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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Decoding A Hymn

by Gary D. Penkala

Hymnology, the study of hymns, has become such a science that there are now college, graduate and post-graduate courses on the subject. The history of hymns in general, or of one hymn in particular, may reveal unusual and interesting secrets about how, when and why hymns were composed. Even with no college course available to us, we can learn about hymns from a practical standpoint. Much information is given in the heading for each hymn, found at the top or bottom of each page in a hymnal. All we need do is decode the various symbols and positions to learn the author, composer, name, title, meter and other information about the hymn.

The following examples will use the Worship hymnal (GIA Publications). Missalettes and other paperback worship aides will be of little help as they give less of the information found in normal hymnals.

The title of the hymn text is often given at the top center of the page. Note that this is usually taken from the first line of the hymn text and has no connection whatsoever with the tune to which the text is sung. Among experts the word "hymn" signifies the text which was written, apart from any musical setting. "Hymn" in this strict and correct sense means the poem, while "hymn" in the more general and popular sense refers to the musical setting as well as the poem. Although most hymn texts are identified by their first lines, a few have other words as their titles, such as "America the Beautiful" and "O Sacrament Most Holy."

Below the title but to the left is found the author of the text and his birth and death dates. This may be found at the bottom of the page in some hymnals. The hymn "Praise to the Lord" lists Joachim Neander (1650-1680) as the author of the text. Also given is the translator (German to English) Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). If the author is not known, a description or source may be given, as in "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," 14th Century Latin Carol, translation by John M. Neale (1818-1866). If the text is a scriptural paraphrase, the Biblical citation is often given: "The King of Love My Shepherd Is," Psalm 23, Henry W. Baker (1821-1877).

Opposite the author, to the right of the title, is given the composer or source of the tune. This may be a famous composer, as "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847); a contemporary composer, "Jesus, Shepherd of Our Souls," Alexander Peloquin (b.1918); a collection, "Turn Back, O Man," Genevan Psalter 1551; or a folk song, "We Gather Together," Netherlands Folk Song.

Below the composer or source is found the person who harmonized the tune. Some hymn harmonizations are standards which date back several hundred years, while other tunes are harmonized by contemporary composers expressly for the hymnal. "O Sacred Head Surrounded," a tune of Hans Leo Hassler, was harmonized by J.S. Bach. Bach harmonized hundreds of German chorales, many of which are still used in today's hymnals.

  Back to Hymns and Hymnody Index

Part II: What About the Tune Name? 

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