Hymn Stories

This coming Sunday, the Global Music Ensemble (GME) is leading worship at Bethlehem.  We’ve been a group for a little over four years now, and we lead worship every other month (for the most part).  It’s a pretty good mix of instruments – keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, world percussion, trumpet, and oboe.  And vocals, of course.

Bethlehem has been singing the world’s songs of praise to God for over 30 years.  Our now-retired pastor brought us music from the World Council of Churches gatherings when he accepted our call.  He had served in Kenya, Tanzania, and Trinidad-Tobago so we learned a lot of music from those cultures.  When I was traveling in Europe in 1987, he and his wife arranged to meet me in Geneva to tour the World Council offices and take a side trip to the Taizé community in France.  While we were at the World Council, we learned the freedom songs of South Africa from the Swedish group Utryck, who had just brought them out of Johannesburg.

With such a long tradition of world music being sung by this community, it was time to “flesh it out” a little on the instrumental side.  We started with songs we all knew and worked on finding our groove together.  As with almost everything at Bethlehem, the GME is highly collaborative – everyone’s voice has equal credence.  We really work to create each piece together, not only so it has our (the group’s) flavor but the flavor of Bethlehem as well.

For the communion song this Sunday, we are leading the Chinese piece “Golden Breaks the Dawn” (ELW #852)  It’s a delicate, lovely hymn that traces our movement through the day, praying for guidance, with God at our side.  I offer as background an edited selection of information about this song from the outstanding Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worshipby Paul Westermeyer (just-retired former head of the Master’s in Sacred Music program at Luther Seminary).

This hymn text was written by the Chinese hymnist Tzu-chen Chao (1888-1979), and translated/paraphrased by Frank W. Price (1885-1974).  According to renowned ethnomusicologist I-to Loh, Chao was a pioneer “in developing contextual theology and hymns in China.”  He was a professor of theology at Yenching University in Beijing from 1926 to 1956.  In 1956 Chao was accused of siding with American mission boards in their imperialism toward China and was forced to resign from his position as professor and dean at the School of Religion at Yenching University.  After that he descended into obscurity; scholars believe he abandoned his faith under Communist rule.

Frank W. Price was born in China, and was a missionary to China for thirty years.  In 1952, after a period of detention by the Communist regime, he returned to the United States and was director of the Missionary Research Library at Union Theological Seminary in New York City until 1961.  His volume Chinese Christian Hymns (1953) included translations of 23 hymns from the 1936 Hymns of Universal Praise, a Chinese Christian hymnal that is still in print today.

The melody is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese melody, ‘Le P’ing’, by Te-ngai Hu.  Her birth date is not known, but is estimated at 1900.  She was a student of the tune’s arranger, Bliss Wiant, at Yenching University in Beijing, but nothing else is known about her.  “Virtuous love” is the translation of her name.

Bliss Wiant (1895-1975) was a Methodist minister and musician who headed the music department at Yenching University in Beijing, and was the music editor for the afore-mentioned Hymns of Universal Praise.  One can assume he worked with Tzu-chen Chao while at Yenching.

The melody’s title means “happy peace” and that reflects the feel of the song beautifully.  Except for the lone B-flat in the third line, it is pentatonic – it is written in a scale with five pitches per octave.  This type of scale is found all over the world – even the first two lines of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna” is based on the pentatonic scale.  The accompaniment gives it a bit more of a Western sound; however, our keyboardist has played in a Javanese Gamelan ensemble, which tunes to a pentatonic scale, and she has helped us get at the more authentic sound of Asian music.  We’ll likely work on that at rehearsal.

Thinking back to when we first started singing music from around the world, we’ve come a long way.  I am grateful beyond words that our hymnal – which represents the core of the music we Lutherans have in common – is so incredibly diverse.  We know that the Eucharist unites us with people of all times and places; to know that our song unites us around the world as we sing it is to know the breaking-in of God to our existence.

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