Hymn of the Month: Hymns for September, October, and November

Anyone who takes a close look at the history of the Christian church in the United States and Canada cannot help but be struck by the many ways in which our cultural and ethnic diversity has enriched and blessed us. We are truly a body that has been influenced by people of "every tribe, language, and nation."

One of the areas in which the benefits of this diversity become most obvious is in our music. Our recent hymnals include a variety of styles and traditions. Three different traditions are featured in this Hymn of the Month: a Latin American folk hymn ("Holy, Holy, Holy"/ "Santo, Santo, Santo"), an African-American spiritual ("There Is a Balm in Gilead"), and a Genevan psalm ("Praise Is Your Right, O God, in Zion").

In spite of the differences in musical language and style, the real root of all three of these hymns is the folk song. And, like all true folk songs, these melodies are intended for group singing and sound best when sung simply and straightforwardly without complex accompaniment.

Although each hymn has its own specific theme (September: worship and adoration; October: hope and liberation; November: Thanksgiving, harvest), all three are appropriate for use throughout the church year.


Holy, Holy Holy/ Santo, Santo, Santo

Characteristic of much Spanish folk music is the use of minor keys and strong rhythmic patterns. "Holy, Holy, Holy" exhibits both of these traits.

The tune carries the rhythm typical of the Merengue, a dance common in Central America: the ti ti ti ti ta ta occurs twice in each line. Any kind of rhythm instrument, including homemade ones, can be used to accompany this song: drums and bongos of all shapes and sizes, maracas, claves, gui'ro (produces a scraping sound). Guitars and fiddles of various sizes, including the bass, will also help bring out the rhythmic vitality of this number.

Like so much Latin American and Spanish folk music, the melody is simple (only six notes are used), with a narrow range (a minor sixth), and in a minor mode. It is a catchy tune, simple but in no way trite, that combines strength (strong rhythm) and sweetness (minor mode melodiousness). The high point of the five lines occurs in line three, and the last two lines are the same: a-b-C-d-d. In other words, structurally the tune is in the shape of an arch, or rainbow.

One of the many ways to use this song effectively is as a joyful and worshipful doxology Since it has only one stanza, "Holy, Holy, Holy" could be sung a number of times. If, as is typical of the Merengue, it is sung with an accelerando, each repetition would be a little faster. It is also dramatic to sing the last repetition rather slowly and in a hushed manner, expressing a sense of awe at the holiness of God.

Simple vocal or instrumental improvisation is entirely appropriate for this kind of music, and an example of a possible descant is provided above.


"There Is a Balm in Gilead"

One member in my church told me that for years she thought the first line read "There is a bomb in Gilead." If you sense the possibility of such a misunderstanding in your group, be sure to distinguish between these two words and concepts, "balm" and "bomb." They represent two opposing approaches to dealing with trouble, and it is important to know which one we believe in. This song may provide an opportunity for a short lesson on the power of love versus the "power" of violence.

The words of this spiritual are inspired by the question asked in Jeremiah 8:22, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" The implied answer in the passage is "No," but this spiritual turns that around and points to Jesus as the Great Physician.

In direct, simple, and yet profound style, the text reminds us of the Christian's great blessing—God's love. It also reminds us of our responsibility to "tell the love of Jesus." A worship leader can reinforce this reminder by asking several people in the congregation, preferably young people or children, to do just that: turn to someone else, perhaps another child, and tell him or her of the "love of Jesus" (e.g., "Jamie, Jesus loves you.").

It may be helpful to draw attention to the contrast between the refrain, the sub-ject of which is Jesus, and the verses, which focus on us as God's people. Have the verses sung by a soloist or small group (unaccompanied), and the refrain by choir and congregation, SATB, with or without organ. An advantage of the soloist approach (for the verses) is the rhythmic freedom it allows. For example, in verse 2, a more natural rhythm for "can-not" is short-long (eighth note and dotted quarter).

Probably the most powerful and "telling" way to use this song is to sing all of it in unison, unaccompanied. However, the harmonies used in the arrangement on page 37 are quite appropriate and in keeping with the basic simplicity of the melody, as are the guitar chords (in D, with capo 3). When instrumental accompaniment is used, improvising in a manner that preserves the integrity of the song and its musical style should be encouraged. A suitable descant would be the "instant" kind—for example, sopranos singing the tenor part of the refrain, an octave higher. It is a lovely tenor line, moving mainly in parallel thirds (and/or sixths) with the soprano. Such a descant, but slightly more free, might also be played by instruments (see p. 37).

