Behind the Song
Isaac Watts (1647-1748) is known as the “Father of English Hymnody” for very good reason. If he wasn’t the very first to ever write a hymn in English, he was the one who showed the rest of us how it was done. A precocious youngster with an inborn knack for rhyme, one day he complained to his father (a deacon in his Nonconformist church) about the low quality of poetry in the metric psalms they sang. In young Isaac’s defense, the stanza that set off his gripe was something like—
Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your maker’s praises spout,
Up from the sands ye codlings peep
And wag your tails about.
—which is ghastly and I promise I won’t ever complain about modern worship choruses again for the next two hours. To the elder Watts’s everlasting credit, his response was a challenge: maybe before Isaac complained about poems being bad, he ought to try writing a better one.
The rest is history, or perhaps hymnology. If you know any hymns at all, odds are very good that at least one of them is by Isaac Watts. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” “Joy to the World.” “Jesus Shall Reign.” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” In all, he wrote well over 700 original hymn texts, including paraphrases of nearly all the psalms, and, in a significant departure for church music of that time, hymns that were based on doctrine and devotion as much as on Scripture. (Yes, this caused Worship Wars. “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy,” railed one critic. Some things never change.)
To write a good hymn in English, you have to find a way to combine exalted and lofty thoughts with down-to-earth and accessible language. Watts found it, and pretty much every hymnwriter after him has imitated his example. His hymns are vigorous yet nuanced, simple yet elegant. This particular hymn, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?”, is a splendid example of his devotional writing.
Though not a direct paraphrase of Scripture, the text reflects on the passion and death of Christ, making it painfully personal: “Was it for crimes that I have done / He hung upon the tree?” (Yes, it was.) While fully embracing the emotional impact of Christ’s death in our place, Watts refuses to succumb to maudlin sentimentality: “But drops of grief can ne’er repay / the debt of love I owe.” Instead, the appropriate response is for me to “give myself away,” living in sacrificial love as Jesus did.
Musically, the melody in my arrangement is taken from a haunting early American Sacred Harp tune called “Consolation” (a.k.a. “Morning Song”). Early American hymnody adored Watts, though as far as I know my arrangement is the first to put this tune and text together, where they clearly belong. The lead vocal is sung with great sensitivity by Carrie Pazdziora, whose music you should explore here on her website. This also marks the first appearance on the album of my Norwegian friend, concert violinist Øystein Torp. If you’re half as impressed with his playing as I am, you’ll be blown away.
Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed?
Lyrics: Isaac Watts (Public Domain) Tune: American Folk Hymn “Morning Song” (Public Domain)
Arrangement Copyright © 1998 Eric M. Pazdziora
Alas! And did my savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For sinners such as I?
Was it for crimes that I have done
He hung upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree.
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glory in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
When His dear cross appears:
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe.
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.
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If you would like this song in another arrangement, feel free to contact the composer. I’m always open to new commissions, projects, and ideas.
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Music Copyright © 2010 Eric M. Pazdziora. All Rights Reserved.