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Hymn of the Week: ‘O God Beyond All Praising’

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The rendition in the video above was recorded at a wedding a few years ago, and I can’t think of a more stately and joyous hymn for the celebration of marriage. In that context, these words, in particular, strike a beautiful chord:

And whether our tomorrows
be filled with good or ill,
we’ll triumph through our sorrows
and rise to bless you still…

The complete text: 

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.

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.

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’II 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.

The melody is from British composer Gustav Holst, and may be best known as “I Vow to Thee My Country,” which was sung at both Princess Diana’s wedding and her funeral.

Some background:

“O God beyond all praising” was written specifically for the melody THAXTED in 1982, a composition by the early 20th-century British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). This tune is normally associated in the U.K. with a more patriotic text. Michael Perry composed the text, he said, “in response to a call for alternative words that would be more appropriate for Christian worship.”

Rarely is a symphonic theme taken en toto and used for a hymn tune. The ranges are usually too wide and the phrases may be too long for congregational singing. The melody THAXTED, named for a small town in the Uttlesford district of Essex, comes from the middle section of the “Jupiter” movement in Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets (1914-1916). In 1921, Holst adapted the theme to fit Cecil Spring-Rice’s patriotic poem “I vow to thee my country” (1908).

It is hard to underestimate the fervor that this text/tune combination inspires in the British homeland. It is often sung at Remembrance Day services, and Princess Diana requested it for her wedding in 1981. The song was repeated for her funeral in 1997 and again for the 10th anniversary observance of her death in 2007.

Perry faced a formidable challenge in composing a text to such a stately theme, especially one that bears an association with a text that combines patriotic and religious fervor. To meet this challenge, he created a majestic hymn of praise that is biblically rooted.

…A new second stanza was added at the request of Roman Catholic composer Richard Proulx who wished to write an anthem based on the text. Since it was written for a specific Sunday based on the reading for the day, I Corinthians 15, it is usually omitted in hymnals. The author recommended the hymn to be sung in relation to Communion without this stanza.

It’s a perennial favorite at my parish, and we sing it often as the recessional hymn throughout the year.

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