Sunday, April 06, 2008

Hymn of the Week--Onward, Christian Soldiers

About five years ago a friend said to me, quite confidently, "Do you know what the subtitle of 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' is? 'Crusader's Hymn.'"

It's surprising that so short a statement can contain more than one egregious falsehood, but this one manages it, rather as if I were to point across the room and say, "My uncle over there is a dentist" when in fact I have no uncle and the man across the room is a hockey player.

To begin with, and as my readers probably know, hymns do not have subtitles, and the words under the title of the hymn actually are the name of the tune. Tune names make it easy for hymnodists to mix and match. The practice of naming tunes separately and writing words for them evidently goes back at least as far as the Psalms, where we sometimes find directions at the top of a Psalm along the lines of, "For my chief musician. To be sung to the tune 'Lilies'." The connection between tunes and hymn words is exceedingly varied, and most of the time the tune name has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the words with which we most often sing the tune.

But it doesn't end there. The actual name of the tune to which we now sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is not "Crusader's Hymn" but rather the entirely unmilitary and humorous "St. Gertrude." The words were originally sung to a different tune, until the famous Arthur Sullivan wrote this tune to go with them in 1871 and facetiously named it after the wife of a friend of his. I don't know whether he told everyone that this was the origin of the name or whether he was trying to create a puzzle for posterity as everyone hunted for a fictitious connection to St. Gertrude, but if the latter, he has been foiled by, inter alia, the information age. (Search "Gertrude" on the page.)

As a matter of fact, "Crusader's Hymn" is really the name of the tune to "Fairest Lord Jesus," than which nothing less militaristic can be conceived, either musically or in terms of content. Just to make things thoroughly confusing, this tune is also sometimes called St. Elizabeth. I have no idea why the one tune has two different names.

As Darwin observed, false facts are an injurious thing. I never did find out where my friend got that particular factoid. I must assume that it circulates along with other unchecked statements in a sort of spoken version of Wikipedia among slightly leftish evangelical Christians who dislike military language.

By the way, I discovered my favorite verse of this hymn last evening when someone chose it at our hymn sing. Here's verse 2:

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

I like that image of hell's foundations quivering and Satan's host fleeing. May it be so.


Yaacov said...

You have slightly lefty friends? Because if so, you'll have to explain why a hockey player couldn't also be a dentist, in his spare time. Or her spare time, come to think of it, if the uncle you pointed at was a woman.

Tho pointing at people in public is bad.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ah, well, I meant if he were a hockey player and not a dentist. :-)