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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

My Ten Favorite Hymns

by Gary D. Penkala

Hymnal in hand ("real" hardcover version, of course) I set out to list my favorite hymns. The list has no value other than as an expression of personal taste, although all the choices are what trained musicians would call "good" church music. My list is likely to be different from another church musician's list, but that's fine. After all, taste is a matter of background, experience, culture and environment; and mine, as everyone's, is unique. The only thing gained in making such a list (aside from a fanatic pleasure I derive from such paperwork) is the analysis of just why I like each hymn. This presents criteria for evaluating other hymns, particularly new hymns. Although my original list contained some twenty-five titles, I will present only the "top ten" here (in alphabetical order).

A Mighty Fortress [tune- Ein feste Burg]
The thrill of this hymn dates back (waaaaay back) to my younger years and, of all things, the "Davy and Goliath Show," an animated religious version of "Leave It to Beaver," sponsored on TV by the Lutheran Church. The memories of the show's opening, with silvery trumpets blaring this great hymn, have certainly transcended for me denominational prejudices that may be held by others. This Catholic thinks it's just "one fine hymn tune!".

For All the Saints [tune- Sine nomine]
Another great tune, although nameless - "Sine nomine" means "Without name." This tune was written by an Anglican, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had an extraordinary gift for writing the most stately music imaginable. This may be a result of his exposure to the pomp and ceremony of a high Anglican service. Whatever the inspiration, we are indebted to this Englishman for our All Saints hymn, par excellence. Oh, that we could sing it more often! [And, yes, I want this at my funeral].

Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken [tune- Austria]
This majestic hymn was written by Franz Josef Haydn (finally... a Catholic!) as a part of one of his string quartets. Several other hymns were also taken from Classical compositions: "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," "Be Still My Soul," "O God, Beyond All Praising." Named after Austria, this tune was selected by that country for its national anthem. It is probably at its best when played by a good brass band.

Good Christian Men, Rejoice [tune- In dulci jubilo]
This charming Renaissance German tune, with its captivating and unusual rhythms, combines the qualities of repetition and variety to produce a pleasing and very singable hymn tune. Its classic text has fallen victim to the "Inclusion Controversy." While I find no problem in writing new texts which avoid the "troublesome" neutral man, I also feel elegant texts of former generations (where this was not an issue) should not be altered. But... that's another article!

Immaculate Mary [tune- Lourdes Hymn]
This hymn is a sentimental favorite. I sang it in a candlelight procession at the shrine of Lourdes in six languages with thousands of pilgrims from around the world. It is probably the most international Marian hymn, an effective setting in verse and refrain style. Incidentally, the refrain is sung to a slightly different rhythm in France, with an accent on the second syllable of "Ave" and the third of "Maria."

  Back to Hymns and Hymnody Index

Part II: Numbers 6 - 10! 

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