Hymn Text Dilemma

I’ve recently been researching information about one of my favorite early American hymns, “Evening Hymn,” by Elisha West. It is a gorgeous example of a classic fuging tune, with the haunting period tonality that I just love.

I first heard the tune in this wonderful rendition by His Majestie’s Clerkes:

The Day is Past and Gone

You might notice the recording is titled “The Day is Past and Gone,” and not “Evening Hymn.” As with many hymn tunes, the tune is independent of the text, and you will find a lot of mixing and matching going on. Here, the recording is named after the text they chose to set it to.

Unfortunately, looking online for a score for “The Day is Past and Gone” by Elisha West turned up nothing (I didn’t know at the time that the tune was called “Evening Hymn”).

Even the trusty Choral Public Domain Library (CPDL) came up blank. Or so I thought. They did have a page for Elisha West, and just one score online for a tune called “Our Moments Fly Apace.” Curious, I took a gander and quickly realized that this was in fact the tune I was interested in, just with unexpected text.

The CPDL page for this tune indicated that it first appeared in West’s songbook The Musical Concert, released in 1802. Having just recently discovered that scans of many early American songbooks are available online, I did a search and found a version in the Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP).

And behold, the original (click to embiggen):


The first thing I noticed is that the original contains but a single verse, whereas the version I found on CPDL had three verses. The text seen above is taken from Isaac Watts‘ metrical setting of Psalm 90, verse three:

Our moments fly apace,
Nor will our minutes stay;
Just like a flood, our hasty days
Are sweeping us away.

The CPDL edition extends the original text by adding verses 4 and 5 as well:

Well, if our days must fly,
We’ll keep their end in sight,
We’ll spend them all in wisdom’s way,
And let them speed their flight.

They’ll waft us sooner o’er
This life’s tempestuous sea;
Soon we shall reach the peaceful shore
Of blest eternity.

So then I got curious about the origins of the text in the recorded version I had found online. A bit more digging on CPDL revealed a “Request” Page where someone had asked for “Evening Hymn.” They were, of course, pointed to the existing “Our Moments Fly Apace” setting, but with an interesting note attached:

the John Leland text ‘The day is past and gone’ was not published with the tune until its use in Jeremiah IngallsThe Christian Harmony (1805).

Aha! Sure enough, even The Christian Harmony is available on IMSLP. But when I looked up “Evening Hymn” this is what I found:


Hmmm, well, the text matches … somewhat. Verse 3 shown above is missing in the recording, and there are two more verses that aren’t present at all. But if you look closely, it’s not even the same tune! Oh well, so much for that lead.

However, there was at least a reference to the poet: John Leland, a Baptist minister who lived from 1751–1841. A little searching revealed the original text of the poem, which goes like this:

The day is past and gone,
The evening shades appear,
O may I ever keep in mind,
The night of death is near.

I lay my garments by,
Upon my bed to rest;
So death will soon remove me hence,
And leave my soul undrest.

Lord keep me safe this night,
Secure from all my fears;
May angels guard me while I sleep,
Till morning light appears.

And when I early rise,
To view the unwearied sun,
May I set out to win the prize,
And after glory run.

That when my days are past,
And I from time remove,
Lord I may in thy bosom rest,
The bosom of thy love.

The text in the recorded version is a pretty close match to this, with just a few exceptions:

  1. The biggest change is that the text is altered from singular to plural (I to we, my to our, etc.)
  2. The end of the first verse has a slight change to “O may we all remember well / The night of death draws near.”
  3. The end of the second verse is also changed, to “So death will soon disrobe us all / Of what we here possess.”
  4. Verse 3 is skipped altogether
  5. A few minor word substitutions in the last two verses.

Altering the text in this manner seems to be extremely common. Further research on one of my favorite sites, hymnary.org, reveals that it is both commonly used and commonly altered, with an awesome page that lets you examine all the differences between versions.

So, the dilemma: I’m programming this piece and need to pick which text to use. So many options!

I could just stick with what’s in the source and do verse 3 of Isaac Watts’ original text, but I like the hymn so much that doing just one verse would be kind of a bummer

I could stick with the Watts text and include verses 4 and 5 as well, like the CPDL setting does, but that feels a bit presumptuous.

I could follow the recording’s lead and do 4 verses of the John Leland’s text. But it’s weird they dropped the middle verse, and the proper Episcopalian in me hates skipping verses.

I could do all 5 verses of the Leland text, but 5 verses might be a bit too much of a good thing in spite of my previous statement.

Tough call, but I’m leaning toward the second option (Watts text, verses 3–5).

Update: Checking “Our Moments Fly Apace” on hymnary.org reveals an example published in 1848 (without music) called “Boyleston Hymn” that is just verses 3–5 of the Watts text, so there is precedent!

1 thought on “Hymn Text Dilemma”

  1. I think you can’t really lose, no matter what you pick.

    Good to have clarity on the following:
    1) Do I love it because it’s familiar?
    2) Does it need to be authentic in the sense that it’s original?
    3) At what point does an editor become an editorializer?
    4)… and is that “bad?”

    I’d suggest going ahead with Jeremiah Ingalls‘ The Christian Harmony (1805) version. Why not? After all, you get a layer of authenticity since tunes and text were not nearly as firmly wed together in Olde America. And that, in itself, is also authentic.

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