Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

I've mentioned before that this is my favorite hymn, but I've been reflecting on why that is. Last Sunday we sang this in church in the morning, and I got to play it again that evening in the Princeton Seminary Koinonia opening worship (that's the doctoral student fellowship). I also then, on Friday, had my class analyze it on their music theory quizzes, so I had a week to reflect.

Firstly, we should think about its text. Again, as many hymns I've discussed here, Catherine Winkworth translated it, although this time in the 1863 Chorale Book for England, on page 29-30. Its German author, Joachim Neander, wrote the text in 1679. You can read a brief bio of Neander at the cyberhymnal, but of note are that he studied with two famous pietists Philipp Jakob Spener, considered one of the fathers of pietism, and Johann Sch├╝tz; and that he is immortalized through the discovery of Neanderthal Man in the valley named after him.

Winkworth included four verses in the Chorale Book for England, and it is these four that most modern hymnals include.

Praise to the Lord! the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Now to His temple draw near,
Join me in glad adoration!

Praise to the Lord! who o'er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea so gently sustaineth;
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord! who doth prosper thy work and defend thee,
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew
What the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee!

Praise to the Lord! Oh let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him!
Let the Amen
Sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him!

If you look at the cyberhymnal version, you see 7 verses. I'm unsure where they've found them all. I have an 1829 Lieder-Sammlung that includes 5 verses, including the 3rd on the cyberhymnal page, but I haven't found the other verses. My other German hymnals all have the same 5 verses. However, in English-language hymnals, it seems to have only become popular in the latter half of the 20th century, and I can only find the common 4 verses. I'll have to look into that more.

Returning to the text, though, it is a wonderful call to praise. It begins by calling people to worship, moves on to praise God for creation and all that God does for us, and finally concludes with a view towards eternity. The text is the first positive to this hymn—the focus on God's greatness is exactly what should be in a song of praise (unlike some which purport to glorify God and then spend the whole time discussing humans). Further, showing God's greatness through creation is a common theme throughout history, from the Psalms on forward. But, it is the final verse that draws it together for me—for it is in the eschaton that humanity is truly redeemed, along with all creation.

The second positive to this hymn, though, is its music. The tune, which takes its name from the German title LOBE DEN HERREN, is perfectly suited to the text. The most common version, harmonized by William S. Bennett, is an excellent example of classical contrapuntal rules. Since it does follow these rules so nicely, it is exceptionally easy to play, and at the same time greatly embellish for interest on different verses.

Further, the structure of it is exactly what is needed for the text (warning—some music theory follows). Winkworth maintained the rhyming scheme from the German, AABBA. The tune, similarly, follows this scheme. The first line of music is repeated, then comes a contrasting section for the B lines, and the final line takes the second half of the first line to produce the ending—giving the musical structure aaba'. In common practice music, this is a form of what is known as a "contrasting double period," a common phrase structure. The high point of the piece, occurring in the B section, allows for the fall to the final cadence to give a good sense of completion to the hymn.

This combination of text and tune makes this hymn into what I would consider a perfect example of what should occur in worship—a well-constructed yet also spiritually and emotionally uplifting hymn of praise. It fits well into my own theology of music in worship, which I've never discussed here but obviously should. Look for it soon. But, what do you think of this hymn? I've been told by some others that it's one of their favorites—does everyone agree?

6 comments:

WTM said...

It ranks on my favorite hymns list.

Denise said...

It's fun to sing, the words are easy to remember and the rhymes aren't forced; I love it!

Michael Jordan said...

Definitely one of my favorites--we sang it at our wedding!

natejames said...

hmmm... very intriguing blog. I have to say that your practical application of such extensive knowledge is quite encouraging. I am mesmorized by the light that history sheds so many things. I find it very unfortunate that our society is so concerened with staying drunk and entertained ( i had a liberal american politics professer who called it "beer and circus" ) that it has little time to open a book and expand their understanding of why things are the way they are, don't you?
Also very interesting about the "musical rhyme scheme"
Does modern day music have similar patterns, or are the genres too diverse to hold any redundancy regarding the chord progessions?
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Lance said...

Nate, as to modern songs having a rhyme scheme, yes they do. Sometimes it's a much simpler one, but anytime there's a verse/chorus structure, there's often some musical form. A lot of them have fancy names, but you can usually identify them using letters (aa'ba" is especially common-a contrasting double period).

Bread and circuses has a long history from Roman emperors. It is a shame that it's so easy to maintain!

Anonymous said...

I have been feeling like God is calling me into a deeper relationship with him. I've had some very difficult health issues in the last 3 years. I was challanged to pray daily laying on the ground on my face before God and see what He would do with my relationship with Him. I'm never good at summarizing what a year meant to me or a resolution for the next year. But at the beginning of 2009 out of the blue God impressed upon me that the past has been about trust and I can remember Him asking me will I trust Him, simple yes or no. Then clearly I felt Him tell me 2009 was going to be about praise. This hymn brings together those 2 themes beautifully. You can take this hymn and meditate on each verse as there is much depth and comfort for one's soul as we are reminded of His greatness and called to draw closer to Him. As we draw closer we will see all that He can do and that He is our protector and defender. But by "doing" I don't mean give me things but what He will do in my soul and what He will in helping me live out my life even when others come after me. This hymn is a beautiful reminder of our Creator and the King of Kings and we should be in adoration of Him.