Features, Highlights

New compositions bring creativity and diversity of Asian church

Anthem Collection Review
Methodist School of Music Choral Series
Lim Swee Hong, Editor Evelyn Lim, Associate Editor
Singapore: Methodist School of Music, 2007

FEW Christian traditions have a legacy of hymns written by their founders. Martin Luther wrote and adapted about 30 German chorales that are still important to many Lutheran congregations. John Calvin commissioned the composition of metrical psalms that were staples of the Reformed Churches. But none can match the over 6,000 hymns written by Charles Wesley and other hymns, mostly translations, written by his brother John. These hymns were published in numerous collections over the years.

Writing and publishing hymns was at the heart of the evangelical witness and outreach of the Wesleyan movement. Methodists still owe their singing souls to the vision and creativity of their founders, the Wesley brothers.

The tercentennial of Charles Wesley’s birth (1707-2007) provides Methodists as well as others in the ecumenical community who use his hymns with an opportunity to re-examine the corpus of our sung legacy and evaluate how it has stood the test of time. Few hymn writers have hymns that have been sung in four centuries. As we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, we find that the passionate language employed by Charles Wesley remains as vivid today as it did in the 18th century.

John Wesley’s famous quotation, “The world is my parish”, reminds us that the Wesleyan movement was not parochial, but reaches around the world. In 1737, early in their career, the Wesley brothers made a perilous journey from England to the American colonies.

One of the legacies of this venture was the first hymnal published in America, Psalms and Hymns (Savannah, Georgia, 1737). This proved to be the first of many collections that placed the songs of the Wesleys and others into the hands and hearts of the common people and established the fledgling movement as one that sang.

In the 21st century, the world is truly the Methodist parish. No longer are the songs flowing one way – from the West to the rest of the world. Now we have the benefit of Methodists throughout the world sending their songs to other shores. The 21st century is no longer a monologue from the West to the rest, but a vital conversation among Christian faith communities throughout this global parish that we share. This collection of anthems based on Charles Wesley texts is a part of that larger conversation.

Composers from Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore (four), and Malaysia combine to give us a sense of the Asian perspective on Charles Wesley, setting 10 of his best-known hymns for choirs. These compositions bring together the poetic lyricism of the 18th-century with the creativity and diversity of the Asian church in the 21st century. The music displays variety and imagination and yet is accessible to many choirs, often employing the congregation.

When one hears a familiar text set to a new melody, there may be some resistance at first. But the perceptive listener and singer will find that new musical settings have the possibility of bringing fresh understandings of the text to the surface.

Music is not neutral when words are sung. It is hoped that by singing these familiar Wesley texts in a variety of styles, Asian Christians may have a sense of ownership of these poems – a sense that Charles Wesley’s expressions are not the sentiments only of 18th-century English Christians, but that they are also the “heart music” for Christians in Asia.

The diversity of the compositions is exceptional. Some are for adults, others for children’s voices; some are accompanied on the organ or piano, while others incorporate traditional Asian instruments and percussion; some are for more modest choirs, others are more difficult; some draw on more international styles while others employ more pan-Asian or local tribal compositional techniques; while most are in English, some are in Chinese.

The Aldersgate Hymn Festival incorporates the 10 anthems with other congregational hymns by Charles Wesley along with prayers and litanies.

This festival suggests a time prophesied in the book of Revelation when Christians in all times and places will join at the throne and sing: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12).

Quoting Revelation 7, Wesley’s “Ye Servants of God” reminds us that at its best, all of our song points to the throne of God:

“Salvation to God, who sits on the throne!”
Let all cry aloud and honor the Son;
The praises of Jesus the angels proclaim,
Fall down on their faces and worship the Lamb.

Then let us adore and give him his right, All
glory and power, all wisdom and might; All
honor and blessing with angels above, And
thank never ceasing and infinite love.
(Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution, 1744)

Congratulations to the editors and to the Methodist School of Music in Singapore for shepherding this publication – a collection for the 21st-century church; songs that anticipate heaven.

C. Michael Hawn is Professor of Church Music and Director of the Sacred Music Programme at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas, the US.


Collection of 10 Asian choral anthems


THE Methodist School of Music Choral Series is an exciting Asian collection of 10 choral anthems (eight in English, two in Chinese) with varied styles and levels of difficulty for mixed, treble choirs and the congregation.

The collection was commissioned to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley’s birth and the 10th anniversary of the Methodist School of Music.

The 10 choral anthems were premiered at the Aldersgate Hymn Festival at Victoria Concert Hall on May 20, 2007 as part of Aldersgate Convention 2007.

Seven composers from Singapore (Lim Swee Hong, Jusuf Kam, Mary Tan and So Heng), Malaysia (Lu Chen Tiong), Philippines (Joy T. Nilo), and Taiwan (Chan Hung Da) took up the challenge to set an Asian flavour to the following Wesleyan texts:

A Charge To Keep We Have, For The Lord’s Day, Praise The Lord Who Reigns Above (赞美主穹苍之上), Rejoice The Lord Is King, Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending, Give Me The Faith Which Can Remove, Lord In The Strength Of Grace, Love Divine All Love Excelling, Blest Be The Dear Uniting Love (深爱联系,如此福气), Forth In Thy Name.

The MSM Choral Series is available for sale at $20 a copy at the Methodist School of Music, tel: (65) 6767-5258, or email: chetwei@msmusic.edu.sg


Wesley hymns: New settings ‘exciting’ and ‘perplexing’

THIS YEAR’S Aldersgate Hymn Festival organised by the Methodist School of Music was different.

The congregation at Victoria Concert Hall was introduced to the familiar lyrics of hymns by Charles Wesley set to music composed by Asian composers. Those used to the traditional Wesleyan tunes were in for a big surprise. Some found the new “settings” exciting, others perplexing while many others just simply missed the much loved tunes sung over the years by their parents, grandparents and those before them.

It was good that the glorious and profound words of the hymns on which the “Wesleyan theology can be found” were not in any way altered. As someone remarked “it is not the melody but the words in a hymn that speak to us of God’s love and grace”.

The new settings to “Rejoice the Lord is King”, “Love Divine All Love Excelling” and “A Charge To Keep I Have” – some of the hymns sung at the Aldersgate Hymn Festival – will, I think, never replace the majesty and grandeur of the original tunes.

Will many of us want the change? I don’t know. I only know that for me and some others the old tunes are “good enough”.

Ada Ponnappa is a chorister at Wesley Methodist Church.