An Ancient and Non-Favorite Hymn
Text: Attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (ca. 1091-1153)
translated by Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
Music: John B. Dykes (1823-1876)
Tune name: ST. AGNES
Hymn #141 has never been a favorite of mine. I’m not exactly sure why. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it.
The text is beautiful, for sure! Gorgeous, in fact.
Something about the music doesn’t excite me.
I like the 2nd half much better than the first. The slip to A-minor at the start of the 2nd line is beautiful and haunting. The final 3 bars are also very lovely with the bass line and soprano moving up in parallel 3rds before the final cadence.
I think it’s the opening of the melody that I don’t care for. Starting near the top of the overall register with three of the 2nd highest notes in the piece in a row, I think that’s what’s bothering me.
John Dykes does a nice job of keeping the tune motivic, meaning he uses the opening kernel, the repeated notes, to start the 2nd phrase (on the low D) and again in part at the beginning of the 3rd line with two Cs and then stepping down. So I have no problem with the craft. I think it’s very well done.
But those first 4 bars. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe one of you has an idea about why I’m not super excited about that opening phrase.
All the other musical elements of the hymn work really well. It’s worth studying and seeing how the voice leading works well with lots of contrary motion most of the time.
That’s all I have to say about this hymn. I think Jason is much happier with this hymn than I am. I’m not familiar with the arrangements he mentions, but I plan to listen.
That’s all for today. Have a good one!
P.S. Tomorrow we’re going to take a detour. We’re going to have the 14 Days of Christmas Hymns. We’re going to leap ahead to Hymn #201 and go through all the Christmas hymns ending with #215, “I Head the Bells on Christmas Day” on Christmas Day! Should be fun!
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
This hymn, for me, easily earns a place on the list of the very best hymns. The text is one of a number of different translations of the Latin poem Jesu dulcis memoria commonly attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Another commonly used translation is “Jesus, the Very Thought is Sweet” by John Neale. The text used here is from a 50 stanza translation by Edward Caswall. Part of the draw for me to this text is that it is close to 900 years old. It is tremendously inspiring to be using a text that has been drawn upon as a source of inspiration and prayer for almost a millennium!
The text is most often set to the tune ST. AGNES by John Dykes. It is a simple tune, and another fine example that hymns needn’t be complicated to have lasting impact. The simplicity of the melody and the beauty of the harmony pair very well with the meditative nature of the text. I love this hymn, I love the text, and I love the tune, and find it to be one of the very greatest hymns in hymnody.
Two arrangements of this text are very poignant and touching to me. The first is the arrangement of “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” by Ronald Staheli. He maintains the simple nature of the hymn by adding simple interludes and a beautiful, soaring descant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1Pa_4V5ei8 The other arrangement is Mack Wilberg’s absolutely stunning arrangement of “Jesus, the Very Thought is Sweet.” Words cannot communicate the sublimity of this arrangement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMkBQO30GV4
One should exercise caution to not equate reverence and meditation with slowness. Even though this sublime hymn is very meditative and quiet, it can be taken too slowly. I find that a range between 88-96 beats per minute provides a good range within which to work depending on circumstance. I would use a soft registration, and would likely not alter my registration during the course of the hymn.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, String 8’
Pedal: Subbass 16’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’