A "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Our Hymnal?
Text: Johann J. Schütz (1640-1690);
translated by Frances Elizabeth Cox (1812-1897)
Music: From Bohemian Brethren’s Songbook, 1566; altered
Tune name: MIT FREUDEN ZART
No, not THAT “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you know, the one from the 90s movie “Wayne’s World.”
That is a pretty cool song…
It’s like a mini rock-’n-roll opera.
The connection with Hymn #70 is pretty slight. But when I read that the music comes from the “Bohemian Brethren’s Songbook,” I had a funny image of Freddie Mercury and Queen dressed in Monk’s robes singing pious hymns in an old Cathedral…Haha!
This is our 5th great hymn in a row. It keeps up the common theme of Praise the hymns in this section seems to focus on.
The text, by a member of the Pietist movement in Germany, which rose as a countermovement against Martin Luther’s Reformation, has a very personal feel to it. Johann Schütz depicts many of the personalities and loving characteristics of the Lord to whom he sings praise. It’s a beautiful devotional text much like King David’s Psalms in the Old Testament.
The music is set in a time signature that may scare some, 3/2. But I love the half not getting the beat in this hymn. The phrases are definitely in a triple meter and with as many syllables and notes in each bar of 3, one needs more space to notate all the detail. so 3/2 makes more sense than 3/4.
The music is very imitative. The first phrase provides just about everything needed as far as rhythmic motive, melodic shape, and harmony needed for the rest of the hymn.
I love how the tune gets up to the high “praise” register of the voice right off the bat.
My only beef with it, and with the whole hymn, is that the high note in the opening phrase is set to a very closed vowel. The word “who” gets the first high D. The Ooooo sound is the most closed of the vowel sounds.
Give it a try, make an “Oooo” sound. Notice how closed your mouth is when you make that sound. Now, make an Ah sound, like in the word “Father.” Notice how open you more is, how the back of your throat opens up, how your tongue goes down in the back. Ah is the most open of the vowel sounds.
Typically, the best kind of text setting combines the highest notes with open vowels. For all I know in the original German text, this high not is sung on an open vowel. But in our English translation, it’s unfortunately set to the most closed vowel. Luckily verses 2-4 do better at helping us open our mouths more on this note.
There’s an interesting bit of harmony in the first phrase. On the “-bove” of “above” the tenors step down from high D to a C-natural and then a B. We’ve seen lowered 7th like this before, but they are usually saved for the end of thy hymn. Employing this tactic in the opening phrase give the whole hymn a slightly different feel to it. It has that “homecoming” quality to it. Even though He is the Lord of all creation, He is still a personal, loving, Shepherd Lord.
The other great harmonic feature in this hymn is the nearly constant movement. Like the Vaughan Williams version of “All Creatures Of Our God and King” we looked at a couple weeks ago, the individual voices are nearly always on the move in Hymn #70. The many half notes in the melody give the other voices a chance to move between beats in quarter-note motion. This is a great tactic to keep in your toolkit if you’re writing something that has longer notes in the melody. Let the other voices move to give the hymn a sense of forward motion, if that’s what you’re going for.
Now, let’s take the 4-note melodic kernel that starts on the high D, D-C#-B-A. After two identical phrases to open the hymn, we get a repetition of the opening “who reigns above” kernel.
“With healing balm” and “my soul he fills” use this exact melodic fragment. I really like the repetition of the tune here. It’s make all the more exciting by the use of different harmony.
The first time we get a cadence on the 3 chord, F# minor. The second time we get a cadence on the 5 chord, A major. The bass part starts the same in both phrases, B-C#. But then it goes a different direction the 2nd time. And the bass line offer a contrary rising figure to the soprano’s descending praises. Lovely writing!
The final phrase continues to imitate the opening phrase of the hymn. Same rhythm, and very similar shapes, but different enough that we’re still interested. It guides us home to the final “praise and glory” using almost the same cadence as the end of the 2nd phrase.
This hymn will surely remain in our hymnal. It’s such a classic.
Tomorrow we’ll have a look at another “praise” hymn that is sung a little less often, but is another strong one in our series of strong hymns.
See you then!
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
This is yet another fantastic hymn in our book. It is a hymn common to many hymnals, and it is an interesting example of how different denominations will alter and change various elements of texts to match their chosen theology. In our hymnal, we “Sing praise to him who reigns above,” as the first vision so vividly teaches us of the nature of our Father in Heaven and our Savior.
It is interesting to view a hymnal as a commentary on the theological and doctrinal directions of various groups and churches. As denominational hymnals are revised and new editions come forth, one of the primary editorial focuses is on having the text reflect their current beliefs. So several denominations have commissioned and received new hymnals recently and it is interesting to read the editorial directives and the changes they make.
So in Sing Priase to Him, we have the text as revealed truth has taught us of the nature of the members of the Godhead, but in the Hymnal 1982 for example, they have it translated as “Sing praise to God who reigns above,” and “to God all praise and glory” rather than in ours, “to him all praise and glory.” This is only a very mild example of how editors will alter and revise texts to fit into their theological views. Other hymns and other hymnals are much more devoted to pleasing man instead of Heavenly Father with their texts and revisions, oftentimes butchering beloved and accurate texts to reflect a more carnal or “inclusive” view of theology.
So for all of the complaints that I have logged here with the editors of our book, one of the things I am grateful for is the unchanging nature of our doctrine and for revealed truths brought to us in the same manner and pattern that Heavenly Father has revealed His truth and doctrine to his children across all dispensations of time. Therefore, my complaints reside purely with musical treatment or omission of verses, but not with the texts themselves, as far as doctrinal accuracy is concerned.
One other observation, this hymn only has three verses in the Hymnal 1982, we have four, yet there are five in the translation. In fact, one of the three is the verse not in our hymnal. Interesting observations.
Back to my dead-horse beating, the suggested tempo marking is far too slow. A crisp, joyful tempo is more around half note equal to 92-96. This tempo gives the hymn nice lilt and great forward motion in a joyful manner. To accompany a crisp, joyful tempo, I would use a nice, bright registration, so probably just employing a principal chorus through mixture, and probably use both the lower and higher-pitched mixtures.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Mixture
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, String 8’, Mixture
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, 4’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, 16’ Reed
Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Mixture (if removed during an inner verse), Trumpet 8’
Swell: Mixture (if removed during an inner verse), Trumpet 8’
Pedal: Posaune 16’