“Countless Gifts of Love” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 13 October 2019

John Rutter’s popular seeming fusion of “Now thank we all our God” with his “Gloria”

Martin Rinkart’s “Nun danket alle Gott” is one of the most popular hymns on earth. The tune (Nun danket by Johann Crüger, heard several times in today’s service) named for it and associated with it since inception is far better-known than even the quintessential (and century-older) Lutheran chorale tune, Ein feste Burg by Luther himself.

Catherine Winkworth’s 19th century translation (#457 in our Book of Praise), taking its cue from Rinkart’s text, fits to the metre 6868 6666, a very symmetrical, practical, some might say ‘square’ organisation of syllables and rhymes. Like many hymn tunes of its day, including those of the Scottish Psalter so important to the Presbyterian singing tradition, the emphasis is on learnability and memorability. In other words, upon great utility to the early Protestant project of teaching and sharing the faith through congregational song – rather than to, let’s say, creativity, poetic freedom or other more ‘artsy’ objective.

So, how does a piece of such ‘square’, utilitarian music rise to the ‘greatest hits’ of hymnody? This is NOT how Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Symphonies did it! Well – though it might shatter your visions of inspiration – regularity, and to a degree simplicity, are precisely how it happens. Here’s another metre: 8686, like the first half of Nun danket with long and short lines reversed, and known (for reasons that will immediately become obvious), Common Metre or C.M. Want to know what fits it? Amazing Grace, probably the world’s favourite hymn (and hands-down the most popular in the English language). Want to know what else it fits? O God our help in ages past, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, It came upon a midnight clear, O for a thousand tongues to sing… etc, etc… and just for fun, also the Gilligan’s Island theme.

How do pieces of such ‘square’, utilitarian music rise to the ‘greatest hits’ of hymnody? This is NOT how Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Symphonies did it! Well, regularity, and to a degree simplicity, are precisely how it happens.

Yet, though simple, the tunes you might already be imagining while reading the above list of texts are not simple ‘appliances’ for conveying the text. Each has aspects that have combined with their associated texts to contribute to their achievement, at least within Christian circles, of ubiquity. Returning to Nun danket, the tune’s unusual shape stands out (the first two phrases begin high and fall, ending low; the third begins low and journeys to high (a musically interrogative gesture?); the fourth returns to the earlier pattern, bringing all to a satisfied resolution). This happens within a simple, clearly mathematical pattern of syllables hardly changing from line to line – easy to learn, easy to sing, easy to remember.

In seeming exception to its easily-countable syllables, Winkworth’s first verse ends with a phrase that has always struck me, “countless gifts of love.” An English poetic clean-up of unzählig viel zu gut (‘innumerable way too good!’), it adds to Rinkart’s enthusiastic sentiment about the immensity of God’s gifts the softer, Victorian idea that they are all inherently gifts of love. There can be no doubt that bits of text (this one follows direct on the heels of the invocation of God’s blessings on our way “from our mothers’ arms”) have also aided the hymn’s rise.

Wes’ message today is about our own giving – in some sense the very best possible response to God’s giving – that should appropriately be as unsegregated as God’s own. Let us take the analogy one step further: while Wes warns against our own designation of sheep and goats among the people around us, we should remember also that, just as God gives in love, so too should we.

-CD

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