Thursday, February 26, 2009

With Songs and Honors Sounding Loud: The Hymns of Isaac Watts

Presented to the Club on March 12, 2001 by The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd, Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational

The English poet whose work I consider tonight does not have the name recognition of Shakespeare, but I would guess his words are publicly performed more often than Shakespeare's, or, indeed any other English poet. He has a modest, but respectable fifteen lines in the fifteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and The Oxford Book of English Verse, the Quiller-Couch Edition contains a number of his poems. He was one of the poets that Dr. Samuel Johnson included in his Lives of the Poets. More importantly, his words still live, repeated every week in any town of any size in the English-speaking world.

Let me be coy just a little longer and let you hear some verses of his poems to see if you recognize them:

With songs and honors sounding loud,
Address the Lord on high;
Over the heavens he spreads his clouds,
And waters veil the sky.

He sends his showers of blessing down
To cheer the plains below;
He makes the grass the mountains crown,
And corn in valleys grow.

How about this one:

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on his love with sweetest song,
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on his name.

Or this one:
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

and I know you all know this one:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing.

Since our poet wrote over seven hundred hymns it would be easy to go on all night with this exercise.

Isaac Watts was born on July 17, 1674 in Southampton, England into a Puritan family. His father had served several jail terms because of his religious non-conformity. The English Puritans of the late 17th and early 18th century allowed no music in their worship except the Psalms, which they argued were the only songs of worship that had a biblical warrant. The Psalms were sung in meter to strict paraphrases of the Biblical text. The chief versifiers of these texts were the Genevan Reformers Clement Marot and Theodore Beza. Young Watts complained to his father about the invariable sameness and stodginess of this music, and was challenged to do better if he could. He could, and did, and writing prodigiously the rest of his life he composed texts to over 700 hymns and psalms.

Watts was offered a scholarship to university, but since well into the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge were open only to Anglicans, he refused and so he pursued an alternative education, preparing himself for the ministry. In those days Puritan education was under the leadership of one of the learned divines who were often cutting edge thinkers, acquainted with the new learning and not constrained to follow the established curriculum of Oxford and Cambridge. Watts was a gifted scholar, and was later to write a book on logic that was used as the standard textbook at Oxford for many years.

After completion of his studies, in 1702, Watts became the pastor of Mark Lane Chapel, a large Congregational church in London. He soon became one of the most eminent Dissenting divines of his day and was particularly known for his sermons, but in 1712 poor health forced him into semi-retirement. The congregation at Mark Lane insisted that he remain as pastor as long as he lived, and resided for the rest of his life at the home of Sir Thomas Abney, a wealthy parishioner, ministering to the people with the aid of an assistant. Watts never married, though he did propose to Elizabeth Singer, who rebuffed him with these words: “Mr. Watts, I only wish I could say that I admire the casket as I admire the jewel.”

Watt's works appear in four major collections: Horae Lyricae, 1706; Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707; Divine Songs, 1715; and the Psalms of David, 1719. His works were generally of two kinds: metrical paraphrases of the Psalms, and hymns, either based loosely on a scriptural text or texts or on some biblical theme. Watt's work revolutionized Protestant hymnody. He brought his considerable poetic gifts to bear on this medium, and his verses became important for the spread of Protestant hymnody throughout the English-speaking world. Here in America, Jonathan Edwards had Watts's hymns published in Boston, and Benjamin Franklin published them in Philadelphia. I have a Psalm book that was used at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield in the mid-nineteenth century and Watts texts are well represented.

But Watt's hymns are not the exclusive property of Congregationalists or even Protestants. His works are included in the hymnals of every major denomination, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic. And Harold Salzmann sent me a copy of two of Watt's hymns from the hymnal of Reformed Judaism used in the past generation, one is paraphrase of Psalm 103 and the other is “Our God, our help in ages past.” Among the canon of most sung Protestant hymns by Watts are these: “I sing the mighty power of God,” “Come Holy Spirit, heavenly dove,” “Jesus shall reign, where'er the sun,” “High in the heav'ns eternal God,” “This is the day the Lord has made,” and “When I survey the Wondrous Cross” from which I took the title of my last book.

For those of you who are not choir people I need to say a word about hymn meter. In many hymnals you will often find the meter of the hymn expressed by the numerical patterns of the verses, for example In a four verse hymn, this notation means the first and third line have 9 syllables each, while the second and fourth line have 8 each. The three most common meters in English and American hymnody are called Common Meter, Long Meter, and Short Meter, abbreviated by the initials C.M., L.M. and S.M.. A four line hymn in Common Meter has a pattern syllables in the first and third lines, six in the second and fourth, as, for example in “Our God our help in ages past.” The pattern for Long Meter is, as in the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” The pattern for Short Meter is as in “Blest be the tie that binds.” Once you know the meter of a hymn text, you can match it with the meter of a hymn tune. The modern convention of associating texts and tunes together is a more recent innovation, as we shall see. The Psalm books of Puritanism printed only the texts, the Bay Psalm Book, America's first printed book, is a good example. The musicians would then find matching tunes that the congregation knew. Most hymnals today have the text printed within the music of the tune, but in Watts' day the metered hymn text and tune lived separate live and came together only from time to time as needed.

