Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1a)
The text for this month’s hymn was born out of the Second Great Awakening, a time of spiritual revival in the United States around the start of the nineteenth century. However, the music itself is an old English folk tune brought to America later on by immigrants. It was commonly known as “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” after a song by the same title which used the tune. In case you’re interested, the song was about a Captain William Kidd, who was executed for piracy in the 1700’s. But the tune probably predates that song even.
So how did a secular tune associated with pirates get chosen for a hymn about God’s wondrous love?
Aside from the fact that many would be familiar with the tune already, it is also important to note that folk songs are characteristically simple. The pitches are usually restricted to a comfortable mid-range, meaning most people can sing them with ease. Movement is often restricted to step-wise motion with only a few small, easy jumps mixed in. And there’s almost always a great deal of repetition. These three qualities in particular make folk music an ideal candidate for church hymns, where the focus is on corporate worship.
Before we go further with the music, let’s first review the text:
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul?
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down;
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing,
To God and to the Lamb I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM–
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While million join the theme, I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.
The most obvious characteristic is repetition. When done in moderation, this can be a useful and powerful tool for emphasis, because it catches the listener’s attention and draws their focus. Such is the case for “What Wondrous Love is This.” Each verse introduces the beginning of an idea, then repeats it several times. But they don’t finish the idea right away, thus drawing us in with a desire for resolution:
“What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, What wondrous love is this, O my soul?”
By this point, we’re focused on that single idea so, when it is developed and resolved in the second half of the verse, the fullness of the message really shines:
“What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss To bear the dreadful curse for my soul?”
It’s a powerful message, and should move the believer to humble gratitude at the very least. At the beginning, the full weight of sin seems to weigh down on the mind: I was sinking down, down, down–deeper into my sin and rebellion.
BUT–and this is the glorious nature of the gospel–the message doesn’t end with my own worthlessness. It is necessary to begin there, for if we don’t recognize our own sin and need for a Saviour, then the importance of the gospel is lost. So we must first realize that we are bound for hell and cannot save ourselves before we can appreciate the beauty of God’s mercy and love and realize, by the grace of God, our need for Jesus Christ.
That is the power of repetition in this hymn–it drives home simultaneously our worthlessness and God’s amazing grace.
Another element worth noting is the meter of the text. It’s an unusual meter, with the lines being unequal in length. The interesting thing about this is how it emphasizes the climax and resolution of the message. Take the second verse, for example:
“When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, When I was sinking down, sinking down.”
The text is divided at the beginning into short pulses of repetition, like so: 4-2-2, 4-2 (the pulses are in bold text above). It gives the message a heavy, almost “plodding” feel, as if we are weighed down by our guilt and dragging our feet, because we can go no further on our own. Then, the third line breaks out of this mold:
“When I was sinking down be–neath God’s righteous frown.”
This part is one long line of 8 pulses. After the first section where there are clear breaks dividing up the text–as if we are panting out the words–this long, fluid line is a breath of fresh air. This is the moment that the fullness of God’s grace is revealed, and suddenly the weight is lifted from our shoulders. Now we can sing freely and unhindered!
As soon as this line ends, the text does something interesting:
“Christ laid a-side His crown for my soul, for my soul, Christ laid a-side His crown for my soul.”
This last section uses the exact same pulse as the beginning (4-2-2, 4-2). From a poetic viewpoint, this creates a pleasing symmetry, like bookends. But beyond that, it also serves to again emphasize the message. And even though we’re repeating ourselves in the same way as the beginning, it is no longer a heavy sense of fear and despair. Instead, we repeat ourselves out of wonder, praise and joy. We sing it over and over because Christ laying aside His crown for our souls is a message worth repeating.
Does the music then support the text? Let’s find out.
First of all, the music is neither in a major nor a minor key. It is instead in Dorian mode. A quick lesson for those unfamiliar with these terms:
All songs are written in a certain “key,” or a specific set of notes which the composer can arrange to create a melody and harmony. The two most common keys in western music today are major and minor keys. Major keys generally sound happy, whereas minor keys generally sound sad or serious.
However, these were only two options out of a whole group of what was called “Church Modes” in the Middle Ages. Originally there were eight modes, with a few more added on later. Each mode has its own pattern, just like the major and minor keys (originally called Ionian and Aeolian modes, respectively). This lent a unique sound and mood to each. Over the course of time, the other modes were used less frequently and the major/minor keys as we know them today gained prominence.
