Posted by: rcottrill | June 5, 2015

At the Cross

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Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov, 25, 1748); refrain by Ralph Erskine Hudson (b. July 12, 1843; d. June 14, 1901)
Music: Hudson, by Ralph Erskine Hudson

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal
Hymnary.org

Note: This gospel song is a kind of hybrid adaptation of the great hymn Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed, by Isaac Watts. As I comment in the Wordwise Hymns link, Hudson should have left well enough alone. He has totally missed the mood of the original. Congregations may love to sing Hudson’s jolly tune, but it does not complement the heart-rending grief Watts depicts of the one standing before the cross.

Hymnary.org makes reference to the Hudson version, but seems only to have the original posted. If you want to see what that looked like all the way back to 1766, they have it.

CH-1) Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

In 1940, the Glenn Miller Orchestra recorded a rousing number called In the Mood, and that phrase came to mind as I started working on this article. It’s what we sometimes say, when we either feel like doing something–or don’t. (“I’m in the mood for a chocolate sundae.” Or, “I’m not in the mood to watch a funny movie.”)

The subject relates to the music of the church as well. Sacred music puts lines of poetry into a musical setting. The most important of the two is the text, which carries the primary message–one would hope it’s a message in tune with the Word of God. The job of the music is to convey the message of the text, enhancing it, or increasing its impact.

If the music is to do that, it has to be “in the mood.” It ought to complement what the words are saying, not conflict with them. Words expressing joy and excitement aren’t enhanced by a slow, sober tune. Nor does the opposite work well. Sombre, serious, meditative words may seem to clash with a bouncy, happy melody. The speed at which songs are sung, and sometimes the style of the accompaniment, are factors too.

These concerns relate to this song published in 1885. Hudson liked to take traditional hymns and turn them into gospel songs, giving them a peppy tune and adding a refrain. Sometimes it worked. But not necessarily every time. Yes, congregational hymns need to be singable and memorable. But we also need to consider whether the frame of the picture (the music) is suitable for the picture (the words). Hudson sometimes forgot that.

The most painful example of what he did that comes to mind is this one. With eloquent passion, Watts pictures himself standing before the cross, wondering, in both love and anguish, at the love that led Christ to die for “a worm” such as he was. The opening word sets the tone. “Alas” is an expression of sorrow, grief, and wretchedness. Watts writes:

CH-3) Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

CH-4) Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

When the traditional tune (called Martyrdom) is used, this becomes a worshipful meditation on the reason for Christ’s terrible agony on the cross (cf. Matt. 27:27-31, 45-46), and grief at the thought that our sin put Him there. But Ralph Hudson felt the hymn needed more zip. He gave it a new tune, with a jolly, rhythmic chorus.

Some congregations may enjoy singing Hudson’s creation, but I personally believe it does grave injustice to the song’s purpose! It minimizes our confrontation with the horrific nature of crucifixion, requiring, as it does, an almost impossible 180-degree emotional turn each time singers move from the refrain to the next stanza. And the text of the chorus isn’t even biblical, at that! Even the Lord Jesus wasn’t “happy all the day!”

As the Bible says, in another context, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle” (I Cor. 14:8). Is the music of our congregational songs “in the mood”? It’s a valid question for every pastor and service leader.

CH-5) Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

CH-6) But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.

Questions:
1) Would you make use of Hudson’s version in your church, rendered as an upbeat happy song?

2) What other hymns express more appropriately the joy of our salvation?

Links:


Responses

  1. Thank you, thank you for this post! I heartily concur. We use Watts’ wonderful hymn, but not the travesty that Hudson made of it. I’m sure Hudson meant well….

    • You’re very gracious to Mr. Hudson. I can’t really impugn his motives, since he’s not around to ask. But to me he shows a disregard for connecting the message of the hymn with a mood-appropriate tune (or a lack of understanding of what that means). Thanks for your comments.


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