Henry van Dyke (1852-1933) was well-established as a professor of English literature at Princeton University when he visited the president of William College in Western Massachusetts one day in 1907. There, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Berkshires. He picked up his pen and wrote the words of the hymn we know as “JOYFUL, JOYFUL, WE ADORE THEE.”
According to the story, when he handed the poem to his friend, van Dyke said, “Here is a hymn for you. Your mountains were my inspiration. It must be sung to the music of Beethoven’s ‘Hymn to Joy.’”
PAM McALLISTER ON THE HYMN TEXT
Before teaching at Princeton, Dr. van Dyke spent seventeen years as the pastor at Brick Presbyterian Church (1883-1900). Parishioners and tourists crowded into the Manhattan sanctuary to hear his sermons.
One Christmas Eve, he told the hushed gathering about a man named Artaban, the fourth wise man, who missed his caravan connection with the Magi because he stopped to help a dying man. Delayed, he arrived in Bethlehem too late and spent the next 33 years searching for Jesus, using the gifts he’d brought for the baby to rescue those in distress. And then, at last, he reached Jerusalem on a significant day and …. I don’t want to spoil it for you, dear blog reader. You can read it here.
Van Dyke’s sermon was published as The Story of the Other Wise Man in Harper’s magazine in 1893 and then as a book. Now, a classic of Christian literature, it is beloved around the world.
A few years after writing that story, van Dyke wrote the words to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” By then, tensions in Europe were escalating, leading the way to World War I, but he held to his progressive Christian view and found hope in humanity through the life of Jesus.
Addressed to the “Lord of Love,” in this uplifting hymn we sing about hearts opening and joyful music leading us “sunward.” Stars and angels and all of nature, from flowery meadows to flashing seas, sing unbroken praise to the one who is “giving and forgiving.”
In both exuberant text and music, we “mortals” are urged to “join this mighty chorus,” learn to love one another, praise the “wellspring of the joy of living.”
DEANNA WITKOWSKI ON THE HYMN TUNE
Perhaps one of the most well known melodies the world over, Ludwig van Beethoven’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) bursts into life in the fourth and final movement of his Ninth Symphony, Op. 125 (1825).
As the first major composer to use vocal soloists and choir in a symphony, the work is also known as the “Choral” Symphony. The story goes that after the close of the final movement at the work’s premiere, the deaf Beethoven had to be tapped on the shoulder by the contralto soloist, Caroline Unger so that he could turn around to see the audience’s uproarious applauding.
The reactions to this huge symphony (over an hour in length) and its choral forces were not always met with praise. Some, such as pianist Fanny Mendelssohn, after hearing her composer brother Felix conduct the work in 1836, wrote, “This gigantic Ninth Symphony, which is so grand and in parts so abominable, as only the work of the greatest composer could be… A gigantic tragedy with a conclusion… falling from its height into the opposite extreme — into burlesque.” (Grove’s Dictionary of Music, 392). Others, such as composer Hector Berlioz, called the Ode to Joy the “culmination of its author’s genius.”
This morning I sat down and listened to the fourth movement of this Choral Symphony for the first time in years (here’s the video I watched with Daniel Barenboim conducting). At 7:23, the first time that that the voices enter — and all of the choral forces stand — I got goosebumps just feeling the force of the voices that have been led to this moment by all of the instrumental statements of the melody (and this is without having listened all the way through the earlier three movements). Perhaps this sheer force of numbers and vocal power is exactly what Schiller’s poem (read it here) called for: a physical expression of a strong peace and unity.
Most of the times that I hear Beethoven’s theme are not in the context of the original symphony — as, for instance, the many times when I have sung or played “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” in church services. The melody is so singable — its entire range falls within a single octave, and it consists mostly of steps and repeated notes. This universality makes it all the more worth it to go back and hear the original symphony- as well as to arrange it with a bit of a different rhythmic feel for group singing!
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” by C. Michael Hawn on UMC Discipleship Ministries website
Music and Lyrics: Hymnary website
Portrait of Van Dyke in Brick Church, “From the Pastor: Practical Church History” by Michael L. Lindvall
“Henry van Dyke: Another ‘Wise Man’” by James H. Smylie in Presbyterian Outlook, 10/23/02
“The Other Wise Man” Van Dyke’s short story on American Literature website
The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man (Picture book retelling of van Dyke’s story) by Susan Summers, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Goodreads)
Sheet music of Deanna’s arrangement
Symphony guide by Tom Service with suggested recordings, video, and analysis: