STLT#189 and190, Light of Ages and of Nations

I’ve kind of been dreading this one, knowing the complexities inherent in both the lyrics and the tunes (and by the way, this is the first of only two times when you’ll see me cover two numbers at once – they are the same lyrics to different tunes, so it seems appropriate).

But, if this practice has taught me anything, it’s that a closer examination leads to both joy and sorrow, and here I definitely find both.

So let’s tuck right in. First, the lyrics.

Our friend Sam Longfellow is back, with what – according to Jacqui James in Between the Lines – is the first Christian hymn to recognize non-Christian religions. There is a lot to love about this text, not the least of which is that somewhere along the line we changed “God of ages” to “Light of ages” – a shift I think further opens up the message. But I digress. I love the rather plainspoken nature of the lyrics, making clear that revelation is not sealed, that reason matters, that we should look to the prophets.

What I am not crazy about is the phrase “Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew” in the last verse. Take a look at it in context:

Light of ages and of nations, every race and every time
has received thine inspirations, glimpses of thy truth sublime.
Always spirits in rapt vision passed the heavenly veil within,
always hearts bowed in contrition found salvation from their sin.

Reason’s noble aspiration truth in growing clearness saw;
conscience spoke its condemnation, or proclaimed eternal law.
While thine inward revelations told thy saints their prayers were heard,
prophets to the guilty nations spoke thine everlasting word.

Lo, that word abideth ever; revelation is not sealed;
answering now to our endeavor, truth and right are still revealed.
That which came to ancient sages, Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew,
written in the soul’s deep pages, shines today, forever new.

When I look at the history of the word, it’s always been a pejorative, always about the outsider, the stranger, the ‘uncivilized’. I kind of get what our man Sam was saying here, but instead of being inclusive, it still seems like a bit of a slam. What we would change it to, I’m not sure (I’m coming with half a thing) – I’m sure others have thought of good replacements for that phrase that still rhyme with “new”. I just know that for all that I really like the rest of the lyrics, I wince at that line and then miss the full sentiment, “that which [was] …written in the soul’s deep pages, shines today, forever new.”

So now let’s look at the tune issue.

The first appearance, 189, is set to In Babilone, a tune we already sang in the aspirational Wonders Still the World Shall Witness. It’s a touch cheery for my tastes in this case, but it’s a good solid hymn tune and am already considering its use for a service that wraps up this congregation’s year-long conversation with world religions. (If I can figure out what to do about the barbarian, that is.)

The second appearance, 190, to which this lyric was originally set, is much more complicated. Take a deep breath – we’re going in.

The tune, Austria, was written by Austrian Josef Haydn in 1797, as a birthday song for Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor. It later found life in 1841 as a revolutionary call to unite Germans against the ruling classes. It was called “Das Lied der Deutschen” but became known by its first line “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (“Germany, Germany above all else”).

And now you see the problem.

If you know anything about German history, you know that in the last few hundred years, long periods of stability are hard to come by, and every so often there’s a call for a new Germany to rise up, well, make Germany great again. And if you know anything about political movements, you know that the music and iconography of a culture can be used and abused by those movements.

Such is the case here. “Das Lied der Deutschen” got overused by the Third Reich and became a theme song of the Nazi regime. On the plus side, the song was banned in 1945. However, by 1952, it was clear that West Germany needed a national anthem for diplomatic occasions, and after much consternation, it was decided that the final verse ONLY of “Das Lied der Deutschen” would be used. (East Germany used a different song, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from Ruins”), until about 1972).

And the memory of this tune as a tool of the Nazis remains to this day.

Now you may wonder why we keep this in. I wondered too, and often thought this was an error of sentimentality. But then, of course, Jacqui James comes to the rescue to explain it: “We have retained Austria to signal that Nazism has not had the final victory by ruining this fine melody of Haydn.”

I can definitely applaud that.

I just wish this note was in the hymnal itself. The way the pages lay out, there would have been plenty of room. How helpful it would be to know this, and to be able to set up the hymn or use it with this fact in mind. It’s a shame Between the Lines is out of print, and that it doesn’t get shipped with every order of hymnals, because as I’m learning with these hymns but as we are learning with, well, everything, context matters.

I doubt I would ever use this hymn with this tune, but you can bet I will now talk about why we have this in here and what it means to reclaim art that gets ruined by abuse.

The featured image is of Francis II. Now we know what a last Holy Roman Emperor looks like.

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