There are, of course, other ways to sing sacred music than with metered hymns, such as chanting, where the number of lines doesn't matter, but the modern hymn as we know it is a metered hymn of rhyming verse, and Watts is in no small way responsible. Many of Watt's hymns embodied the stern doctrines of Calvinism, but were assuaged with his particular gentleness and sympathy. Like Lincoln and Churchill his phrases are constructed from short Anglo-Saxon words, and give his verse a simple power. Listen to this metrical paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, in Common Meter:

My Shepherd will supply my need,
Jehovah is his name:
In pastures fresh he makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.

He brings my wand'ring spirit back
When I forsake his ways;
And leads me, for his mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death,
Thy presence is my stay;
A word of thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.

Thy hand in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise!

There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.”

Modern hymnals tend to reduce the number of verses in his hymns, and to remove those verses that have discredited doctrines or archaic phrases. A good example of how the English language can change to turn an ordinary expression in one age into an embarrassment in another is Watts' paraphrase of Psalm 42, which begins: Bless'd is the man whose bowels move . . .”

Other hymns of his reflect what today we call ethnocentrism, and reflect his high opinion of the British nation in God's design, such as this paraphrase of Psalm 64:

“Shine mighty God, on Britain shine,
With beams of heavenly grace;
Reveal thy power through all our coasts,
And show thy smiling face.

Amidst our isle, exalted high,
Do thou our glory stand,
and like a wall of guardian fire,
Surround the fav'rite land.

When shall thy name from shore to shore,
Sound all the earth abroad;
And distant nations know and love
Their Saviour and their God?

Sing to the Lord, ye distant lands,
Sing loud with solemn voice;
While British tongues exalt his praise,
And British hearts rejoice.”

But despite the quaintness and datedness of some of his references many of Watt's hymns are still powerful and stirring. “Our God, our help in ages past” remains one of the most sung English hymns. Frederick J. Gilman calls it “the great ceremonial hymn of the English nation, and if nothing else had come from his pen, it justifies its author's memorial in Westminster Abby.” It was sung at Sir Winston Churchill's funeral on January 30, 1965, in St Paul's Cathedral in London.

We are going to engage in a little multimedia now, by singing “Our God, our help in ages past” to the tune of St. Anne, the tune most associated with this hymn. Referring to St. Anne, Calvin Laufer wrote, “As a musical setting for Watt's words it will never be superseded. The words and music fit as hand in glove.” Yet, you may be surprised to know that Watts himself most likely never heard this tune, and, if he did, it was not sung with his verses, since this tune and these words did not appear until 1861 in the English anthology Hymns Ancient and Modern. This hymn is a metrical paraphrase in Common Meter of Psalm 90.

Our God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

2. “From all that dwell below the skies” was inspired by the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, and is a free paraphrase that Watts published in his Psalms of David. Percy Dearmer described this as “the classic of English doxologies.” The tune we will sing is LASST UNS ERFRUEN, from a German Roman Catholic hymnal published in Cologne in 1623.

From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator's praise arise!
Let the Redeemer's name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue!

Eternal are thy mercies, Lord,
eternal truth attends thy word:
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore
Till suns shall rise and set no more.

3. “Joy to the World! the Lord is come” is a free paraphrase based on the last five lines of Psalm 98. The tune is ANTIOCH. Lowell Mason ascribes the tune to George Frederick Handel, although that is open to some question. There are certainly melodic snippets from Messiah in the tune. The first four notes are identical to those of the sopranos in the first measure of “Lift up your heads, O ye gates,” and the music for the two short phrases “And heaven and nature sing” could have been taken from the introduction to the recitative “Comfort ye my people.” In this country the tune is so indissolubly associated with Christmas that one never thinks of the hymn as being a paraphrase of Psalm 98. Originally tune and text had no particular Christmas significance and the combination never appears together in English hymnals.

Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns:
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

He rule the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love.

4. Finally, we will sing the Watts' hymn from which my title was taken for this paper: “With songs and honors sounding loud,” which is a free paraphrase of Psalm 147. A sixth stanza was omitted, because moderns aren't so eager to admit either God's dreadfulness or their wretchedness as 18th century Puritans. The omitted verse reads:

When from his dreadful stores on high
He pours the rattling hail,
The wretch that dares this God defy,
Shall find his courage fail.”

We will sing this to the tune ELLACOMBE, a nineteenth century tune ascribed to German Roman Catholics, often sung with another Watt's text: “I sing the mighty power of God.”

With songs and honors sounding loud,
Address the lord on high;
Over the heavens he spreads his clouds,
And waters veil the sky.
He sends his showers of blessing down
To cheer the plains below;
He makes the grass the mountains crown,
And corn in valleys grow.

He steady counsels change the face
Of the declining year;
He bids the sun cut short his race,
And wintry days appear.
His hoary frost his fleecy snow,
Descend and clothe the ground;
The liquid streams forbear to flow,
In icy fetters bound.

He sends his word and melts the snow,
The fields no longer mourn,
He calls the warmer gales to blow,
And bids the spring return.
The changing wind, the flying cloud,
Obey his mighty word;
With songs and honors sounding loud,
Praise ye the sovereign Lord.

I suspect Watt's hymns will be sung in divine worship wherever the English language is spoken, singing God's “praise from shore to shore, till suns shall rise and set no more.”

Photo credit: Alan Ford via Wikipedia

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