There are days in this practice when I get so caught up in the holy act of singing, I hardly pay attention to any analysis. Then there are days in this practice when I get so caught up in the analysis, I lose any sense of the holy. A perfect day is when there is an equal balance – a holy moment and an analytical eye. When that happens, I tend to delve into the theological more than the musical or, frankly, the trivial.
Sadly, today is not a perfect day, as much as I want it to be.
Setting aside mood or events, what takes me out of this spiritual practice’s original purpose most is running into hymns that are troubling right from the start – sometimes it’s misappropriation, sometimes it’s odd or concerning lyrics, and sometimes, such as in this case, it’s because of its tune.
Here’s the thing: if this is intended to be a hymnal – a book of songs for a congregation to sing – then fails to complete its mission, as there are definitely songs (like this one) that are not meant to be sung by a congregation. If this is intended to be a collection of music that informs our living tradition, then it fails to inform the user of that purpose.
All of this to say, this is not a congregational hymn. It is an art song that sets some amazing lyrics to a texture. From a musical standpoint, it’s beautifully crafted – the melody matches the lyric, speeding up at the crashing of the sea, slowing at the calm and still. And the lyrics are more than “hey, look at pretty nature” – the final two verses make a fantastic connection between humans and the rest of nature – we can see our hearts, minds, and souls in the wonder of the sea. It’s an inspiring lyric and a well designed song to match it.
Wild waves of storm,
the wonder of the wind and crashing sea,
nature in power and might and majesty,
yet wonder more in deep tranquility,
sea, calm and still.
in flock intent upon far distant shore
great wonder hold; yet there is wonder more
when lonely eagle, watchful on the tor,
sits, calm and still.
All people one
in urgent haste, on some great enterprise,
hearts beating fast, great dreams to realize,
yet in the soul a dream of richer prize,
serene and still.
Then striving cease:
from troubled turmoil seek an inward goal;
tranquility shall make the spirit whole.
Be still, and know a Presence in the soul,
But let’s not fool ourselves: this would take a lot of work and an already extremely musical congregation to attempt this. The only example of this song I found was the Oakland UU Chancel Choir’s recording, and their performance reveals the complexity of the piece.
This is a piece that belongs in our Unitarian Universalist repertoire.
But it is not a hymn.