The Voice of My Beloved Sounds (Hymn)

“My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

(Song of Solomon 2:10-12)

 The Voice of My Beloved Sounds (Score)

More often than not, when I’m moved singing an unfamiliar hymn text, it’s Isaac Watts’ name I find at the bottom of the page. Beneath the beauty of his language is a deep theological understanding and an assured faith, which manifest themselves in his poetry as sober reverence and ardent, personal adoration of God.

When I decided to write a congregational hymn to be used in our wedding ceremony, I knew what I wanted in a text before I started looking for it. This can be deadly. It’s far better, in my experience, to encounter a text that asks you to adorn it with music than to go around asking poems to accommodate the music you’ve already got in your head (though all composers do a bit of both, I think). Searching for the perfect text to suit my musical intentions rarely leads to anything beyond frustration, and a lack of composing.

But as with everything in the ceremony, there was a particular message we (my bride and I) wanted the congregation to receive, which is, in fact, the message of marriage itself. It is the best and truest story; the story of the Son who left his Father’s house to rescue his Bride from the dragon, giving Himself up for her that they might be joined forever in perfect union.

So I knew what the hymn needed to say, I just needed the words that would say it. Fortunately, Watts’ was there to provide them (nearly 200 years before). “The Voice of My Beloved Sounds” is an adaptation and elaboration of the second half of Song of Solomon chapter two, making explicit the connection between the earthly bride and groom and Christ and His Church.* It is filled with Biblical imagery, and reminds that earthly love, glorious as it is, points to the far greater, unending love of Jesus for His people.

It takes all of thirty seconds to sing through the music, but I labored over it longer than I might like to admit. The tune came fairly quickly, as did general character. I heard strains of Billings’ (who set Watts better than anyone) strident praise, tempered with softening pan-diatonic harmonies and smooth voice-leading. But to make every voice a melody, attainable for amateur singers and satisfying for seasoned musicians, and in such a way as to enhance the words of every verse rather than impose upon them…that took time. Strophic text-setting, I discovered, is an under-appreciated craft.


*Depending on the ecclesiastical circles you run in, Watts is either famous or infamous for his tendency to spell out associations between Old Testament texts, especially the psalms, and New Testament realities. His critics think this betrays a felt need to “Christianize” the OT on his part. Whether they’re right or not will have to wait for another post.


Here is Watts’ text, in full:

The voice of my Beloved sounds
Over the rocks and rising grounds;
O’er hills of guilt and seas of grief
He leaps, he flies to my relief.

Now through the veil of flesh I see
With eyes of love he looks at me;
Now in the gospel’s clearest glass
He shows the beauties of his face.

Gently he draws my heart along,
Both with his beauties and his tongue;
“Rise,” saith my Lord, “make haste away,
No mortal joys are worth thy stay.

“The Jewish wintry state is gone,
The mists are fled, the spring comes on;
The sacred turtle-dove we hear
Proclaim the new, the joyful year.

“Th’ immortal vine of heav’nly root
Blossoms, and buds, and gives her fruit:”
Lo! we are come to taste the wine;
Our souls rejoice, and bless the vine.

And when we hear our Jesus say,
“Rise up, my love, make haste away!”
Our hearts would fain outfly the wind,
And leave all earthly loves behind.

 

 

 

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An Elegiac Fugue (string quartet)

” People look at my library, and they think that I am interested in everything. But I am interested in one thing; I am interested in Love.”

We sat in the kitchen of our sweltering dorm room late one evening during Samuel Hsu’s last summer at Csehy Summer School of Music. For hours we had talked of music and theology, the one and the many, greatness and humility. Despite the heat we were drinking tea (which was always his way). There was only one bag of chamomile left, and he insisted I make my own cup first (which was also his way).

Somewhere in the course of the conversation he came to those words. Many of my memories of Dr. Hsu have faded, or gone completely, in the years since his death, but I can still see and hear him speaking those words. In that moment, I glimpsed not only the depth of his thought, but the nature of his heart, in brightest focus. He was making a theological point at the time, but in doing so had summarized himself.

He was the most learned and wise person I have known, the most sensitive musician, and yet the most generous of spirit. As my teacher Kile Smith put it, “Sam was the most ‘in’ the world and least ‘of’ the world of anyone I know.” He was worthy of every praise and accolade this world can offer, yet kept none for himself. Instead, he built up those around him (whether he had known you for decades or a day), and differed all glory to his Savior.

On December 1, 2011, Dr. Hsu was hit by a car on his walk to the train, which he took every morning from Center City to teach at Philadelphia Biblical University (now Cairn University) in Langhorne. I remember that it was a Thursday, because that was the day of our 19th-century music history class. And I still wonder what was on his mind to share with us that morning.

When it came time to pay tribute in music to my beloved mentor, I decided two things. It had to be a fugue, often considered throughout history to be the pinnacle of the composer’s craft, and it had to be a string quartet, the perennial illustration of consummate musicianship. The piece begins in a wandering and subdued kind of mourning, which later manifests itself fully. In the closing moments, grief is mingled with hope, remembering both what has been lost, and what is to come (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

But beyond all of that, I hope you hear something of the love Samuel Hsu shared with all of those around him during his time on this earth, and beyond still further, of the greater Love to which his life was constant testimony.