I was thrilled when pianist/composer Deanna Witkowski suggested we co-author a few hymn blog posts over the next few months in celebration of her new recording, “Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns.” She includes an arrangement of “CWM RHONDDA,” the tune used for “GUIDE ME, O THOU GREAT JEHOVAH.” This tune is also familiar to many progressive Christians in the U.S. as the setting for “GOD OF GRACE AND GOD OF GLORY,” text by Harry Emerson Fosdick. I blogged about that Social Justice hymn for this site in 2016.
PAM ON THE HYMN TEXT
The redundantly named William Williams (1717-1791) understood his life to be a journey, not unlike the one taken by the ancient Israelites wandering through a barren wilderness. Walking over ninety-five thousand miles, all of Wales became his parish.
Williams had intended to study medicine until he heard a fiery sermon by the twenty-something sensation Howell Harris. Inspired, Williams became a preacher too, although he wanted nothing of lifeless indoor religion; instead, he chose the open road, preaching in the rain, snow, and sun.
It was a hard life. Once, a mob beat him to within an inch of his life, but Williams continued to walk and preach, becoming a central figure in the great Methodist revival in Wales. Nicknamed “the sweet singer,” he wrote over eight hundred hymn lyrics as he wandered.
The imagery of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” the only text by Williams found in most modern English-language hymnals, was inspired by Exodus and the story of the Israelites, led out of Egypt by God who appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Williams wrote, “Let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.”
We, too, long for a God who journeys with us through the bewildering landscape of our modern lives. Like little kids strapped into the back seat, we’re inclined to cry out, “Are we there yet?” We, too, know mobs. Sometimes they parade through our streets or across our TV screens, threatened and threatening, enlivened by the careless and crude bullying, racist, sexist rhetoric of those in power. More often, we face down disapproving co-workers or grumbling relatives. We, too, search for manna, sustenance, significance. We want our lives to matter. Guide us, O God, we pray, and give us songs of faith and courage to sing along the way.
DEANNA ON THE HYMN TUNE “CWM RHONDDA”
This Welsh tune, considered the unofficial anthem of Wales, was written by John Hughes in 1907, at the invitation of organist of the Capel (Chapel) Rhondda, D.W. Thomas. Thomas asked Hughes to write a hymn for an upcoming Cymanfa Ganu, a song festival, to be held at the church.
According to the Treorchy Male Choir, it is believed that Hughes wrote his tune with William Williams’ “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” text in mind. The tune was originally called “RHONDDA,” after the chapel where it was premiered, but was renamed “CWM RHONDDA” by choral conductor Harry Evans. Evans wanted to avoid confusing the hymn tune with another hymn of the same name by Moses Owen Jones.
Here are a couple of things that I find wonderful about this story: first, there are actually parts of the world where churches commission composers to write hymn tunes! I’ve always thought about J.S. Bach writing for his church job and for various royal courts, but the hymn singing tradition in Wales was never discussed in my musical background. It shows how much music we may sing in church and not have any clue as to where it comes from!
Along the same lines, reading about the many song festivals in Wales reminded me of the history of song festivals in Brazil. In Wales, the festivals are focused around four-part hymn singing. According to this Wikipedia article, over a thousand of these festivals are held in Wales each year!
Besides being sung at churches and concerts (all-male choirs particularly seem to love this tune), CWM RHONDDA is heartily sung at rugby matches and royal weddings in Wales.
The tune has been praised for its ability to stir up hwyl, a strong feeling of passion, by those who sing it. This is due in no small part to the climbing melody in the tune’s third phrase (“bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more”) which reaches its climax on a dominant seventh chord. Of course, when I arranged the tune, the harmony is altered a bit!
TO GO DEEPER
History of the hymn, by Gabriel Edwards, on Discipleship Ministries UMC website
Words and Music, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” at Hymnary.org
Extensive history on CWM RHONDDA and its composer, John Hughes at the Treorchy Male Choir website
“CWM RHONDDA Chapel’s History Celebrated” BBC News, January, 2003
Sheet music for Deanna’s arrangement of CWM RHONDDA.
Deanna’s trio playing CWM RHONDDA
Scene from John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” — CWM RHONDDA sung in Welsh!