Hymn of the Month: Hymns for March, April, and May


Were You There

The season of Lent is a time for Christians to learn more of what it means to be followers of Christ, whose love for us went all the way to the cross. The hymn "Were You There" provides a means by which we can thoughtfully relate the Lenten events to our own lives.

The words of this song focus on the actual events surrounding Christ's suffering and death, reminding us that the sacrifice he made was a very real one. Through this text we can sense some of the pain and the humiliation that he bore so that we could be delivered. Such a heartfelt and personal utterance often appears in the music of black spirituals that originated among slaves in the American South.

As a congregation, we may use this hymn during Lent to lead us toward an admission of our corporate responsibility for the pain that Jesus endured. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" the song asks. Our answer may certainly be yes. In a very real sense it was our sin that crucified our Lord, that nailed him to the tree, that laid him in the tomb. And at the very heart of Lent is our need to realize that we all are sinners in need of forgiveness—and that our sin is what made Christ's suffering necessary.

Most congregations will already be familiar with "Were You There," but it may still be effective to prepare for the singing with an appropriate organ composition based on this hymn. Three pieces that treat the tune sensitively are the hymn preludes written by Dale Wood (found in Wood Works, Sacred Music Press), Janet Linker (Hymns of the Cross, Beckenhorst Press), and Emma Lou Diemer {Celebration: Seven Hymn Settings, Augsburg).

The first three stanzas of the spiritual need to be sung simply and meditatively preferably with a minimal amount of instrumental accompaniment. Traditionally the singing of spirituals has been mostly a cappella, as one would expect from a folk-music style. It would be very effective in this hymn to have one of the stanzas (especially the third) sung without any accompaniment and in harmony.

"Were You There" could also be accompanied very beautifully by guitar or piano. If the organ is used, the organist should avoid the use of high-pitched stops and rumbling pedal sounds.

Solo voices could also be used very effectively perhaps alternating stanzas between a soloist and the congregation. Or a soloist could sing the first phrase of each stanza with the congregation responding for the remaining lines. This would allow the soloist to introduce additional (even improvised) stanzas as desired in a modified call-and-response manner.

The fourth stanza of "Were You There" should present a different tone than the previous three, reflecting the dramatic change indicated with these words. In this verse, the despair and agony of Lent make way for the anticipation of Easter. It must be sung with great joy and a stronger accompaniment to reflect Christ's victory over death.


Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands

As Protestants, we owe a great debt to Martin Luther. His beliefs about including the whole congregation in worship led this reformer to translate the Bible into German, opening the way for all believers to read Scripture in their native languages. These beliefs also encouraged him to support the development of congregational singing. Both of these actions have had a lasting impact on our style of worship.

Luther himself wrote some thirty-seven hymns or chorales for congregational singing. Some of his texts were versifications of psalms or other Scripture passages, some were taken from Latin and pre-Reformation hymns, and others were original texts.

One Latin hymn that Luther particularly loved was the eleventh-century Easter sequence, Victimae paschali laudes— especially its vivid portrayal of the conflict between death and life. He incorporated this descriptive text into the second stanza of his own Easter hymn, "Christ lag in Todesbanden," which we know in English as "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands." Luther's strong and victorious text is very fitting for us to use during this Easter season.

Stanza 1 reminds us that the Christ who died and was buried because of our sins now reigns triumphantly in heaven at God's right hand. Stanza 2 depicts the battle between life and death, with death's sting being forever removed. The third stanza reminds us that the slain Lamb, like the Passover lamb, is a symbol of deliverance from death. The remaining two stanzas portray Christ as the light of the sun who has conquered darkness and as the bread of heaven who will feed us forever—two beautiful symbols of our Redeemer.

The music of "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" was written by Jo-hann Walther, one of Luther's collaborators, and, like the text, it bears some resemblance to "Victimae paschali laudes." (See RW 22, where both of these hymns were included in the Easter Vigil Service "Waiting the Coming Day") Luther's congregational hymns were typically sung a cappella and in unison, with the choir singing more elaborate settings of the chorale melodies. "Christ lag" appeared already in 1524 in one of the first hymnals published during the Reformation.

Vivid imagery makes this an exciting hymn to use for Easter celebrations. If the tune is unfamiliar, stanzas 1-3 could be sung by a soloist or by the choir singing in unison, with everyone joining in on the final "alleluia" in each stanza. The whole congregation should sing the final two stanzas.

