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I first heard the hymnal tune Thaxted in Corrinne May’s The answer. Her lyrics is a simple psalmic consolation, and paired with the simple tune, it proves to be indelible. The Methodist church I was worshipping at had it sung in the service a number of times.

YouTube and Lyrics: The answer
I believe You are the answer to every tear I’ve cried
I believe that You are with me
My rising and my light
Give me strength when I am weary
Give me hope when I can’t see
Through the crosses I must carry
Lord, bind my heart to Thee
That when all my days are over
And all my chores are done
I may see Your risen Glory
Forever where You are

Just listen to it. The tune sounds… primal, that it was surprising to learn that Gustav Holst composed it in early 20th century. Initially a melody from a section of Jupiter in The Planets suite, Holst adapted it to fit a patriotic poem I vow to thee my country by Sir Cecil Spring Rice in 1921. Michael Perry composed another text for Thaxted O God beyond all praising in 1982 “in response to a call for alternative words that would be more appropriate for Christian worship” [1]. More recently in 2006, we have We praise you and acknowledge you in Lutheran Service book as well as Corrine May’s The answer. There are many other secular uses as well, so evidently the tune is popular [2].

YouTube: Jupiter from The Planets

I take interest in Michael Perry’s remark, which Hawn’s article did not elaborate. 1921 was a period of turning, from a few centuries of Romantic patriotic ideals, to the grim reality of the first World War. I happen to study a few of Wilfred Owen’s poems in high school, and as a poet and soldier in the frontline, he was poised to see this crumbling idealism. To wit, in his poem Dulce et decorum est, he calls Horace’s phrase “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” ‘the old Lie’.

Sir Cecil himself was evidently mindful of this, since he rewrote his verse in 1918 to not call Britain explicitly, and replaced war imagery phrases like ‘the thunder of her guns’ with themes of love and sacrifice [3]. I can see why Perry was uncomfortable – in 1982 the loom of Cold War was still in the background. Even until now, the idea of overt patriotism does not mesh well with Christianity in the current age. There are believers all over the globalised world; how does that square with allegiance to individual countries? There is also the problem of the baggage of the imperialistic past it may invoke. The second stanza indeed shifts to the heavenly Kingdom, but it is difficult to see how it can stand alone, ommitting the first stanza, without eviscerating it.

Lyrics: I vow to thee my country I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace

Now, back to Perry’s composition. I only knew of it in 2019, where it was the theme hymn of World Reformed Fellowship in Jakarta. Surprised to hear another hymn set to the tune, I did a more thorough search. At that point, I think I was vaguely aware that Thaxted was a popular hymn tune, and I mistakenly thought that ah, I finally found the original first hymn set to the tune. Partly because, the words felt centuries-old, but no, it was penned in 1982. I really love the words. If Corrinne May’s is a more muted contemplative self-reflection, Perry’s in first stanza is a proclamation of grandeur, a nod to the tune’s orchestral origin. I would think that the orchestral, marching band feel is also why it fits the patriotic I vow to thee my country very well.

Here is Hawn listing out Perry’s Biblical and personal allusions [1]:

For example, the final line of the second stanza, “our sacrifice of praise,” come directly from Psalm 116:17 and Hebrews 13:15. In stanza one, the phrase, “wait upon your word,” echoes Psalm 130:5. Another phrase from stanza one, “for we can only wonder at every gift you send,” resounds in the spirit of James 1:17.

The brief words “without number” was an acknowledgment to fellow hymn writer Timothy Dudley Smith for his encouragement and an expression of homage to Dudley Smith because this was one of his favorite phrases. In the final stanza, the phrase “we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still” was, according to the author, a “reflect[ion on] my remembered determination of youthful days to overcome acute disappointment and personal loss.”

Hymns traditionally have eschatological theme in the last stanza, and this is also the case here. There are the ‘last victory’ in the seasonal second stanza, and ‘triumph through sorrow’ in the third stanza. There is a turn in the words as well, from adoring God the Father in first stanza, to the Saviour in third. You might imagine an arrangement where third stanza is the culmination, and you can imagine voices rising and layering at ‘marvel at your beauty’ and shouting the last line ‘sacrifice of praise’. Indeed, Richard Proulx’s choral arrangement below is like this. I think another fair arrangement would be to start with the climax (I mean, if ‘beyond all praising’ is not the ultimate superlative, I don’t know what is), then make third stanza descrescendo, simple and contemplative, much like what Corrinne May did for her own words.

YouTube and Lyrics: O God beyond all praising
1 O God beyond all praising,
we worship you today
and sing the love amazing
that songs cannot repay;
for we can only wonder
at every gift you send,
at blessings without number
and mercies without end:
we lift our hearts before you
and wait upon your word,
we honour and adore you,
our great and mighty Lord.

2* The flower of earthly splendor
in time must surely die,
its fragile bloom surrender to you,
the Lord most high;
but hidden from all nature
the eternal seed is sown
though small in mortal stature,
to heaven's garden grown;
for Christ the man from heaven
from death has set us free,
and we through him
are given the final victory.

3 Then hear, O gracious Saviour,
accept the love we bring,
that we who know your favour
may serve you as our king;
and whether our tomorrows
be filled with good or ill,
we'll triumph through our sorrows
and rise to bless you still:
to marvel at your beauty
and glory in your ways,
and make a joyful duty
our sacrifice of praise.

*verse 2, based on I Corinthians 15 is seasonal and would normally be omitted

Finally, let me comment on the tune itself (I’m no Music major but I at least have played a lot of hymns). In reduced numerical notation it is like this:

    IV V  vi IV iii vi 
A 356175121767653
    IV V  vi IV V I
B 356175123332121
      V       ii  IV
C 532212325 5322356
     vi  I ii  V  
D 67117651321235
A 356175121767653
B 356175123332121

You don’t need to be able to read the notation, just bear with me for a moment. First, the ABCDAB pattern, which you probably have already discerned from listening, where the first and last two lines are the same notes (AB). AB follows that classic pattern where A and B start identically in melody and chord progression, but A does not resolve back to the tonic chord, but B does. CD is of course the bridging tension, and the build up makes the entry of A afterwards more lifting than the first A, I feel. Simple and sublime. There was one time I played this as postlude, and a couple actually came up and asked what it was that I just played.
Whether they have heard it before and found it nostalgic, or they have not and found it captivating, either way I’m not the only one who found it beautiful.

In closing, let Perry’s words be a reminder of our chief purpose:

to marvel at your beauty
and glory in your ways,
and make a joyful duty
our sacrifice of praise.

[1] Michael Hawn. 13 Jun 2013. History of Hymns: “O God Beyond All Praising”
[2] Wikipedia.
[3] Wikipedia.,_My_Country

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