Our composers choose their favorite hymns.
Eternal Father, Strong To Save. I have strong memories of this (the Navy Hymn) being played at John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Despite the pain of that occasion, there is a comforting strength not only in the words, but in the music itself.
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come. I have loved this hymn since I was a child. To me, it feels and sounds like home, family, and Thanksgiving. I look forward to singing it all year. I would be happy to see it brought out of its seasonal rotation –– to remind of our blessings throughout the year.
O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. Not a typical Sunday night song, but what I remember most about Sunday night hymn requests was that you could request ANY hymn, even if it was an out-of-season Christmas or Thanksgiving hymn. I never thought we sang this particular hymn often enough. I loved the rolling nature of the music, which so suits the images of the swirling ocean depths mentioned in the words.
Wonderful Words of Life: I have such great memories of this old hymn. I was fortunate to have my grandmother teach me piano. In fact, she was the only piano instructor I had until I got to college. She not only taught me how to play, but also taught me theory, and every week at piano lessons we sang as well. She gave me a basis of musical knowledge that really served me well. I remember her starting me early on playing the hymns out of the hymn book. “Wonderful Words of Life” was the first hymn I learned. It was in the key of G, so I did not need to worry about lots of sharps or flats. Like many other hymns the words are a great mini-message in just a few verses, and what a great reminder that we have words of life to share with those around us.
Great Is Thy Faithfulness: It may seem cliche but my other favorite hymn is “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” I never tire of hearing this hymn. It is such a great reminder of the faithfulness of our God. I have used it for funerals as part of the congregational singing and I always include it in the prelude for funerals and even weddings. It seems appropriate to remind ourselves over and over again, just how faithful God has been and will be.
Since Jesus Came Into My Heart: It has been many years since I have attended a Sunday evening service. My memories of Sunday evening are the nights we would have people request their favorite hymns. They would call out the number from the hymn book, the organist and pianist would play the last line of the hymn as the intro, and away we would go. Someone would always choose “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” Not only was it a great hymn but it was also a fun one to get to improvise on the accompaniment.
Praise To the Lord, The Almighty: This hymn has always inspired me for its conservation of melodic content and its noble poetic syntax. I never tire of the moment towards the end of the last stanza when the words, “Let the amen sound from his people again,” is sung. It hits a 9.8 on the goose bump-meter for me!
All Hail the Power Of Jesus Name (DIADEM): This hymn provides one the most powerful sacred singing experiences for any gathering. It has been the opening hymn for many major conferences through the years. Early in my life, MUSIC WEEK at RIDGECREST had a big impact on me, and I remember hearing thousands of voices lifted in worship singing this incredible paean of praise. Most recently, it has each summer opened the ALLELUIA CONFERENCE at BAYLOR UNIVERSITY. It never fails to fill my heart with joy and hope.
Whispering Hope: When I was younger I never liked this hymn with its sentimental lyrics and its older styled melodic gestures. Then my grandmother died, and this beautiful musical window to her heart became so dear to me that I can no longer hear it any other way than glorious. It simply takes me back to her home, and I can remember her gentle voice. Music is sometimes more than the sum of its parts.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: An Isaac Watts text, based on a Gregorian Chant, arranged by Lowell Mason, a triumvirate of poetic, historical, and musical influences. With just a melodic range of a minor sixth, the tune is a perfect setting of a text describing the crucifixion with the last stanza speaking of how this act “demands my soul, my life, my all.” On a side note, I once got to play the piano informally in a Congregational Church in Boston where Lowell Mason was once the music director. It was not the original instrument!
Worthy of Worship: As an example of modern hymn text and melody composition, this hymn is by two friends of mine, Terry York and Mark Blankenship. With an excellent balance of repetition and new melodic material, this hymn explores the reasons for and the object of Christian worship. As a composer, I especially like the “mixolydian” flavor in some of the harmony.
