“O MAY THY SOLDIERS, FAITHFUL, TRUE AND BOLD”

church-militant

This essay begins with a rant against the clumsy, tin-eared redaction of beloved hymns. But I also want to ask, Why does this matter? And because our ministry is to children, what does it say about how we tell our story to children?

I’m an English major and a choral singer, so let’s get to the strictly aesthetic questions first.

“For All the Saints,” written in 1864 by Bishop William Walsham How, praises Christ for all those who have gone before us, confessing his name, and who now rest from their labors. Its second stanza sets the frame for the entire rest of this long hymn: the saints who are now at rest have served honorably in a long and fearsome battle against evil, in which Christ himself was their champion and protector.

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might,
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light,
          Alleluia! Alleluia!

The stirring tune, “Sine Nomine” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was written for Bishop How’s words. Vaughan Williams was a consummate hymn-tune writer, and his tune is tailored to this stanza above all others, and particularly to the crucial second line of the stanza. In melody as in words, that second line lingers lovingly on “Thou, Lord,” then picks up forward momentum to end with a robustly punctuated cadence—the vigorously percussive words, “well-fought fight” set to three falling blows down to the dominant tonality.

Here’s what one committee of hymn revisers has done with this stanza:

You were their rock, their refuge, and their might:
You, Christ, the hope that put their fears to flight;
’Mid gloom and doubt, you were their one true light.
          Alleluia! Alleluia! Continue reading ““O MAY THY SOLDIERS, FAITHFUL, TRUE AND BOLD””

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