Saturday, January 3, 2015

Majesty Hymns (1997)

Majesty Hymns (1997) is a non-denominational hymnal that follows the formula of so many others before it: familiar standby tunes such as "The Old Rugged Cross", a handful of older material such as "A Mighty Fortress", more contemporary pieces, and several original compositions. That said, it is probably one of the most schizophrenic hymnals I've ever seen. According to the preface, over 100 ministers were soliited to aid in selection of the tunes, giving a likely explanation for the book's outright random selection of tunes.


It starts off strongly with "Rejoice, the Lord Is King" and "Come, Christians, Join to Sing". But only three pages in, the hymnal's first problem manifests itself: namely, that any descant is given a separate number from the hymn to which it belongs. Such an arrangement is only asking for confusion if one is not paying close attention and/or can't read music.

Also problematic is the fact that different melodies for the same hymn are never on consecutive pages. For instance, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" set to "Nettleton" is on page 7, but the lesser-known "Warrenton", which also eliminates the second half of each verse in favor of "I am bound for the kingdom, will you go to glory with me? Hallelujah, praise the Lord!", is at page 11. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" to "Coronation" is at 12 (and its descant at 13), while "Diadem" is all the way over at 30! Similarly, "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" to "Azmon" is 5, while "Lyngham" is at 15. (On the other hand, the fact that this book even includes "Lyngham" in the first place is commendable.) Perhaps the most egregious is "My Jesus, I Love Thee"; the familiar melody "Gordon" is at 160, while a new melody by Gypsy Smith is way back at 19! The biggest gap by far is the two versions of "Come, We that Love the Lord": an original melody at 53, and Robert Lowry's "Marching to Zion" all the way at 313!

Also, "Amazing Grace" appears in usual form at 147, and again at 154 with the words padded out to Long Meter by way of Frank Garlock, and shoehorned into "Gift of Love"/"O Waly Waly". Again, confusing stuff if you're not paying attention or can't read music.

There is a section of medleys, none nearly as good as those in The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration. The first one stitches together "Glory, Hallelujah" by Norah Burne; an original tune by Gordon Brattle titled "Be This My Joy Today"; Bentley Ackley's "Joy in Serving Jesus", and Stuart Dauermann's "The Trees of the Field", which does not at all fit with the others! (And lightweight as it is, that last one's at least fun to sing.)

Oddly, despite the number of short choruses throughout the book, there is another "choruses" section in the back. Some, such as "Obedience" (see below), are significantly longer than just a chorus.

"Thine Be the Glory" is in the "Praise and Adoration" section and not the usual Easter section. And oddly, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (only 3 verses here) is at the end of the Christmas section, not the beginning. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also the only Advent material in this whole book.)

Another oddity is the use of short verses as page fillers if a tune uses only half of a page, such as the first stanza of "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds" right under "His Name Is Wonderful".

Original stuff

Among the original composers, Ron Hamilton is the most prominent. His melodies are not overly inspired, but he at least understands that it's okay to have more than three chords in a song, so points there. On the other hand, his lyrics are almost unflinchingly light, with uninspired titles such as "Worthy of Praise" (the title itself appears three times in the refrain!), "O Magnify the Lord" (ditto), "Worship the Lord" (six times). He does, however, get points for "Conquering Lion, yet suff'ring lamb" in "Worship the Lord". Hamilton also waters down Psalm 23 for "The Lord Is My Shepherd", which has to repeat the entire first half (up to "beside the still waters") just to get to two verses. Hamilton also swipes the entire first half of the first verse of "Jesus Loves Me", without attribution, and tacks on "He shed His blood on the cross of Calvary / There He gave His life for me" just to create a simple round. Hamilton's nadir is probably "Daniel", a childlishly simple text that can be whipped through in 30 seconds tops (entire first verse: "Daniel, Daniel, Daniel took his stand / I will be like Daniel and follow God's command").

