Tradition is a good thing and certain things have been handed down from generation to generation and that is our religions and what comes with our religions is the religious music but where did the music originate? If angels descended on midtown Manhattan they might sound a lot like the extensive choir and big organ sounds coming from 5th Avenue’s Presbyterian Church founded in 1808. It is good to know that there are still volunteer singers putting out good sounds in certain churches. A good choir can make any old hymn sound new. There are groups out there writing new religious music all the time but what makes a good hymn or song that will last for generations?
Keith Getty is a modern day hymnast. Hymns are songs specifically designed for congregations to sing in churches. He co-wrote with his wife a new popular hymn called In Christ Alone. It has become a hit and has been sung in most churches. In a 2013 survey of the best loved hymns in Britain, In Christ Alone was the second most popular hymn of all time meanwhile it was written in 2001. How Great Thou Art remains number one. Keith had no idea it would become so popular. It was his first published song that was written on the back of an electric bill that he later tossed in the trash. Hymns often have a story of their own.
The hymn called Rock of Ages is said to be inspired by an actual rock located south of England in Bristol. The legend is that in 1762 Reverend Toplady was walking through a storm and he stood on a clefted rock and remained dry. Professor Jerry Rushford of Pepperdine University in California has spent a lifetime studying hymns and the stories behind them including the one written by a former slave trader. John Newton was a slave ship Captain who nearly drowned one night in a violent storm. Years later he wrote a verse “Amazing Grace, how sweet a sound that saved a wretch like me.” The man right next to him was swept overboard to his death. Now at all American funerals we sing this song.
In 1741 the great composer George Frederick Handel shut himself in his room and wrote all 260 pages of The Messiah in just 24 days and half way through it all he had a vision that shook him to the depths of his soul that inspired him to write the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Extraordinary situations can make you believe in God and can inspire you to write the most interesting texts or the most powerful music that somehow endures from generation to generation. Everyone wants to be lucky enough to be able to have the next great new thing associated with them but few actually achieve such prominence or prestige.
It must be hard to write the next great inspirational song when your competition is 200 years old but there are people always trying. What makes a great hymn? A song we turn to in happiness or grief like an old friend who will live forever in our hearts.