A Hymn That Calms the Raging Seas
Text: Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Music: Joseph P. Holbrook (1822-1888)
Tune name: REFUGE
On October 28, 1736, the ship carrying hymn writer and preacher Charles Wesley, was caught in a hurricane.
“In the evening at eight it came, and rose higher and higher… There was so prodigious a sea that it quickly washed away our sheep and half our hogs, and drowned most of our fowl… The sea streamed in at the sides so plentifully that it was as much as four men could do by continual pumping to keep her above water… I prayed for faith in Jesus Christ, continually repeating his name, till I felt the virtue of it at last, and knew that I abode under the shadow of the Almighty…” (Davidson, Our Latter-Day Hymns).
Reading the text of hymn #102, it sounds to me like Wesley’s hurricane experience was a live event that inspired a great hymn.
“While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past.”
We’ve all been caught in a storm, either the kind that makes headlines on the Weather Channel, or the kind that fights to drown our soul. Everyone can identify with this hymn for that reason. That’s probably why it is so famous among all Christian denominations.
Nearly 200 years after Wesley’s hurricane, the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher said:
“I would rather have written that hymn of Wesley’s, ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul,’ than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on the earth. It is more glorious. It has more power in it. That hymn will go on singing until the last trump brings forth the angel band; and then, I think, it will mount up on some lip to the very presence of God.” (Nutter and Tillet, The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church, 1911).
Is It The Music Or The Text?
So, what makes this hymn so great?
First of all, the text is poignant, personal, and full of pleading. The kind of pleading we’ve all experiences. We can identify with the author. We can see ourself in a situation where we’ve desperately needed help.
That’s a huge part of the power of this hymn. But it would lost if the music didn’t rise to the occasion.
Jason discusses other tunes used in other hymnals (see below) for this hymn text. I’m not familiar with them but will be taking a look.
This is our 6th hymn in a row that expresses a similar type of yearning. And like the 5 that came before it, the musical elements, especially the harmony used, is very basic. There are only 3 chords in this hymn. The 1 chord, the 4 chord, and the 5 chord.
There are at least 3 things at play that make what for me, and many others, is an excellent marriage of text and music.
First, the rolling triplet rhythm mixed with dotted eighth sixteenths gives the sense of the rolling waves. We can picture the scene with these melodic clues. Some don’t like the “song” nature of this hymn. I often have this complaint. It’s true that many so called “hymns” in our book are much more “songs” rather than “hymns.” The first two lines of this hymn are definitely more in the “song” camp. But the last half is more of a traditional hymn. Yet it continues the same rolling triplet melody, which I really like.
Second, the duet between soprano and tenor. I wish there was an alto line that filled out the harmony a bit more, but it’s not completely necessary. Having the tenor line join the soprano in this duet makes me think of the person who’s yearning and the Lord above being in sync. It’s kind of like the old “Footsteps in the Sand” poem. “You’re not alone” the tenor seems to say to the soprano. I find it comforting.
Third, the large leaps in the “harmony” section give that sense of yearning. It allows the voice to move up into that higher, reaching register. It allows the heart to get involved in the singing by making the vocal apparatus work to get up to those high notes. This all increases the sense of pleading. And the way the composer uses the tension of the limited chords, is done nicely. Rather than just plunk the chords down in their natural, boring form, there is a lot of motion between them. Motion that highlights the tension and resolve qualities of these chords.
It’s a lovely gem in our hymnal. Though, I am curious to check out Jason’s suggestions of other musical settings.
That’s all for today.
Have a good one!
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Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
Perhaps the new hymnbook committee can come to a determination that they could have more than one publication. A new hymnal with hymns, a new children songbook (though what a shame, as our current book has so many wonderful children’s songs that I recommend it for use with our ages 2-5 children’s choir at my job), and a devotional songbook more suited for personal use. These songs we have been discussing would be much more suited for such a book, and today’s song I think falls into the same category.
Another song that really isn’t a hymn in our hymnal because of the tune with which it is paired, Jesus, Lover of My Soul especially because of the first half being a duet. This text is published in most hymn and song collections (hymnary.org reports publication in at least 2746 hymnals!), but is generally set to a number of other tunes. One tune, MARTYN, is also song-like in nature and a very nice setting for this text. Another tune this text is often set to is ABERYSTWYTH, an excellent tune in a minor key and also an excellent tune for this text. Both I think are much better tunes than the one found in our book for congregational singing. I must say I don’t mind the tune at all as a song, but I just don’t think it too effective for congregational use.
The text is a very good subjective text, but is quite a bit longer than what we have in our book. Most hymnals contain four verses of this text, and it is unfortunate that we do not have all of the verses as well. We have shone that we will make adjustments to texts if there are slight doctrinal discrepancies, and that was the case with this text, I think it would have been a good candidate for slight adjustment as well.
Again with this song, there is great danger to go too slow and let it really drag. A tempo to keep a good forward push or momentum for this song is around 72 beats per minute. Much slower than that, and it will really drag along. One other operational observation is that the the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms will most often come out as a triplet, and I think this is natural because of the triplet pattern found in numerous measures. This natural tendency means that the song is more naturally in compound meter.
Because of the songs nature as a duet, it provides one the opportunity to experiment with solo voices in your registration. I would find nice solo options, a nice voice in the other manual to accompany, and play the duet with the soprano on the solo and the tenor on the accompanying voice. Then have a piston set to change to a more traditional accompanying registration for the second half of the song. I’d even a different solo registration for the second verse duet…
Duet Solo Voice Possibilities:
Great: Principal 8’, (Flute 4’?); Flute 8’, 4’; Clarinet 8’(or Krummhorn, but very often, the Krummhorns on our electronic instruments are so ugly…)
Swell: Hautbois 8’, Flute 8’; Flute 8’, 2’; Flute 8’, 4’, Nazard 2 ⅔’; Cornet (Flute or Principal 8’, Flute or Principal 4’, Nazard 2 ⅔’, Flute 2’, Tierce 1 ⅗’); Flute 8’, 4’, Larigot 1 ⅓’; Bassoon 16’, Bourdon 16’ (played up the octave); use of the tremulant could be nice with some of these registrations such as the Flute 8’, 4’, Nazard 2 ⅔’ or Hautbois 8’, Flute 8’ IF the tremulant is mild and not too fast or wide in pitch. If it adds gentle undulation, then I might experiment with it, as it might add just the right touch. I would most definitely NOT use it if the tremulant is fast and/or too wide in pitch. One must be very cautious and judicious with its use, and only in this application (soloing out a voice). I would never use it in normal hymn accompanying (all hands on one manual).
Duet Accompanying Possibilities:
Great: Principal 8’; Flute 8’; Flute 8’, 4’
Swell: Principal 8’; Flute 8’, 4’; Flute 8’, String 8’
Pedal: Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
2nd Half Registration:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, (2’?)
Pedal: Bourdon 16, Flute 8’