HymnA hymn is a song specifically written as a song of praise, adoration or prayer, typically addressed to a god.
A writer of hymns is known as a hymnist or hymnodist, and the process of singing a hymn is called hymnody; the same word is used for the collectivity of hymns belonging to a particular denomination or period (e.g. "nineteenth century Methodist hymnody" would mean the body of hymns written and/or used by Methodists in the nineteenth century). Books called hymnals are collections of hymns, which may or may not include music.
Ancient hymns include the Great Hymn to the Aten, composed by the pharaoh Akhenaten, and the Vedas, a collection of hymns in the tradition of Hinduism. The Western tradition of hymnody begins with Homer, who is given credit for the Homeric Hymns in praise of the gods of Greek mythology.
In Christian religions, hymns are usually directed toward God, or, in Catholicism and other denominations, also to Mary and sometimes to other Saints. Most Christian worship services have, since the earliest times, incorporated the singing of hymns, either by the congregation or by a selected choir, often accompanied by an organ.
Thomas Aquinas, in the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, defined the Christian hymn thus: "Hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico; canticum autem exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in vocem." ("A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.)
Since there is a lack of musical notation in early writings, the actual musical forms in the early church can only be surmised. During the Middle Ages a rich hymnody developed in the form of Gregorian chant or plainsong. This type was sung in unison, usually in a minor key, and most often by monastic choirs. While they were written originally in Latin, many have been translated. A familiar hymn of this type is the 13th century plainsong Of the Father's Love Begotten, (although the words date back to around the 4th century), that is a common part of church Christmas repertoires in the English language.
The Protestant Reformation produced a burst of hymn writing and congregational singing. Martin Luther is notable not only as a reformer, but as the author of the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God which is sung today even in Roman Catholicism. The earlier English writers such as Isaac Watts tended to paraphrase Psalms, while later writers took more freedom. Four part harmony also became the norm, rather than unison singing.
Charles Wesley's hymns spread Methodist theology, not only within Methodism, but in most Protesant churches. He developed a new focus - expressing one's personal feelings in the relationship with God as well as the simple worship seen in older hymns. Wesley wrote:
Wesley's contribution, along with the Second Great Awakening in America led to a new style called gospel, and a new explosion of sacred music writing with Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, and others who produced testamonial music for revivals, camp meetings and evangelistic crusades.
- Where shall my wondering soul begin?
- How shall I all to heaven aspire?
- A slave redeemed from death and sin,
- A brand plucked from eternal fire,
- How shall I equal triumphs raise,
- Or sing my great deliverer's praise.
African-Americans developed a rich hymnody from spirituals during times of slavery to the modern, lively black gospel style.
Some Christians today are using Christian lyrics in the rock music style although this often leads to some controversy between older and younger congregants.
This long tradition has resulted in a rich lode of hymns. Some modern churches include within hymnody, the traditional hymn (usually addressed to God), praise choruses (often sung scripture texts) and gospel (expressions of one's personal experience of God). This distinction is not perfectly clear; and purists remove the second two types from the classification as hymns. It is a matter of debate, even sometimes within a single congregation, often between revivalist and traditionalist movements.
Some Christian hymnists and their more well known hymns are:
Christian hymns were traditionally written in four-part vocal harmony. Today, except for choirs and more musically inclined congregations, hymns are typically sung in unison. In some cases complementary full settings for organ are also published, in others, organists and other accompiansts are expected to mentally transcribe the four-part vocal score for their instrument of choice.
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Women Hymn Composers before 1900
[lyrics; scores; hymnology]
Hymn Writers of the Church
Brief biographies of ~300 authors included in the 1905 Methodist Hymnal.
German Hymn-Writers of the 1600s
Brief biographies of Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, Paul Gerhardt, and Joachim Neander.
Evangelical Church Music
Brief biographies of early composers of hymn tunes from the Here of a Sunday Morning radio program.