I Am Resolved: I’ll admit it. I am a child of the 1950’s and 60’s. I still remember many hymn numbers from the 1956 Baptist Hymnal. 240 – Just As I Am, 188 – Amazing Grace, etc. Sunday night hymns were often rhythmic and fun to sing. We teenage boys in the “youth choir” loved it when we all got to sing the “echo lick” in the chorus, “Hasten, glad and free.” Sunday evenings were a wonderful time with youth choir, and often a youth fellowship followed the service. I once did an arrangement of I Am Resolved that was published. Alas, I had to leave out the descending bass line the in the chorus.
Be Thou My Vision – I love the contours of the melody and how the phrases draw the listener forward, finally resting on that sweet tonic chord. The text is so passionate and devotional with rich images. The partnership of the text and tune seem to lift our spirits as we aspire to follow anew.
Angels We Have Heard on High – The text is so direct and dramatic. After the simple melody of the verse, the long melismas soar on “Gloria.” I often think that if our Christmas hymns were composed today, we would probably say that they are too difficult to sing. However, congregations cheerfully sing this long phrase of the chorus with however many breaths they need.
Have Faith in God – Being a Baptist, I’ll need to include a B.B. McKinney song. The text repeatly nails the call to faith. The words are so directly encouraging, with little flourish. I often imagine how this sturdy song must have lifted people when it was first sung during the Depression. From the Dust Bowl to our current challenges, it reminds us that in whatever situation, “He watches o’er His own.”
I would have to choose “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” first. That was the very first hymn I learned to play on the piano. I also like to think of Jesus as a friend to whom I can go for anything. It reminds me of my Sunday School days growing up.
The second one would be “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The song reminds me that God is greater than anything or anyone and I can depend upon that.
This might seem a bit unusual, but I love “Regent Square,” which is the tune for Angels From the Realms of Glory (my favorite Christmas carol). The tune has also been set with other words by some hymn writers. It is just such a joyful hymn to sing.
Leaning On the Everlasting Arms: Whether this hymn is sung in church or shared in a nursing home, it seems to engage those around. The marriage of the simple text and melody just make you want to join in, but more importantly to “safely lean on Him!”
Blessed Assurance: Okay, this is not one of my favorite tunes, but I love Fanny Crosby’s text. Sung at my grandmother’s funeral many years ago, the third verse seemed so descriptive of her life, “…perfect submission, happy and blest… filled with His goodness, lost in His love.” As people from all walks of life shared her impact on their own lives, this hymn took on new meaning!
There Is A Fountain: As a child I liked singing about the fountain, even though I didn’t fully understand the text, but loved the melody and “gusto” with which it was sung. As an adult I have come to appreciate the depth of theological truth expressed by William Cowper. In one of the few piano lessons in my life, I learned to play this with all the skips and runs… this hymn is embedded in my DNA!
The Church’s One Foundation because of its lofty state and doctrinal depth.
Near to the Heart of God because my wife and I sang it to our children when they were young and preparing for bed
Bringing in the Sheaves (Sunday night) because it reminds me of a time in church when my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all worshipped together. And, because I like singing the word “sheaves.”
There is a reason my earliest hymn arrangements for Shawnee Press included these titles. They are simply marvelous and really needed no ornamentation from the likes of me.
Jesus Paid It All – The musical explanation of where grace comes from and why we owe our lives to Christ.
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise – Powerful music with powerful theology disguised as beautiful poetry.
Praise To the Lord, the Almighty – If only our modern praise songs might aspire to this level of composition and depth of thinking.
Amazing Grace – The combination of a melody that somehow manages to be comforting and haunting, communal and introspective (a feat that only a pentatonic melody could achieve), and a lyric which, while never mentioning Jesus by name, paints the picture of Christian life perfectly, makes this the hymn against all others are measured.
Silent Night – It’s a touching hymn, a Christmas carol, and a lullaby all in one. Fun fact – though it was completed way back in 1818, it was written and first performed on guitar. Let the worship wars commence!
Sweet Hour Of Prayer – One of my earliest childhood memories is of peeking around the corner to study my mother as she sat on the kitchen floor (a location where she knew her husband and sons would not interrupt her, for fear of being “volunteered” to help with dish duty!), reading her Bible and quietly humming hymns. Every time I hear this song I’m transported back to that foundational moment in my spiritual life.
