Next time you find it difficult to sit still during a long sermon or church service, you might try taking the hymnal and reading it with some degree of real attention. Once you’ve caught on to the meaning of the cryptic numbers and names that appear at the top of the first lines of music for each hymn, you’ll discover a fascinating and diverting fund of information that was once common and useful knowledge among congregations.
Beneath the hymn title, which is generally taken from the opening words, the typical hymnal supplies the name of the writer and the composer (rarely the same person), a row of numbers something like this - 188.8.131.52. and so on - and a name that sometimes is identified as that often hymn tune but occasionally just stands alone with no identification. This name is, more often than not, the name of a town, usually an English sounding one.
During the first generation or two after the Revolution, there was a tremendous increase in the demand for new hymns. Pioneer American hymn composers, such as Jacob Kimball of Topsfield, Massachusetts, and William Billings of Boston, labored to fill the demand. And often the name of the town in whose church one of their new compositions was first sung came to be the identifying tag by which other congregations recognized it. This was simply in keeping with the British custom of naming hymn tunes for some circumstance or locality connected with their initial use.
Possibly hundreds of hymn tunes are associated with towns in the eastern United States, from Maine to Georgia and westward to the Mississippi. Only a few are in current use. A notable one is “Boylston,” composed by Lowell Mason, to which “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (words by John Fawcett, 1782) is still usually sung.
I will give some examples of tune names and their derivations, but let me first clear up what those enigmatic numbers stand for. Their use dates back to the 18th century, when relatively few people in congregations could read the notes (standard musical notation was just starting to come into general acceptance) and most had to rely on acquiring the tunes by ear. Someone—one of those nameless minor innovators of history—had the thought that by printing the number of syllables in each line of the hymn it would be possible to convey the meter or beat and thus give the hymnal reader a quick idea of the time to keep. Even though the numbers give only the beat of the words and convey no information about the pitch, the device proved helpful enough to be widely adopted.
It was also soon discovered that the most frequently used hymn beats could be grouped under three general headings: Short Meter (6.6 .8.6., of which “Boylston,” mentioned above, is a good example); Common Meter (184.108.40.206., the beat of “Materna,” the tune of “America -the Beautiful”); and Long Meter (220.127.116.11., most familiar as the beat of the Old Hundredth, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”). Thus in some hymnals you will find only the letters SM, CM, and LM being the abbreviations for each of these meters. Sometimes the letter D, standing for Doubled, is added (as, for instance, CMD) to indicate that the meter continues unchanged through the entire text of the hymn including the refrain. Often only the beat of the body stanzas is indicated.
Short, Common, and Long Meters are all iambic meters, meaning that the first syllable is always unstressed and the next one stressed, and so on in regular alternation. Variations of these basic iambic meters are known as Particular, or sometimes Irregular, meters, abbreviated as PM in the hymnal headings. Some of our favorite hymns are PM tunes: “Bethany,” Lowell Mason’s tune for . “Nearer My God to Thee,” is 18.104.22.168. 22.214.171.124.; “Nicaea,” the tune for Bishop Heber’s rousing “Holy, Holy, Holy, -Lord God Almighty,” is 126.96.36.199; “Eventide,” to which “Abide with Me” is sung, is 10.10.10. 10.
Particular Meters are sometimes trochaic, the opposite of iambic, i.e., the first syllable is stressed, the second unstressed, and so on. “Good King Wenceslas,” 188.8.131.52.D, is a good example.
Now for more about where the tune names came from. Besides the already explained origin from the names of the towns where a hymn was first sung, there are many other sources. “Materna” the tune for “America the Beautiful,” was first composed by Samuel A. Ward of Newark, New Jersey, to fit a hymn he wrote that began “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem,” hence “Materna.” It fit Katharine Lee Bates’ patriotic lines admirably, and the original hymn has long since been forgotten.
“Eventide,” composed in 1861 by W. H. Monks for the text of “Abide with Me” (written 30 years earlier by an Anglican curate facing up to a fatal illness), is obviously named for one of the key words in the hymn (“fast falls the eventide”). Lowell Mason (1792-1872), already mentioned as the composer of “Boylston:” -and “Bethany,” chose the latter name for his music to “Nearer My God to Thee” as conveying the sense of nearness to Christ felt by the sisters Mary and Martha who received him at their home in Bethany.
The words to “Rock of Ages,” which has a 184.108.40.206.7. beat, were written by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady in 1776. He died two years later at the early age of 38, having said that it was not possible for anyone to live long in the flesh after such an experience of the divine had been granted. Several musical settings of the hymn were attempted the one that succeeded was by Thomas Hastings, a music teacher in Clinton, New York, in the early 19th century, who named the tune “Toplady” for the author of the text.
Hymns of German origin usually have as their tune names the first three words of their text in German. For example, the tune of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is called “Ein Feste Burg.” Latin hymn tunes usually indicate a medieval or monastic origin. The tune of “Good King Wenceslas,” noted above as an example of trochaic meter, is named “Tempus Adest Floridum,” Latin for “the time of flowers has returned,” the opening words of a 16th-century Easter song sung to it. When the text and tune were discovered in a long-lost manuscript in Sweden in 1852, an English hymn-scribbler named Neale took the music as the setting for his rather trite verses about the good king, thus transforming a festive spring song into just another Christmas carol.
Enough, probably, has been given in the way of explanation and examples to enable the reader to make meaningful sense out of the hymnal. Some may wish to undertake the fascinating chase of other tune name derivations.