Dorian is actually my favorite of all the modes. I just really like the sound of it. Actually, it only differs from the minor key by one note–but that one note makes a big difference. If I were to build a scale on the note “D” using the minor (Aeolian) mode, it would look like this:
Those would be the seven notes the composer would use to make a song in d-minor. Now take a look at the same scale, but in Dorian mode:
The only note that changes is the sixth–instead of the lowered B-flat, in Dorian mode the “B” stays natural, thus raising the sixth tone by a half step (or semitone). This mode can sound like a minor key at some points and like a major key at other points in the same song. In other words, it combines the cheerful feeling of major keys with the somber, mysterious feeling of minor keys into one song, which is perfect for this text. Plus, the use of a less common church mode harkens back to ancient times for the wary listener.
Now let’s look at the hymn:
The music begins with a pickup note, which allows the first downbeat to fall on the word “wondrous,” thus drawing the focus immediately to the theme of the text (God’s wondrous love). Furthermore, it begins at home on the tonic note, D. The line doesn’t end on D, however. This is a very important detail, because it’s what makes the line feel “unfinished.” It leaves us hanging in a manner of speaking, waiting for resolution. This supports the text, which at this point is still an incomplete question.
One other interesting feature to note is the music’s reflection of normal speech patterns. Not only does it follow the natural rhythmic pattern of speech by pausing where one would normally pause in the sentence, but the inflection is also there. I’m referring to the way the pitch of the voice usually goes up at the end of a question. In like manner, the pitch of the music also goes up at the end.
In the second line (above), there is a continuation of the same rhythm, yet the pitches are different. The first line stays relatively soft and low, whereas the second line immediately begins on the higher end of the range. This repetition of the text on a higher pitch gives the feeling of a question being repeated in a raised voice (perhaps the speaker is overwhelmed by the question?). And the fact that the highest note thus far falls on the word “wondrous” once again keeps the focus on God’s love.
This line ends at last on the tonic note, giving us the first real sense of resolution. At first, it might seem contradictory to what I just said regarding the first line, about leaving the line unresolved to match the “incomplete question.” However, even though the question is still unfinished at this point, it is important to give the ears a momentary respite. So the music resolves and rests for just a moment on the tonic. That, combined with the extension of the rhythm (where the last note is held out longer than all the rest), also gives us a clue that the first idea is done and something new is about to follow…
The most interesting thing to me about the third line is the tonality. Remember how I said that Dorian mode can feel like both a major and a minor key in the same song? Here is where we can hear this idea played out. In the previous two lines, the music leans toward the minor side of the spectrum by using mostly minor chords. This makes sense, seeing as the mood up to this point is one of solemn contemplation. The third line has a noticeably different sound though. This time, the first five syllables are all major chords, fluctuating back and forth: C-F-C-F-C. This sudden dominance of major chords turns the mood of the song almost on its head. The fact that the “major” mood comes about after the minor is a striking reminder to me that biblical truth should influence your emotions, and not the other way around.
When a Christian reads or hears about God’s wondrous love, they can’t help but be humbled, yet overjoyed at the same time. That is where the moods of both major and minor keys come into play.
Halfway through the line, we reach the climax at the highest note of the song. This is fitting, since it is the last time this part of the question will be repeated. Thus, just as with the previous reiteration, the voice is raised still higher. One can almost feel the mounting expression, pulling us forward to the moment when the statement is finally completed.
In the last half of the line, the initial statement is at last continued: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss…” And with the much-anticipated resolution of the text, the music descends back down and comes to rest on the tonic. Thus in a single line the music rises in one glorious moment of rapture, then returns to a place of peace, contentment and confidence. After all, emotions are all well and good in the right context, but they cannot supply a firm foundation on which to plant ourselves permanently. Emotions are a result of understanding truth, not a means.
Lastly, just like the text is sustained in one fluid breath, so the music here sheds its halting rhythm from the previous two lines and instead flows in one continuous thought.
The final line (above) is an exact repetition of both the melody and rhythm from the beginning. This works very well, recalling the reasons I gave at this point for the text: for symmetry, and for emphasizing the conclusion of the statement.
What is the conclusion of the hymn? That the Lord of bliss bore the dreadful curse, and Christ laid aside His crown for my soul. That is wondrous love indeed, and worthy of praise through eternity!
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.