On the other hand, Hamilton has a few decent texts. "How Majestic Is Thy Name" fares a little better with such phrases as "What is man that Thou thinkest of him who is so unworthy of thy love?", and "Born to Die" offers "O'er the place where He lay / Fell a shadow cold and gray / Of a cross that would humble a King". Likewise, "Calvary's Blood" has "I desperately searched for release from my pain / But found that man's wisdom was useless and vain / Is there not a power that can break every chain?". So Hamilton is not terrible, although he needs to come up with better titles — his "Nothing but the Blood" and the more familiar Robert Lowry tune are only two pages apart for added confusion.

Mac Lynch's "Make Me a Stranger", about shunning earthly treasures, could do with less repetition of "heavenly treasures" (present in both verses) and "make me a stranger" (twice in the verse, again in the chorus). His "Where's the Way" also mentions "war" in the chorus, which seems jarring in the otherwise middling verses about finding the way.

Frank Garlock, one of the other prominent writers in this book (and its editor), alters a great deal of William Dix's "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus" (e.g. "Hear the songs of all the Christians thunder like a mighty flood") and sets it to his own melody. He also adds a second verse to Harry Bollback's "Ring the Bells", which still seems too "new" for such an alteration. Likewise, he alters "Without Him I would be nothing"; a Thomas Chisholm text ("Once I lived for self alone") so obscure that I can't figure out what it originally was; and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "A Nation's Strength" (into "God Give Us Good Men").

Garlock also has fully original texts, such as a chorus called "God Is Holy" that sounds a lot like Jimmy Owens' "Holy, Holy", even if it claims to be adapted from a Swedish melody. He also cribs Ralph Carmichael's "He's Everything to Me" slightly for the melody and text ("Nor can I count the stars that float in space") of "The God of the Impossible", and comes up with campfire-level repetition such as "He's so great and I'm so small / Jesus holds me lest I fall / He's the ruler over all / He's so great and I'm so small." He also offers unsubstantial praise choruses such as "I Am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus", the title of which is nearly the entire first line. Likewise, "Trust" is nothing but "Trust in the Lord / Lean on His Word" sung twice, and that's it. Other Garlock and Hamilton pieces are merely unremarkable, although Hamilton gets points for frequent uses of modulation in his melodies (mostly minor-to-major).

Several other texts are set to new melodies entirely, such as Fanny Crosby's "All the Way" (new melody by Mac Lynch), "At the Name of Jesus" (new melody by Shelly Hamilton), "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child" (the few times I've seen this, it's been set to "Good King Wenceslas"; here, it's a new melody by Ron Hamilton), "O Happy Day" (new melody by Ron Jones, whose melody is, quote, "used by kind permission"), "Give of Your Best to the Master" (new melody by Joan Pinkston).

Perhaps the worst original text is "Obedience" by Mike and Ruth Greene, which includes thuddingly awful writing such as "Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe", and even worse, a chorus that spells out the word "obedience"!


There are also a great deal of alterations to familiar texts, such as:

"O How I Love Jesus" has its title changed to "O How I Love the Savior's Name" ("…the sweetest name on Earth", the newly-chopped-up chorus ends) in order to be shoehorned to a new melody by W. H. Rudd.

Others have both the traditional melody and a new one. "Take Time to Be Holy" is set to the usual "Holiness" by George Stebbins, and a new melody by Shelly Hamilton a few pages prior. "I Love to Tell the Story" gets its usual melody, plus a new one written by Shelly Hamilton. "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" appears at 243 with "Hamburg" as the melody, and again at 249, not with "Rockingham Old" (the second most common melody for that text), but a new tune by Dwight Gustafson!

"Take My Life and Let It Be" appears unabridged with a melody by William Jude (an older melody, as it's not copyrighted) at 378, oddly under the title "Consecration Hymn", and in abridged form to "Hendon" at 400. (Why do so many versions abridge this text?)

Both melodies for "Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It" are present: William Kirkpatrick and A.L. Butler. Considering how new Butler's melody is, I'm surprised that I haven't found any books yet that use only it.

"The King of Love My Shepherd Is" ends up with not a newly composed melody, but rather "Shelley" by Harry Rowe Shelley, a monotonous melody I have never encountered before.

The large number of alterations in this hymnal is a degree beyond the other alterations I've usually seen, such as removing references to "men" or "mankind" in the name of gender equality (I, personally, am of the belief that terms such as "mankind" refer to both men and women), or the removal of Trinitarian image from Mormon renditions of certain hymns. In fact, most of the changes here — whether newly-constructed melodies or alterations of existing text into a new text — seem like nothing but change for the sake of change.