The internal repetition found in the tune is a helpful learning tool. Like many Lutheran chorale tunes, "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" is cast in an AAB form, and the last five notes of the 'A" sections are also found in the 'Alleluia!" refrain at the end of the "B" section. Both of these devices were popular with the Minnesingers (German troubadours) of the day.

A variety of organ and choral settings (often with the German text in the title) can enhance the use of this hymn. J. S. Bach's dramatic Cantata #4 contains movements for soloists and for choir based on this hymn. Bach also wrote three organ preludes on the tune. Additional Baroque preludes can be found in The Church Organist's Golden Treasury Volume 1 (Oliver Ditson), Eighty Chorale Preludes (C.F. Peters), The Parish Organist Volume 8 (Concordia), and Telemann's 12 Ltichte Choral vorspiele (C.F. Peters). Other hymn preludes include those by Held (Six Preludes on Easter Hymns, Concordia), Manz (Ten Chorale Improvisations Set VI, Concordia), and Peter Pindar Stearns (Eight Hymn Prehdes for Easter, Flammer).


Jesus Shall Reign

Ascension Day is one ofthe major festivals of the church year, yet it seems to receive surprisingly little attention in many churches. The hymn "Jesus Shall Reign" can help direct our attention this month to the significance of the ascension.

The text of this fine hymn was written by Isaac Watts, who is known as the father of English hymnody. Critical of the poor quality of existing psalm versifications, Watts began to write his own poetic psalm versions as a teenager, and later wrote hymns, eventually writing well over seven hundred hymn texts.

Watts did not accept the viewpoint of John Calvin, who believed that singing in church should be restricted to biblical texts—particularly from the Psalms. Instead, Watts argued that church singing should be more closely related to contemporary thoughts and feelings. He also believed that Christian song needed to go beyond Old Testament texts in order to express the full gospel of the New Testament.

In 1719 Watts published 138 metrical psalm settings in new, "Christianized" versions. He said, "I have chosen rather to imitate than to translate, and thus to compose a psalm-book for Christians after the manner of the Jewish Psalter."

"Jesus Shall Reign" is the text that Watts wrote for the second part of Psalm 72. This setting emphasizes a view of Jesus as the triumphant King, reigning in glory over his kingdom. Our celebration of the ascension can be revitalized through the singing of this hymn when we recognize that Jesus, the conqueror of death, has now become Christ, the ruler of the universe.

John Hatton's tune DUKE STREET is generally used in North America for the text of "Jesus Shall Reign," although in England, where both the text and tune originated, the two are not generally used together.

The powerful and triumphant text of this hymn calls for majestic singing. Its tempo is most effective when felt as a deliberate two-beats-per-measure. Various groups of singers might be used to underscore the mood of each stanza: try having the whole congregation sing stanza 1,the women only on stanza 2, all the children on the third stanza, the men on stanza 4, and everyone joining on the fifth stanza with a free organ accompaniment or a trumpet descant, like the one included here by Geoffrey Shaw.

Resources for the tune DUKE STREET are not difficult to find, although they may be camouflaged by different titles ("I Know That My Redeemer Lives," "Fight the Good Fight," and "Give to God Immortal Praise"). Some very good free accompaniments include those by Eric Routley (25 Festive Hymns for Organ and Choir, Augsburg), G. Winston Cassler (Organ Descants for Selected Hymn Tunes, Augsburg), Gerre Hancock (Organ Improvisations for Hymn-Singing, Hinshaw), and Eric Thiman (Varied Harmonizations of Favorite Hymn Tunes, H.W. Gray).

A number of good organ preludes based on this tune may be found in Gerald Kemner's Fantasies on Nine Familiar Hymn Tunes (Augsburg), Wilbur Held's Preludes and Postludes Volume 1 (Augsburg), Interpretations Book III (David Cherwien/A.M.S.L), The Diane Bish Organ Book Volume 4 (Fred Bock Music Co.), and Jan Bender's 5 Festive Preludes on Easter Hymns (Concordia). Also notable is Charles Callahan's "Partita on Duke Street" (Concordia).

Choral settings of "Jesus Shall Reign" include hymn concertatos for choir, congregation, organ, and (in some cases) optional brass, written by David Cherwien (Summa), Hal Hopson (G.I.A.), and James Engel (Augsburg). Other concertatos are also available under the title "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" by Paul Bunjes (Concordia) and Theodore Beck (Morning Star). Although text changes would be required if these works were to be used, it would be worth the effort to promote congregational excitement about the celebration of Christ's ascension.

Reformed Worship 26 © December 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.