I have to admit that I don't listen to American Public Media's Composers Datebook regularly. I mostly blame the delivery method. After all, I read Writers' Almanac online almost daily, but clicking play on a daily audio clip always seems to require one too many steps for convenience. Fortunately, people around me are faithful listeners and don't let me miss the best segments. I received two emails this week about the broadcast from Feb. 22nd.
The broadcast included a discussion of the anniversary of the premiere performance of Virgil Thomson's "Symphony on a Hymn Tune." It should more properly be titled a symphony on two hymn tunes. Not only did he utilize the well-known tune "How Firm a Foundation," but he also layered it with strains of "Jesus Loves Me." The piece was not a success, with the NY Times describing it as "Too trivial and inconsequential, too unoriginal in its material, and flimsy in its material to merit discussion."
Could that opinion have stemmed in part from the use of the simple tune "Jesus Loves Me" in a symphonic setting? Pastor commented to me that it seemed like that particular tune is the Rodney Dangerfield of the hymnal, getting no respect. It seemed especially timely to me today, given the sermon hymn last night, "There Is a Green Hill, Far Away." It too was originally composed for children, with a simple tune and text. Some people see beauty and meaning in that comforting simplicity, while others dismiss it as lacking depth.
I'm sure there's a range of opinion on singing simple hymn tunes, so what do you think, readers? Are such hymns best relegated to Sunday School or do they deserve a place in worship? And what hymns would you nominate for Rodney Dangerfield status - those favorites of yours that seem to get no respect?