The use of "I" in this hymn should be understood in the context of the history of the spiritual. The first-person pronoun is commonly used in almost all spirituals, and is an important part of the expression of a person's worth, especially in the sight of God. Individual congregations should feel free to add to or modify the text, though always with sensitivity, taking care to avoid sentimentality and frivolity.

As an example of what to avoid, I quote from an edition in my library in which the negatives in verse two have been omitted:

"If you can preach like Peter,
If you can pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus ..."

Although perfectly true and sensible, it robs the poem of the very point it is trying to make.

But additional verses might be added in which other verbs are substituted for "pray" and "preach" (e.g., "sing," "write," "play," "think," "dance," "paint," "sculpt") and other names substituted for "Peter" and "Paul" (e.g., "angels," "Miriam," "Solomon"):

"If you cannot sing like Moses,
If you cannot play like David,
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, 'He died for all'"

Often found in other hymnals is this stanza:

"Don't ever feel discouraged,
For Jesus is your Friend,
And if you lack for knowledge,
He'll not refuse to lend."

[Lift Every Wee aid Sing, 1981, #14; Sing and Rejoice, 1979, #124]


Praise Is Your Right, O God, in Zion" (Psalm 65)

Psalm 65 is best known as the "Thanksgiving Psalm" or "Harvest Psalm." Images of a bountiful harvest and a good earth abound, with the emphasis falling on the goodness of God and God's many blessings in nature: The valleys "shout for joy" and the little hills "rejoice on every side."

The second verse, with its reference to our mortality ("to you shall all flesh come") is a reminder also that God's goodness extends beyond this life. The connection to the Old Testament harvest festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, and in turn to its New Testament parallel in the feast of Pentecost, makes it a fitting psalm for any festive church occasion.

Since Thanksgiving is usually celebrated on the holiday weekend, many choir directors must put up with a small-er-than-usual choir. Several fine composers have written first-rate anthems based on Psalm 65 that are quite within the range of a small-to-average church choir. G.I.A. has recently published a Goudimel setting using the same text by Stanley Wiersma as found in the Psalter Hymnal and Presbyterian Hymnal. Other personal favorites include settings by Maurice Greene, Keith Bissell, and Healey Willan.

Genevan 65 is a good psalm tune for congregations who think they don't really like singing Genevan melodies. It is one of the more easily singable of these tunes, with its straightforward rhythm and a narrow range suitable for all voices. The tune has no rhythmic complexities such as syncopations, hemiolas, or changing meters, and most of the melody falls within the range of a fifth, "e" to "b."

The structure is also very simple: lines one and two are exactly the same, and lines three and four, though melodi-cally different, are rhythmically the same. In line three, the leap of the fifth that characterized the first two lines is replaced by mostly stepwise movement. In addition, there is a change to the relative major key and rhythmically the pace quickens. The resulting effect is one of a gentle crescendo: images of blossoming and bearing fruit come to mind. Repeating the rhythm but not the melody in line four provides a wonderful and very effective synthesis: the minor mode of lines one and two returns, but this time with the more active rhythmic pattern of line three.

In short, this Genevan tune, though in a minor mode, is a sturdy and a wonderful expression of "serious mirth"—the kind of deep joy you feel when you are moved by a glorious sunrise, or an abundant harvest, or any other expression of God's goodness and glory, especially in nature.

The harmonization of "Praise Is Your Right" offered in the Psalter Hymnal and Presbyterian Hymnal, though perfectly acceptable, clothes the melody in a choral garment. Harmonizing each note, including the short ones, lends a certain gravity to the melody. A harmonization in which the unaccented eighth notes are treated as "nonessential" notes encourages a more flowing and flexible style for unison congregational singing. The harmonization here is offered as an alternative.



December: Child So Lovely (Nino Lindo)
January: I Was Glad (Psalm 122)
February: Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive

Jan Overduin (joverdui@wlu.ca)is professor of music emeritus, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. In 2006 he retired as director of music at First United Church, Waterloo, where he supervised the installation of a 44-stop Gabriel Kney mechanical action organ. Also in 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Awards Foundation.


Reformed Worship 28 © June 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.