Of Marion and Aberystwyth: What’s in a (Hymn Tune) Name?

Thanks to Sandra Duguid Gerstman for encouraging me to turn this into a blog post.

The choir’s anthem for a recent Sunday at Grace Presbyterian Church was an arrangement of the hymn tune “Marion.” When I saw this piece in the folder, the image of Robert Preston chasing Shirley Jones around the River City library popped up. But I was scheduled to bring the devotional for the choir rehearsal on the Thursday before, and The Music Man notwithstanding, hymn tune names seemed an appropriate topic. Afterward, when both the choir director and his wife shared that they had named their cat “Aberystwyth,” I knew the choice of topic had been appropriate.

So why is this hymn tune is named “Marion”? We’ll come back to that in a bit.

Naming musical tunes is an ancient practice. Several of the Biblical psalms have instructions about what tune to use to sing them. The tunes have names such as “The Death of the Son,” “The Doe of the Morning,” “Lilies,” and “Do Not Destroy.” Music notation as we know it did not exist until hundreds of years after the last of the psalms were written, and so naming tunes that the temple musicians found useful might help the musicians remember their favorites.

Some well-known hymn tunes of our day started out as folk tunes or dance melodies. Think of “Greensleeves,” (“What Child is This?”)  “The Ash Grove,” (“Let All Things Now Living”) and “Slane,” (“Be Thou My Vision”) for example. Others have the first line from the verse for which they were originally written as their names. Some bear the names of places or people. The congregational hymns from the Sunday that we sang the arrangement of “Marion” are good examples:

  • “Cwm Rhondda” (the tune for “Christ is Coming!”) refers to a valley in Wales.
  • Lasst uns erfreuen herzlich sehr” (the tune to which we sing our doxology) is the first line of a seventeenth-century Easter hymn for which this tune was composed.
  • “Isaiah Jones” (the tune for “God Has Smiled on Me”) is the name of the composer.
  • “Moody” (the tune for “Marvelous Grace of our Loving Lord”) is named for D.L. Moody, with whom the composer was associated.
  • “Hanson Place” (the tune for “Shall We Gather at the River?”) refers to the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

Where does the name “Marion” come from? Marion, for whom the song is named, was the wife of the composer, Arthur Henry Messiter. It seems to be the only hymn he composed, and he named it in honor of his wife.

None of us are likely to have an object or a piece intellectual property such as a hymn tune named for us, but we do bear the name of someone else.

Luke notes in Acts 11:26 that the New Testament disciples were first called “Christians” in the city of Antioch. Maybe the locals intended it as a put-down. But the name stuck, and now twenty centuries later we still bear that name. Do we honor it? To quote the expression from the 1970s, if we were arrested for being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us? In Oregon bearing the name of Christ cost some people their lives recently. In other parts of the world people lose their lives every day for bearing the name of Christ. Do we bear that name no matter what it might cost us?

Thanks as always for stopping by.

4 thoughts on “Of Marion and Aberystwyth: What’s in a (Hymn Tune) Name?

  1. Mary Carnis 17 October, 2015 / 5:30 pm

    Thanks again for the blog posts Pat. I really enjoy your posts, and I always learn something.

  2. Sandra Duguid 17 October, 2015 / 10:11 pm

    Hi, Pat, I am liking this very much twice now– the tone, the information, and the development! And because it is “blogged,” I can read it ad infinitum. Once, Donald Du Laney put to music one of my poems, and he named the hymn tune “Merrill,” after my brother-in-law, Bob Merrill, who was ill at the time and for whom we had been praying in choir devotion time. That was really a wonderful gesture on Donald’s part, and I haven’t thought about that for a long time, until just now. So, this is “a gift that keeps giving,” truly! Thank you. Sandra

    Sent from my iPad–


    • jerseybackyard 18 October, 2015 / 11:41 am

      Thank you, Sandra, for your thoughtful (as ever) comment).

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