Other new stuff

A few praise choruses such as "His Name Is Wonderful", "I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord", "He Is Lord", and "Spirit of the Living God" are also included, but surprisingly, nothing of the slightly newer guard except a couple John Peterson pieces and Ralph Carmichael's "The Savior Is Waiting" and "We Are More Than Conquerors" (no "He's Everything to Me" or "The New 23rd", oddly). No "Shine, Jesus, Shine" or Marty Haugen in this one! There are other traditional ones, though, such as "Great and Mighty" (with a second verse by, you guessed it, Ron Hamilton). I also love how "Seek Ye First" notes that the lyrics are "based on Scripture" — I would certainly hope so!

Older stuff

Oddly, some of the older material is usually executed in less familiar styles. For instance, "Old 100th" for "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow" does not use the alternating half-notes so often associated with it; "St. Thomas" by Aaron Williams (here used for "Come, We That Love the Lord"; see above) does not use the passing notes (measure 6 just goes F-A-C, not F-G-A-B-C or F-G-A-B-C). "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" has the supposedly correct introductory notes of F-D-C instead of the wider known F-D-A.

"The Church's One Foundation" omits the "Though with a scornful wonder" verse, which I have only seen cut from more conservative hymnals previously. Likewise, "In the Bleak Midwinter" is missing the verse about worshipping the Beloved with a kiss. Also, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" is missing the verse that begins "Thou art giving and forgiving". More baffling is the omission of "The foxes found rest…" (verse 3) from "Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne", a text from which I have never before seen omissions. And hey, I like foxes. They're cute.

"Good Christian Men, Rejoice" keeps the traditional "men", and even the "News! News!" part that most hymnals (outside United Methodist Hymnal) tends to omit.

"Blessed Be the Name" actually appears in full with William Clark's usual lyrics ("All praise to Him who reigns above"), and not the sawed-off bits of Charles Wesley that I've seen some versions use. (As mentioned previously, United Methodist Hymnal dispensed with verses entirely on that.)

Otherwise, the older stuff is mostly unsurprising: "No, Not One!", "Great Is Thy Faithfulness", "The Old Rugged Cross", "At Calvary", etc. However, there are a few welcome additions that I don't see frequently, especially in newer hymnals, such as: "Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart", "Master, the Tempest Is Raging", "Ask Me What Great Thing I Know" ("Hendon"; see above), "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light", "Whosoever Will", "Is Your All on the Alter", "Dwelling in Beulah Land" (that's near Benzonia, isn't it?), and "Hold the Fort", to name a few. There are also a couple lesser-known melodies included with the familiar ones, such as (as mentioned above) "Lyngham" for "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" and "Geibel" for "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus".

One other surprise is Haldor Lillenas' "The Bible Stands", a sturdy early-20th century piece about, well, the Bible.

Another oddity is Charles Wesley's "Arise, My Soul, Arise", a text that not even the Wesley-heavy Methodist book used (I'm sure comparing this to that book a lot!) set to "Lenox", most often used for "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow".

This book is usually good about keeping tunes complete, but glaring exceptions are H.S. Perkins' "Whiter than the Snow", Stuart Hamblen's "It Is No Secret", and Phillip Bliss's "Dare to Be a Daniel", each pared to only their choruses for no discernible reason. In addition, "As the Deer" is hacked down to only its first verse.

The publisher

The hymnal was published by Majesty Music, an obscure company out of Greenville, SC. One of the more fascinating aspects of this company is that its founder's daughter's husband, one Ron Hamilton, used the loss of an eye to cancer in 1975 to create the children's character Patch the Pirate as a means of spreading the word to youngsters. 

Majesty has published a second hymnal called Rejoice in 2011, which apparently comprises about 400 hymns out of Majesty Hymns and 200 new ones. The fact that 10 of those new ones are by Keith Getty, certainly one of the better modern writers, is promising. While I was unable to get a copy of Rejoice at the time of writing, I trust that the more questionable pieces such as "Daniel" and "Obedience" did not stay for the new book.

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