Nearer, My God, to Thee

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Cartoon depicting a man standing with a woman, who is hiding her head on his shoulder, on the deck of a ship awash with water. A beam of light is shown coming down from heaven to illuminate the couple. Behind them is an empty davit.
"Nearer, My God, To Thee" – cartoon of 1912

"Nearer, My God, to Thee" is a 19th-century Christian hymn by Sarah Flower Adams, based loosely on Genesis 28:11–19,[1] the story of Jacob's dream. Genesis 28:11–12 can be translated as follows: "So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it...."

The hymn is well known, among other uses, as the alleged last song the band on RMS Titanic played before the ship sank.

Lyrics[edit]

The lyrics to the hymn are as follows:[2][3][4]

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Chorus: Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
Jacob's Dream Artwork on the campus of Abilene Christian University
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I'd be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Chorus
There let the way appear steps unto heav'n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv'n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Chorus
Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I'll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Chorus
Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,

A sixth verse was later added to the hymn by Edward Henry Bickersteth Jr. as follows:[2]

There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee.
Chorus

Text and music[edit]

1881 sheet music cover

The verse was written by the English poet and Unitarian hymn writer Sarah Flower Adams (1805–1848) at her home in Sunnybank, Loughton, Essex, England, in 1841. It was first set to music by Adams's sister, the composer Eliza Flower, for William Johnson Fox's collection Hymns and Anthems.[5]

In the United Kingdom, the hymn is usually associated with the 1861 hymn tune "Horbury" by John Bacchus Dykes, named for a village near Wakefield, England, where Dykes had found "peace and comfort".[6][7] In the rest of the world, the hymn is usually sung to the 1856 tune "Bethany" by Lowell Mason. British Methodists prefer the tune "Propior Deo" (Nearer to God), written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) in 1872.[8] Sullivan wrote a second setting of the hymn to a tune referred to as "St. Edmund". Mason's tune has also penetrated the British repertoire.[9]

The Methodist Hymn Book of 1933 includes Horbury and two other tunes, "Nearer To Thee" (American) and "Nearer, My God, To Thee" (T C Gregory, 1901–?),[10] while its successor Hymns and Psalms of 1983 uses Horbury and "Wilmington" by Erik Routley.[11] Songs of Praise includes Horbury, "Rothwell" (Geoffrey Shaw) and "Liverpool" (John Roberts/Ieuan Gwyllt, 1822–1877).[12] Liverpool also features in the BBC Hymn Book of 1951[13] and the Baptist Hymn Book of 1962 (with Propior Deo).[14] The original English Hymnal includes the hymn set to Horbury,[15] while its replacement New English Hymnal drops the hymn. Hymns Ancient and Modern included Horbury and "Communion" (S S Wesley),[16] although later versions, including Common Praise, standardise on Horbury.[17]

Other 19th century settings include those by the Rev. N. S. Godfrey,[18] W. H. Longhurst,[19] Herbert Columbine,[20] Frederic N. Löhr,[21] Thomas Adams,[22] and one composed jointly by William Sterndale Bennett and Otto Goldschmidt.[23] In 1955, the English composer and musicologist Sir Jack Westrup composed a setting in the form of an anthem for four soloists with organ accompaniment.[24]

RMS Titanic and SS Valencia[edit]

"Nearer, My God, to Thee" is associated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic, as some survivors later reported that the ship's string ensemble played the hymn as the vessel sank. For example, Violet Jessop said in her 1934 account of the disaster that she had heard the hymn being played;[25] Archibald Gracie IV, however, emphatically denied it in his own account, written soon after the sinking, and Wireless Operator Harold Bride said that he had heard "Autumn",[26] by which he may have meant Archibald Joyce's then-popular waltz "Songe d'Automne" (Autumn Dream).[25] The "Bethany" version was used in the 1943 film Titanic and in the Jean Negulesco's 1953 film Titanic, whereas the "Horbury" version was played in Roy Ward Baker's 1958 movie about the sinking, A Night to Remember. The "Bethany" version was again used in James Cameron's 1997 Titanic.[8]

