Georg Neumark. Like many chorales, Bach used this text and tune in several of his works, as shown on the Bach Cantatas website. You can also see the German text of the first verse, "Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten," as well as some older tune settings.

I always hear congregations that sing this drone along as slowly as humanly possible. That really bothers me, because the text itself is not mournful—rather, it's a text of hope (even the second verse, although it's definitely darker than the rest). Even though trials and other bad things might be happening, God will bring a time of joy and comfort. If you read the biography of Neumark above, you know that this hymn was written after he was robbed of all his worldly possessions—an event of great trial for anyone.

However, the tune itself reminds me much more of the dance corrente than a mournful dirge. Its triple meter, when played and sung at a quicker tempo, becomes much more lively and dancelike. Considered in that quicker tempo, it becomes much more like the dancing music of Michael Praetorius (e.g., the courantes of Terpischore) or of Samuel Scheidt (e.g., the correntes of Ludi musiciand, I'm avoiding a discussion of the finer points of corrente and courante, since even those two composers seem a little unsure of any difference) than of the dirge it usually is.

So, even after my lively introduction to the hymn on Sunday, by the end of the first line of text the congregation was several beats behind. What is it about minor keys that equals slow in peoples' minds? The organ is such a wonderful instrument because it's easily followed, but, hymns such as this (and Jesus Priceless Treasure, which I've discussed before) always end up plodding along. That's incredibly frustrating, because in a time in which some see hymns as boring, it helps little to sing them in a manner that makes sure they are. If you happen to sing this, please notice the text and sing it with some hope in your heart and in your voice!

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