History of Hymns: “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”
By C. Michael Hawn
“Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”
by Ignaz Franz; translated by Clarence Walworth,
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 79
Holy God, we praise thy name;
Lord of all, we bow before thee;
All on earth thy scepter claim;
All in heaven above adore thee.
Infinite thy vast domain;
Everlasting is thy reign.
Translators are hymn writers too, and they contribute significantly to Christian hymnody. Translating hymns for singing is even more challenging than translating prose. The translator must honor the content of the original poetry, while writing a version that fits the meter and word accent of a pre-existing tune. Then the words should sing as naturally as possible in the new language. In many ways, translating a hymn for singing is like writing a new hymn.
Clarence Augustus Walworth (1820-1900) studied for the ministry at Union College (1838), considering a vocation as an Episcopal priest. Then, following his father’s bidding, he studied law, passed the bar, and became an attorney in 1841. Abandoning law, he continued his study at General Theological Seminary, New York City. According to his obituary, Walworth decided to become a Roman Catholic priest while in New York, entered the Order of Redemptorists and, under their direction, continued his study in Belgium for five years. He served in England for two years before returning to the United States. In 1858 he collaborated with others to form the Order of Paulists. Following a severe bout with malaria, he became a pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Albany, New York, from 1866-1892. He died in Albany in 1900. In addition to publishing a number of works, he was an amateur geologist, developing an extensive knowledge of the geological topography of New York State.
Turning to the author of the German text, Ignaz Franz (1719-1790), born in Poland, was a German Roman Catholic priest and hymnologist who compiled song collections. Following his education at the Glatz Gymnasium, he studied philosophy and theology at Breslau University. After his ordination as a priest in 1742, he became a chaplain and, in 1753, the archpriest at Schlawa, and finally head of a seminary in Breslau in 1766, where he remained until his death.
Franz edited several hymnbooks including Die Christ-katholische Lehre in Liedern (Christian Catholic Doctrine in Song) (1776), Lobgesänge zu den Tagzeiten von der Todesangst Christi am Ölberge (Songs of Praise at the Hour of Christ’s Agony on the Mount of Olives) (1770), and Choralbuch zum allgemeinen vollständigen Katholischen Gesangbuche (Chorale Book [music] for the Complete Catholic Hymnbook) (1778), the latter probably being the source of the melody. He is primarily remembered for his important eighteenth century study of Catholic hymnody, Katholisches Gesangbuch (Catholic Hymnbook) (ca. 1774). This collection contained 47 of Franz’s own texts including our hymn text.
The original German “Grosser Gott, wir loben dich” is a paraphrase of the important fourth- or fifth-century canticle, Te Deum Laudamus (“We praise you God”), a Trinitarian hymn (See The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 80). The original Latin text follows within 200 years of the important Council of Nicea (325 C.E.), where the nature of the Trinity was the topic, and out of which the Nicene Creed was formed. It is no wonder that Walworth wanted to translate this important historical text into metrical English.
In this case, the trek to the hymn that appears in hymnals begins with the original Latin in the fourth century, through the translation in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) in the seventeenth century, to the German versification by Franz in the eighteenth century, and finally to Walworth’s translation in the nineteenth century. Actually, there is one more stop along the way, but I fear that I am asking a lot of all but the most dedicated reader! Franz surely would have been aware of the versification of the Te Deum by Martin Luther (1483-1546), “Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (1529), but as a Roman Catholic would not have used it!
Book of Common Prayer
Te Deum laudámus:
te Dominum confitémur.
We praise thee, O God:
Grosser Gott, wir loben dich
Herr wir preisen deine Stärke;
vor dir neigt die Erde sich
und bewundert deine Stärke.
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name;
Lord we praise thy strength;
in front of you the earth tilts
and admires your strength.
As you were before all ages,
so you'll stay forever.
The literal translation is helpful, but would not be useful for singing with the original melody. Thus, we return to the Clarence Walworth’s “translation” cited at the beginning of this article; and now we can further appreciate his genius!
For Walworth’s complete text, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/holy_god_we_praise_thy_name_lord_of_all.
Stanza two develops the common theme found in hymns. First the choirs of heaven sing:
Hark, the glad celestial hymn
angel choirs above are raising;
cherubim and seraphim,
in unceasing chorus praising . . .
Then, in the third stanza, the earthly chorus joins the angelic choirs in antiphonal harmony:
Lo, the apostolic train
Joins your sacred name to hallow;
Prophets swell the glad refrain,
and the white-robed martyrs follow. . .
Franz and Walworth actually only included a portion of the original Te Deum in their versification. The United Methodist Hymnal and several others add additional stanzas to fill out the complete text (stanzas 5-7), in this case stanzas written by the skillful hymn writer, Episcopal priest F. Bland Tucker (1895-1984) for the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (1985).
Walworth’s versification of stanza three concludes magnificently with a majestic line that musicians admire — “Through the church the song goes on.” While this is a wonderful metaphor for the ongoing life and work of the church, I would also suggest that, given the importance of congregational singing throughout the life of the church, the phrase might be reversed: “Through the song, the church goes on!”
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.