Is a tune a matter of taste?

In recent posts the writers of this Friday slot on hymns and songs have focussed on the words, in fact we started this series off by considering how having words of good theology is of utmost importance in choosing and selecting hymns for worship.  There are other, not insignificant, but more practical matters to consider though.  One of those questions to consider is which tune we use.  This post will take, for example, Isaac Watts’ great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I survey the wondrous Cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then am I dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The words to this hymn are so incredible that Charles Wesley is reported to have said that he would give up all the hymns he had written to have written this one!  With such amazing words, how significant is the tune?

Excuse an organist’s introduction….  If you look in most traditional hymnbooks you will see Watts’ hymn is set to a tune with the metre: LM (long metre, or 88 88).  This means that these wonderful words are written in verses of four lines composing of eight syllables each.  In the URC hymnbook, there are 53 LM tunes that could be used to sing Watts’ hymn.  They vary from Old Hundredth (usually the tune for “All people that on earth do dwell”) to Duke Street (usually the tune for “Christ is alive let Christians sing”).  Whilst it is often entertaining to try singing the words to a tune not so familiar, it makes you wonder why we sing the hymns to the tunes we are familiar with, and, what does a tune add to the praise of our wonderful God, beyond simply the words we use.

In most UK churches, the ‘set tune’ (i.e. the one that is usually printed alongside to the words) for When I Survey is the tune Rockingham.

It becomes apparent that actually in the case of When I Survey, the tune needs to be adaptable to the words.  So the tune needs to enhance the confidence we have in the theology of verses 1 and 2.  The same music then needs to bring us to the foot of the cross where are our emotions are hit in verses 3 and 4, when we are asked to See from his head, his hands his feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  That same music then needs to lift us as we make a response in the final verse with our soul, life and all.  That’s tricky.  And is achieved to some extent in the tune Rockingham.  However it is very difficult to bring the reflection needed in verses 3 and 4 in this tune.  When leading a congregation from the piano or organ I often leave them to sing verse three unaccompanied, otherwise, I sense people make the commitment of the final verse without really having grasped the enormity of being taken to see Jesus on the cross first.  Maybe a better organist/pianist or a different arrangement would be able to achieve this!

If you’re reading this from the USA, you may well not know what on earth I’m talking about, because as I understand it, the set tune for When I Survey in America is usually ‘Hamburg’.

Another option is to use what most churches seem to call the ‘new tune’, O Waley, Waley.

Both these tunes are great for the need in verse 3 to be drawn to that point of utter dependence on Christ and his sacrifice.  However for me, it is hard to sing the words in the final verse, ‘Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’ to a tune that draws me back to reflection, I want to be making a bold declaration at that point to the congregation around me and before the throne of God that I will give my all.

A further option is given by the natives of the land in which I know minister, Wales.  In the proud singing tradition there is here, the traditional Welsh tune to When I Survey is Morte Christe.

For me, I must say this tune ticks all the boxes: solid foundation in verses 1 and 2, reflection for verse 3 and 4 and a rousing and bold declaration in the final verse.  But there’s a problem.  No-one uses this tune in churches.  Why? Because the vocal range needed to sing this tune is usually beyond the capabilities of the modern congregation and not many churches have a male voice choir to rely on each Sunday!

So what are we to do?

Well here in Rhyl we have used all three of the UK preferred tunes to effect in different settings.  In a congregational setting, for collective hymn singing, we use Rockingham.  Partly because it is what people are expecting, and partly because in my opinion it covers most areas.  After the sermons here we often have a time of prayer and reflection, and I have used the O Waley, Waley tune, as in placing it there, I’m asking people to reflect on the Word of God, and come to response, and so the emphasis is on reflecting.  We have heard a recording of When I Survey set to Morte Christe at the end of a Bible Study.

It is important that the tune is right, so that the words sing straight into our hearts.  As we deliberate and choose hymns and tunes each week, let us praise God for the faithful servants like Isaac Watts who wrote these amazing words but also for Edward Miller (Rockingham), Lowel Mason (Hamburg), Emrys Jones (Morte Christe), (and potentially even the pagans who wrote O Waly, Waly) who each looked to bring Watts words of truth and response alive for us in music.



PS Apologies for the length of this post and including four youtube links – I hope it has been useful for you!


About Paul Robinson

Hi! I am URC minister at the United Church in Rhyl in North Wales. I love the Bible, preaching and using and leading music in worship; and I'm blessed by a God who has and wants to reach me in grace. I'm 30, have been married to Jo for nearly 7 years, and we have a baby girl called Rachel who is 8 months old.

Posted on July 13, 2012, in Friday Music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Max Birchenough

    I come from a rather different way of looking at this hymn. I am now accompanist to Cor Meibion Bro Dysynni, but there are aspects of Welsh hymn culture which make me uneasy. For me the last verse of this lovely hymn is one to sing in an awed hush, metaphorically on one’s knees. Evangelical triumphalism has little attraction for me, and so Emrys Jones’ tune, though beautiful in itself, seems to me quite inappropriate for these words. O Waly Waly, as an alternative to Rockingham, on the other hand, seems just right to me.

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