EBENEZER – O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus: I love hymn melodies in a minor mode. The combination of the minor melody, the rolling triplets, and the text describing the vastness of God’s love for us makes this a favorite.
HYFRYDOL – Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him: I love the sweeping melody in 3/4 time that has an expansive quality to it, always pulling the ear to the next phrase. I also like the B section of the hymn tune, which lends itself to beautiful harmonic sequences. The text is a masterful expression of how the entire universe praises God.
ELLSWORTH – Now I Belong to Jesus: I remember playing this hymn for evening services when I was in high school. At the time, the harmonization of this melody seemed new and fresh to me compared to 200 year-old chorale-like hymns from Western Europe. The text speaks of intimacy with Jesus, of belonging to Him, which made my relationship to Jesus even more real.
The Old Rugged Cross: A favorite of my late father’s, I recall at the age of ten putting my ear to an old radio/turntable with one big speaker and playing this George Beverly Shea record over and over. It has since been a meaningful hymn full of tomorrow’s promise.
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee: I am fond of uplifting hymns praising our Father, and I enjoy the many arrangement variations that are published, from piano/organ to four-hand piano to gospel! What a thrill to sing “Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!”
Be Thou My Vision: There is such a “oneness” of music and words in this hymn. They belong together and it is difficult to conceive these words set to a different tune, or this tune with different words. Although we do not sing an “amen” at the end of this piece, I almost always silently say one.
All Hail the Power of Jesus Name (DIADEM): There is no hymn I enjoy leading our congregation in singing more than this hymn; and there is no hymn that they enjoy singing more than this hymn. It has great power and strength, majesty, and drama. It is a perfect marriage of words and music. I love the part writing, and as a bass, I love singing the refrain. James Ellor knew what he was doing when he wrote this hymn.
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded: This is a masterpiece! No other hymn helps me connect to Christ’s passion than this hymn. The melody is haunting. The harmonization is rich and full. The text is profound and poignant, and paints an imperishable image of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. I cannot imagine Holy Week services without this hymn.
Holy, Holy, Holy – I can still hear the piano and organ pulling out all the stops on the last verse as choir and congregation raised our voices in worship. Rich words that have worked their way into my memory.
What a Friend We Have in Jesus – I grew up with this hymn; it was sung a lot at our church. I never knew until my Grandpa’s funeral many years ago that it was one of his favorites. At his service, I really “heard” the text and its message for the first time. To this day, I can’t think of this hymn without remembering him.
Wonderful Grace of Jesus – John Peterson’s classic “Great Hymns of the Faith” hymnal. Ours were green, and I can still see them in the racks on the back of the pews. “Cool” harmonies and fun for all four parts to sing, and of course, we kids to would channel our inner sopranos and blast out the high G at the end (whether we actually could hit the note, or not!) Even in the more casual Sunday night setting, the truth of God’s grace impacted me.
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go. This is probably my all-time favorite hymn text, although I feel kind of bad about saying that I’m not fond of the original hymn melody. I usually attach a different melody. But have you read the text?! I think it’s one of the richest texts I’ve ever run across. Every ten years or so, a song will change my life. This is one of those songs: “O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee.”
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. I know that technically, this is a Christmas carol, but since it’s found in my hymnbook at home, I’m calling it a hymn! This is another one of those “songs that changed my life. I love the pairing of music and text. Each verse of this carol stopped me in my tracks and made me see Christmas in a new light. I was so moved by this carol that I composed a whole Christmas cantata around it. (Link to The Silence and the Sound)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Full disclosure: There were about 12 other hymns vying for this last “Top Three” spot. Maybe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month provided the winning vote. I love hymns that both lyrically and musically portray the majesty and power of God. God is our Abba Father, but He is also more than I can comprehend. He is bigger than the universe. He surpasses our imagination. I like to be reminded of that every now and again. “A Mighty Fortress” is a fantastic display of the grandeur of God.