Article

History of Hymns: “O God Beyond All Praising”

by C. Michael Hawn

"O God Beyond All Praising"
Michael Perry
The Faith We Sing, No. 2009

Michael Perry

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 honor and adore you, our great and mighty Lord.*


Michael Perry (1942-1996) was born in Beckenham, Kent, England, where he served as Vicar of Tonbridge and a canon of Rochester Cathedral. One of England’s most promising hymn writers, he worked as editor and director of Jubilate Hymns until an inoperable brain tumor led to his untimely death in December 1996.

Michael Baughen founded the Jubilate group in the early 1960s. According to Perry, the group pooled their talents to meet the challenge of a new generation in the United Kingdom., who wished to extend their singing beyond the foursquare ways of metrical hymnody and the “unpredictability of Anglican chant.” With the newfound popularity of Perry’s “Calypso Carol” and the support of the Church Pastoral Aid Society, Youth Praise 2 was published in 1969.

“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. 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.

For example, the final line of the second stanza, “our sacrifice of praise,” come directly from Psalm 116:17 and Hebrews 13:15. In stanza one, the phrase, “wait upon your word,” echoes Psalm 130:5. Another phrase from stanza one, “for we can only wonder at every gift you send,” resounds in the spirit of James 1:17.

The brief words “without number” was an acknowledgment to fellow hymn writer Timothy Dudley Smith for his encouragement and an expression of homage to Dudley Smith because this was one of his favorite phrases. In the final stanza, the phrase “we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still” was, according to the author, a “reflect[ion on] my remembered determination of youthful days to overcome acute disappointment and personal loss.”

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.
 

*Words © 1982, 1987 Jubilate Hymns, admin. by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns