Monday, February 4, 2013

One Hundred and One Famous Hymns

Recently, a good friend handed me what appeared to be a coffee table book that she'd discovered in one of her thrift store adventures. Since I am always happy to get my hands on research material involving music history or folk song, I was excited to begin browsing and finally reading The History of Hymn Singing as told through One Hundred and One Famous Hymns by Charles Johnson.  Published in 1983 by Readers Digest, this fascinating book contains the scores for 101 hymns arranged chronologically from Gregorian chant to early 20th Century gospel along with interesting background information about the hymn writers and composers. My friend pointed out to me that several of the lyricists and composers of these well-loved hymns had Cincinnati area connections.

Composer James Henry Fillmore, born in Cincinnati, wrote the music to which we sing "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth." When his ordained Christian minister father died, James took over his father's singing school to help support the family.  Later with his brothers, Fillmore founded Fillmore Brothers Music House, publishing their first Sunday School book, Songs of Glory in 1874. Fillmore Brothers publications became widely used in the Midwest, allowing James Henry Fillmore to compose many tunes for hymn writers like Jessie Pounds, who was also from Ohio.

The composer of "Take the Name of Jesus with You," William Howard Doane, was an inventor and industrialist who still found time to write twenty-two hundred hymn tunes and forty collections. Born in Preston,  Connecticut and educated at Woodstock Academy, Doane directed the school choir at age 14. After completing his education, he went to work for his father's cotton manufacturing business in Norwich, CT.  He soon became associated with J.A. Fay & Company, manufacturers of woodworking machinery, and in 1860 moved the firm to Cincinnati.

For more than 25 years, Doane served as Superintendent of the Mount Auburn Baptist Church Sunday School. As a dedicated Christian businessman, William Howard Doane takes his place along musician William Bradbury and the Reverend Robert Lowry in the development of Sunday School hymns. He often collaborated with gospel hymn writers like Fanny Crosby and Lydia Baxter.

While I was aware of Harriet Beecher Stowe's connections to Cincinnati through the Underground Railroad, I was surprised that the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin also wrote hymn lyrics. Stowe moved to Cincinnati when her father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, became president of Lane Theological Seminary. Here, Harriet met and married a member of the faculty, Professor Calvin E. Stowe. Both she and her husband held strong views against slavery, and soon their Cincinnati home became one of the stations along the Underground Railroad. Her beautiful lyrics for the hymn "Still, Still with Thee" are set to a tune composed by Felix Mendelsshon. As was the custom for many 19th Century hymn writers, known tunes often became the vehicles for their words.

A final local connection is revealed in the hymn, "Bringing in the Sheaves." Knowles Shaw, who became widely know in his time as the "Singing Evangelist," wrote the words to this anthem of evangelism while composer George A. Minor(very music name) is credited with the tune. Born in Butler County, Shaw published "Bringing in the Sheaves" in The Morning Star collection in 1877.  It lives on as one of the most recognized American hymns.

The History of Hymn Singing as told through One Hundred and One Famous Hymns might keep me from googling background information on many of the hymns my trio sings, but more than likely it will cause me to dig even deeper into some of the earlier hymn writers.  For example, I was amused by the advice John Wesley provided in the preface to the Wesley brothers' hymnal, Sacred Melody. According to Wesley, anyone leading others in singing hymns should remember the following seven rules:

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any other.
2. Sing them exactly as printed here…if you have learned them otherwise, unlearn it.
3. Sing all. See that you join the congregation. 
4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were dead or half asleep.
5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the congregation.
6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure and keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind, but attend close to the leading voices. Take care not to sing too slow.
7. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself…to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing and see that your heart is not carried away by the sound, but offered to God.

Got that, all you hymn singers out there? Now open your books to 100, and for Heaven's sake, no bawling.

***This segment aired on Around Cincinnati on January 27, 2013.  Here's a link to listen at

1 comment:

Nearby Norwegians said...

I found your blog entry interesting. I came across it as I was looking for the image of the book cover. I too own a copy of the book.

Because of your interest in music, I thought you might be interested in reading a post I made recently to the Nearby Norwegians blog: "Emblem of Freedom", a song about Patriotism. I found the score for the music at the Pacific Northwest Sheet Music, the Ashford Collection, at the University of Washington.