Wallace Hartley, the ship's band leader (who like all the musicians on board, went down with the ship), was known to like the song and to wish to have it performed at his funeral. As a Methodist Briton, he was familiar with both the "Horbury" and "Propior Deo" versions, but would not likely have used "Bethany". His father, a Methodist choirmaster, used the "Propior Deo" version at church. His family were certain that he would have used the "Propior Deo" version,[27] and it is this tune's opening notes that appear on Hartley's memorial[26][28] and that were played at his funeral.[27] However, a record slip for a 1913 Edison cylinder recording of "Nearer, My God, to Thee", featuring the "Bethany" version, states that "When the great steamship 'Titanic' sank in mid-ocean in April 1912, it was being played by the band and sung by the doomed passengers, even as the boat took her final plunge."[29] George Orrell, the bandmaster of the rescue ship, RMS Carpathia, who spoke with survivors, related: "The ship's band in any emergency is expected to play to calm the passengers. After the Titanic struck the iceberg the band began to play bright music, dance music, comic songs – anything that would prevent the passengers from becoming panic-stricken ... various awe-stricken passengers began to think of the death that faced them and asked the bandmaster to play hymns. The one which appealed to all was 'Nearer My God to Thee'."[30]

"Nearer, My God, to Thee" was sung by the doomed crew and passengers of the SS Valencia as it sank off the Canadian coast in 1906, and this event may be the source of the Titanic legend.[31]

Quotations in musical compositions[edit]

A dramatic paraphrase of the hymn tune was written for wind band by the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen. His version includes a musical rendition of the collision between boat and iceberg.[32] The composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert, moved by the Titanic tragedy, wrote six works based on the "Bethany" setting, including an organ fantasia.[33] "Bethany" is also quoted in Charles Ives's fourth symphony.[34] The French organist Joseph Bonnet wrote "In Memoriam – Titanic", the first of his Douze Pièces, Op. 10, based on the tune Horbury. It was published the year after the Titanic sank.[35]

The hymn even made its way briefly onto the operatic stage. The singer Emma Abbott, prompted by "her uncompromising and grotesque puritanism" rewrote La traviata so that Violetta expired singing not Verdi's Addio del passato, but "Nearer My God to Thee".[36]

Other uses[edit]

Another tale, surrounding the death of President William McKinley in September 1901, quotes his dying words as being the first few lines of the hymn. At 3:30 pm, in the afternoon of September 14, 1901, after five minutes of silence across the nation, numerous bands across the United States played the hymn, McKinley's favorite, in his memory.[37] It was also played by the Marine Band on Pennsylvania Avenue during the funeral procession through Washington and at the end of the funeral service itself,[37] and at a memorial service for him in Westminster Abbey, London.[38] The hymn was also played as the body of assassinated American President James Garfield was interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio, and at the funerals of former U.S. Presidents Warren G. Harding[39] and Gerald R. Ford, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands

The Confederate army band played this song as the survivors of the disastrous Pickett's Charge (in the Battle of Gettysburg) returned from their failed infantry assault.[40] The Rough Riders sang the hymn at the burial of their slain comrades after the Battle of Las Guasimas.[41] A film called Nearer My God to Thee was made in 1917 in the UK. "Nearer, My God, to Thee" is sung at the end of the 1936 movie San Francisco.[42] In the Max Ophüls 1952 film, Le Plaisir, the French version of the hymn, 'Plus près de toi, mon Dieu,' is sung in a country church, which causes sobbing among a group of visiting Parisian courtesans."[43][44] The title of the hymn is also the title of a painting by physician Jack Kevorkian.[45] William F. Buckley mentions in the introduction to his 1998 book, Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, that the title was inspired by "Nearer My God to Thee".[46]

A variation of the tune is played by the band ZZ Top in an 1885 hoedown scene in Back to the Future Part III, though the song is played at a more uptempo pace than traditionally known. At the beginning of The Simpsons Movie (2007), Green Day is seen playing a concert in Springfield on a barge. The audience pelts the band with stones. As the barge begins to sink, bassist Mike Dirnt quotes the film Titanic, uttering Hartley's line, "Gentlemen, it's been an honor playing with you tonight."[47] The band members all take out violins and begin to play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" while sinking. This Titanic gag was also used in the film Osmosis Jones, but the line is changed to "Gentlemen, playing with you has been the greatest pleasure of my life." [48]

Ted Turner, speaking shortly before the launch of CNN, promised that, barring technical problems, "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event.... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer My God to Thee' before we sign off."[49]

