by Rev. Dr. Greg Wismar
Aberystwyth. Alabare. Angelus. Aurelia. Azmon. All of these words that begin with the letter A can be found in most Lutheran hymnals. Why? Because they are the names of hymn tunes that are sung by Gods people from the pages of their hymnbooks. Just as every text that is used for hymns and prayers in the hymnbook has its own individual history, so too does each hymn tune that is utilized as part of worship. In the lower right-hand corner of the space following each hymn in Lutheran Service Book and Lutheran Worship, the hymn-tune name is located in bold print; in The Lutheran Hymnal, the tune identification is located to the right directly under the hymn title at the top of each page.
In the wonderful world of the Muppets on television, a musical number called Whats the name of that song? is frequently played. The little Muppet characters can identify some of the notes of the music they have in mind, but that is as far as it goes. Hymn researchers in the church through the centuries have not only discovered Whats the name of that song? for each of the hymns of the church, but they also have discovered Whats the name of that tune? as well. And behind those hymn-tune names are some most interesting stories.
Many hymn tunes bear the names of places that were special to the tunes composer. Aberystwyth (LSB 419) is a little village in Wales that was home to university music professor Joseph Perry, composer of the tune. The tune Azmon, used for a number of hymns in Lutheran hymnals, was named by English musical arranger Lowell Mason in honor of a Bible site meaning fortress that is mentioned three times in the Old Testament.
Some tunes named for locations are very specific. The tune Duke Street, to which the Easter hymn I Know That My Redeemer Lives is often sung, was the actual house address of composer John Hatton in the late 18th century in Lancashire, England. Other hymn-tune titles bear the name of their composers or relate to the original language in which the hymn or song was first sung. One of the most curious hymn-tune names is Sine Nomine (LSB 677) which, in Latin, means without a name.
Looking into the history of tune names can be educational. Each hymnal prepared by the LCMS has had a special support volume that was published at some time after the release of the pew edition of the book. Currently available are Lutheran Worship: Hymnal Companion by Dr. Fred Precht and The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal by Prof. W.G. Polack.
Both of these volumes supply helpful and often inspiring information about the hymns that are contained in them. A hymnal companion to Lutheran Service Book is currently in the works and will be available for purchase in a matter of months. It is aimed not only at church professionals but at everyone in the church who has a love for the treasury of hymns that enriches our faith.
Name That Tune! was a program in the early days of television in which contestants won prizes on the basis of their ability to identify musical pieces on hearing only the first few notes of the melody. While greater personal knowledge of church tunes may not bring great wealth or prizes today, there is something special waiting to be discovered by those who have the determination to discover Whats the name of that song?
> As early as AD 112, the Roman governor Pliny wrote that Christians were singing songs to Christ as to a god.
About the Author: Rev. Dr. Greg Wismar is pastor emeritus of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, Conn.