This Sunday’s psalm is the 19th, celebrating the wonders in God’s creation. Much of our music either enlarges upon this psalm or provides subtle ironic historical commentary.
Alexander Pope wrote: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.” In Hymn 409, Addison’s paraphrase of Ps. 19:1-6 basks in this glow of discovery from his great contemporary. It has the planets orbiting serenely in their courses as ordained by a possibly Deist Creator. Referring to the fading earlier belief in the “music of the spheres”, the third stanza shrugs off the loss of this image: So what if the planets don’t literally make music? Isn’t our learning how they actually move, which leads to a new admiration of the genius of Providence, just as sweet a melody?
For centuries scientists investigated nature in order to admire God’s handiwork, as Psalm 19 suggests. Arguably this motive is one reason why science as we know it arose in Christendom rather than elsewhere. John Calvin defended astronomers (in their immense labors) against their critics (in their complacent laziness). Newton himself was a learned theologian as well as physicist. Even an eventual Deist image of God, and the resulting clockwork image of creation (cf. the organ prelude) could still inspire them.
Today, however, we can see the naiveté of these words as we sing them. First Einstein and then chaos theory have shaken the confidence of the Deist era. The orbits of the planets and asteroids are not nearly so immutable and stable as Newton’s readers supposed. We remain alive only because the God who created the cosmos aeons ago still creates and sustains. A hymn more in keeping with modern scientific findings would be, “I need Thee every hour” (our Gospel hymn). Or in the words of the closing hymn (522), the Rock of Ages alone promises us a “sure repose.”
There is a nice symmetry in turning to Papa Haydn for the tunes of both the opening and closing hymns as well as the prelude. Musical clocks (Floetenuhr) played small organs under the direction of rotating drums studded with cogs, somewhat like music boxes. Various great composers wrote music for these instruments. (One of Mozart’s contributions is almost Lisztian in its length and drama). “Creation”, for hymn 409, is taken from his oratorio of the same name. Haydn wrote that he knelt in prayer daily while composing this masterwork. He composed “Austria” on commission, towards a new national anthem for Austria. He later used it in his “Emperor” string quartet, and it was the last melody he played on the piano just before he died. As with Handel earlier and Mendelssohn later, Haydn loved and was loved by the English. Even though he had missed conducting his first concert in Oxford, only a few months later Oxonians forgave him and awarded him a doctorate in the same hall.