Sunday, February 14, 2016

Near-perfect harmony

Today on Lent 1 we sang the #1 Lenten hymn, “Forty Days and Forty Nights.” #1 in that it is the first Lenten hymn in both The English Hymnal (#73) and first in Hymnal 1940 (#55) — as well as the second “Ash Wednesday and Lent” hymn in Hymnal 1916 (#123). Hymnal 1940 Companion says it’s been used in the CoE since Hymns Ancient & Modern and in PECUSA hymnals since 1874. It managed to survive the modernization urges in Hymnal 1982 (#150) and the New English Hymnal (#67). All use the same tune.

Hymn Text

All are derived from the same 1856 text by Rev. George Hunt Smyttan (1822-1870), as altered by Francis Pott. Although the US and UK version differ in the middle, they share the same first and last verses (5 in PECUSA, 6 in CoE).

From a catechetical standpoint, it’s hard to match this hymn for explaining to the new Christian (or newly-liturgical Christian) why we observe (celebrate seems the wrong word) the season of Lent:
Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Today, however I was struck by the music. The tune Heinlein (aka Aus der Tiefe) is taken from the Nürnbergisches Gesangbuch; Google suggests this is the only hymn from this songbook still being used. According to a German-language book on 17th-century Lutheran hymns (Lorbeer, 2012: 133):
Das Nürnbergisches Gesangbuch, das mir in einer Ausgabe von 1677 vorlag, war 1676 bei Christoph Gerhard und Sebastian Göbel erschienen. Trotz des offiziell klingenden Titels handelt es sich nicht um ein amtliches Gesangbuch, sonder verdankt such einer Initiative des Verlegers Sebastian Göbel, der schon vorher Gesang- und Gebetbücher herausgebracht hatte.

The Nürnberg hymnal, for which I have an 1677 edition, was published in 1676 by Christoph Gerhard and Sebastian Göbel. Despite the official sounding title, it does not constitute an official hymnal, but instead reflects an initiative of the publisher Sebastian Goebel, who had previously released song and prayer books.
Several sources say the tune is marked “M.H.,” which musicologists assume refers to Lutheran pastor Martin Herbst (1654-1681).

Oddly, although this clearly is a German Lutheran tune (written by the country vicar of a tiny English village), it doesn’t appear in any of the Missouri Synod (i.e. German-American) Lutheran hymnals from 1940-2006. I remember singing it for our Wednesday Lenten services during the year I was in the local LCMS choir, but I guess this was the one hymn I requested and won special (doctrinal) permission from the pastor for the choir to use it despite it not being on the approved LCMS list.


While the tune is very familiar from decades of singing it, what struck me today was the harmony. Neither Hymnal 1940 nor Hymnal 1940 Companion credits the harmonization, but Hymnal 1982 and The Cyberhymnal attribute it to English composer William Henry Monk (1823-1889).

From my two years of music composition as a music minor decades ago, the D-minor harmony feels more 17th century than 19th century: not as complex as Bach, but definitely consistent with Baroque harmonies. Ignoring the passing tones, the bass line is a very straightforward I-V-I-V-II-V; I-IV-VII-III-VII-I-V-I. According to my copy of Piston (1987: 23), it follows the standard rules for root progressions dating back centuries.

I understand that 19th and 20th century music paved new ground by breaking these classic rules of harmony and counterpoint. However, as a layman singing in the pews — usually not knowing the week’s hymns until five minutes before the service starts — I really, really appreciate predictable harmonies and voice leading that lend themselves to sight-singing. Singing harmony for two or three hymns on Sunday morning is often the highlight of my day and one of the highlights of my week. I like to think that (in my own small way) is part of our broader congregation’s singing to the glory of God.

Lost Harmony

The trend for hymnal harmony has not been a good one. While Hymnal 1982 added a number of descants, it also deleted the harmony for numerous hymns (a tally I plan to make someday). Worse yet, the 21st century video projector churches (when for some reason they sing hymns) project only the words, not the music — privileging the choir (with their hymnals) over congregational singers who don’t have the inside scoop.

I realize that congregation singing dates (at best) 500 years to Luther, and in its modern incarnation 150 years to Hymns A&M and the post-Civil War US hymnals. Still, it’s not something that I think the church — or its musically minded members — should give up without a fight.


Lorbeer, Lukas. Die Sterbe-und Ewigkeitslieder in deutschen lutherischen Gesangbüchern des 17. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 104. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012.

Piston, Walter with Mark Devoto. Harmony. 5th ed. Norton, 1987.

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