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“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”

TITLE: "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing"
AUTHOR: Charles Wesley, 1707-1788
TUNE: AZMON'S GHOST
COMPOSER: Mark A. Miller
SOURCE: Worship & Song, no. 3001
TOPIC: praise; thanksgiving; praise of Christ; healing

General and Text

If there is a signature song of United Methodism, it is surely Charles Wesley's "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." With few exceptions, it has appeared as the first hymn in our hymnals, including The United Methodist Hymnal (1989, no. 57), the Spanish language hymnal Mil Voces Para Celebrar (1996, no. 1) and Worship & Song, (2011, no. 3001). It appears as no. 226 in the Korean-English bilingual official United Methodist hymnal, Come, Let Us Worship (2001). Some research has shown that in recent years there are more popular and favorite hymns of American United Methodists, perhaps notably "How Great Thou Art" and "Here I Am, Lord," but "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" remains the most identifiably Wesleyan of our hymns.

It was on May 21, 1738, that Charles Wesley had his conversion experience, receiving the assurance of God's love, grace, and salvation. It was two days later that his brother John had his own "heart strangely warmed" conversion. This hymn was composed in 1739 to celebrate the first anniversary of Charles' conversion, and it first appeared as an eighteen-stanza text in the 1740 Hymns and Sacred Poems under the title "For the Anniversary Day of One's Conversion." Seventeen of the original eighteen stanzas appear as no. 58 in The United Methodist Hymnal under the title "Glory to God, and Praise and Love." Different stanzas have appeared in our various hymnals, with the five stanzas in Worship & Song constituting stanzas 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12 of the original eighteen.

It is often mistakenly thought that Wesley's image of "a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise" is biblical. It is more likely, however, that it comes from a phrase by Wesley's friend and spiritual mentor Peter Böhler, "Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise him with them all!"

One indicator of a great poet or hymn writer is the use of classical poetic and rhetorical devices in their texts. Charles Wesley was thoroughly schooled in classical poetry, and his texts demonstrate his mastery of many of these devices. One is the use of anaphora, the technique of ending a line or stanza with a word that then begins the next line or stanza. "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" demonstrates this device:

Stanza 1 concludes: "the triumphs of his grace."
Stanza 2 begins: "My gracious master and my God"
Stanza 2 concludes: "the honors of thy name."
Stanza 3 begins: "Jesus, the name that charms our fears"

Music

Changing long-standing tradition can be difficult, and there are few United Methodist traditions more ingrained than singing "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" to the AZMON tune by Carl G. Gläser. The United Methodist Hymnal offers RICHMOND (UMH #417) as a possible alternate to AZMON, but research shows this is seldom used. Other denominations may make use of different tunes, but United Methodists have securely wed AZMON to this text.

Recognizing that the 2011 publication Worship & Song was to be a mixture of old and new, traditional and contemporary, yet pointing the church's worship and song distinctly toward the future, the editorial committee was delighted to be able to preserve the place of prominence of Wesley's text by making it the first song in the collection. But in doing so, they asked composer Mark A. Miller to arrange his best-selling choral setting of this text as a congregational hymn. The choral arrangement (ISBN: 9780687337804), originally published in 2000, has become the single largest selling anthem published by Abingdon Press, thus already making it familiar to many directors, accompanists, choirs, and congregations.

Miller's choice of tune names for his setting, AZMON'S GHOST, is a playful nod to tradition, while simultaneously announcing this is something new. The melody remains securely within the key, yet with a range of an octave plus a third, wider than most classic congregational hymns. Most of the melody, however, remains in a mid-range that is comfortable for most congregations.

The short four-bar introduction immediately sets the mood as one of energy, drive, and excitement with its rapidly repeating right-hand chords, one of Miller's frequently used traits, and the strongly punctuated off-beat octaves in the bass, another Miller style hallmark. The melody employs the favored technique of contemporary musicians of placing important words and syllables of text on a strongly syncopated off-beat as an anticipatory eighth note. Some congregations as well as choir singers and accompanists accustomed to the more traditional rhythmic patterns of hymns that place accents squarely on the beat may need some time and encouragement to adopt this contemporary style, but it is one quickly learned. It is probably a mistake to try to teach the congregation to sing this syncopated style if they are unaccustomed to it. It is better to prepare choir, praise team, soloists, instrumentalists, and certainly song leader to simply lead it strongly. The people will quickly catch on and find it quite natural.

There are only two brief bars between stanzas. It may be helpful to repeat these two bars in order to give singers a moment to feel the end of the stanza, get a breath, and renew their resolve and commitment to singing the next stanza. And don't miss the repetition of "for joy" at the end, a brief coda with an optional high note on the final word. This is best played without a ritard until the final two or three notes.

Composer Information

Mark Miller serves on the faculty at both Drew University and Yale University, where he teaches sacred music and worship. He is also the Minister of Music at Covenant United Methodist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey. Between 2002 and 2007, he was Director of Contemporary Worship at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, and from 1999 to 2001 he was Music Associate and Assistant Organist of The Riverside Church in New York City. Mark received his Bachelor of Arts in Music from Yale and his Master of Music in Organ Performance from Juilliard.

Mark is well-known throughout the United Methodist Church as a composer, worship leader, teacher and performer of sacred music. Since 1997 he has performed concerts and directed conferences at churches internationally and across the United States. In April 2008 Mark was the Director of Music for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Forth Worth, Texas.

Sources

  • Eskew, Harry and Hugh McElrath. Sing with Understanding. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980.
  • McIntyre, Dean. Private correspondence and interview with Mark Miller, 2011.
  • Young, Carlton. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

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