Doris Day recorded this song on her 1962 album You'll Never Walk Alone. Siobhan Owen, after singing this at a Titanic 100 year anniversary dinner, recorded it on her "Storybook Journey" album which was released in June 2012.[50] A season 3 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street is entitled "Nearer My God to Thee".[51]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Genesis 28:11-12
  2. ^ a b Nearer, My God, to Thee at CyberHymnal
  3. ^ Nearer, My God, to Thee at Hymnsite.com
  4. ^ Nearer My God to Thee at Christian Music
  5. ^ Taylor, pp. 3 and 171
  6. ^ The Musical Times, January 1898, p. 22
  7. ^ Bradley, Ian. (2005). Daily Telegraph book of hymns, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 294 (2006 paperback ed.) ISBN 0826482821.
  8. ^ a b Bevil, J. Marshall. "And the Band Played On", paper presented at the October 1999 meeting of the Southwest Regional Chapter of the American Musicological Society, Rice University, Houston, accessed 23 February 2012
  9. ^ See, e.g., Adams, Sarah F.; Mason, Lowell (1995). "Nearer, My God, to Thee". In Albert E. Winstanley & Graham A. Fisher. Favourite Hymns of the Church. Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: Eye-Opener Publications. , No. 427
  10. ^ Methodist Hymn Book, 1933, Hymn 468
  11. ^ Hymns and Psalms, 1983, Hymn 451
  12. ^ Songs of Praise, 1931, Hymn 586
  13. ^ BBC Hymn Book, 1951, Hymn 332
  14. ^ Baptist Hymn Book, 1962, Hymn 598
  15. ^ English Hymnal, 1933, Hymn 444
  16. ^ Hymns Ancient and Modern Standard Edition, 1922, Hymn 277
  17. ^ Common Praise, 2000, Hymn 526
  18. ^ The Musical Times, October 1853, p. 270
  19. ^ The Musical Times, March 1860, p. 223
  20. ^ The Musical Times, December 1865, p. 192
  21. ^ The Musical Times, December 1874, p. 730
  22. ^ The Musical Times, February 1895, p. 102
  23. ^ The Musical Times, March 1902, p. 19
  24. ^ The Musical Times, May 1955, p. 1
  25. ^ a b Howells, pp. 128–29
  26. ^ a b Richards, pp. 395–96
  27. ^ a b Bradley, Ian. Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers: The Sacred Music of Arthur Sullivan, SCM Press (2013), p. 72 ISBN 0334044219
  28. ^ Biography of Wallace Hartley, the Titanic's bandmaster
  29. ^ Dethlefson, Ronald. Edison Blue Amberol Recordings, 1912-1914. APM Press: Brooklyn, 1980, p. 53. The cylinder is numbered Edison Blue Amberol No. 1647.
  30. ^ Turner, p. 194
  31. ^ Baily, Clarence H. "The Wreck of the Valencia", in Pacific Monthly, March 1906, p. 281, quoted in Howells, p. 129.
  32. ^ "Orkestermusik", Carl Nielsen Selskabet, accessed 14 January 2010
  33. ^ The Musical Times, January 1973, pp. 33–34; and May 1973, p. 489
  34. ^ Ballantine, Christopher. "Charles Ives and the Meaning of Quotation in Music", The Musical Quarterly, April 1979, p. 174
  35. ^ "Douze Pièces pour Grand-Orgue, Opus 10". Michael's Music Service website, accessed 17 June 2011
  36. ^ The Musical Times, May 1891, p. 274.
  37. ^ a b Olcott, Charles S. "The Tragedy at Buffalo", Chapter 34, The Life of William McKinley (1916), pp. 313–33, Houghton Mifflin Company
  38. ^ The Musical Times, October 1901, p. 665
  39. ^ Dean, John (2004). Warren G Harding. New York: Times Books. p. 153. ISBN 0805069569. 
  40. ^ Lanning, p. 244
  41. ^ Brown, Theron and Hezekiah Butterworth. The Story of the Hymns and Tunes (1906)
  42. ^ Soundtrack to the film San Francisco at the IMDB database, accessed 11 January 2010
  43. ^ YouTube
  44. ^ Douin, Jean-Luc. "Terre promise", La Bobine, accessed 14 January 2010
  45. ^ Kevorkian painting
  46. ^ Buckley, introduction
  47. ^ IMDB list of "memorable quotes
  48. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf9KmvWyzeo
  49. ^ Quote from Ted Turner
  50. ^ http://www.amazon.com/Storybook-Journey/dp/B008DI6WZ8
  51. ^ Paeth, Greg (October 8, 1994). "TV highlights for the upcoming week". Scripps Howard News Service. 

References[edit]

External links[edit]