Down Memory Lane | History & Culture

Songs of dusk: The stories behind hymns like “Abide with me”

Representational image of a Pipe Organ.

Representational image of a Pipe Organ.

With “Abide with me” being restored for the Beating the Retreat ceremony at Rajpath, it’s worth noting that the hymn is not confined to religious belief, but is universal in its humanistic appeal. Mercifully, it abides, to enthrall the hearts of those who wait a year to witness its public performance to military rhythm, as perhaps nowhere else in the world, much to the glory of India’s secular credentials.

“Abide With Me” was composed by an ailing Rev. Henry F. Lyte (1793-1847) while on a voyage from England to Italy for recuperation. He died soon after. The words, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide... Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away…”, harks back to a gloomy evening. Darkness probably hovered all around and the sick person, who wondered if his end was near, with the lingering hope that God’s mercy would abide with him.

Old friends

Most of these hymns one remembers were sung to music by T. L. D’Cruz in the Mayapuri parish of West Delhi and the choir in the Sacred Heart Cathedral. So when you suddenly awake from slumber because of a power cut and hear the nightjar, remember that like the hymns, it’s Nature's way of comforting and strengthening us for the travails of the coming day. For that matter didn’t Josh Malihabadi make the Urdu Manzil in the Jama Masjid echo to his matutinal verses long before the sun rose above the ramparts of the Red Fort in a bijli-pani hassle-free Delhi?

The best songs have been sung at night, whether by the bulbul, nightingale, courtesan, poet, lover, mendicant, the terminally ill or the watchman, depressed or elated. There’s nothing surprising about this because night is the time when one can reflect in the eloquent silence of darkness.

The hymnal, We Celebrate , reprinted by the Delhi Archdiocese at Chuna Mandi, Paharganj, in 1998 contains many hymns which may be regarded as God-given songs in the night. This hymnal is an extension of the one originally published by the Agra Archdiocese of which Delhi was once a part.

It was in 1859 that Monsignor Persico brought one of the first pipe organs in the Indian subcontinent for the Agra Cathedral from Belgium. It remained in service until 1883, when a new organ, costing ₹10,000 (a big amount then) replaced it in the rear balcony of the Cathedral nave.

In later years, this organ became little short of a museum piece — there was hardly anybody to play it after Mother Mary St. Berdnadine, the organist for 50 years, died in 1937. It is said that she played the organ so loudly that the Cathedral walls shuddered with the vibrant notes.

Trying times

Now, 83 years after the death of Mother Bernadine of the Society of Jesus & Mary, one has come across a collection of hymns by Col Henry Garispy of the US Branch of the Salvation Army, aptly entitled Songs in the Night . The Colonel has also given the history behind the hymns which are sung not only in India, but all over the world. Many of these hymns originated during the American Civil War in the mid 19th century.

There were many poignant occasions when now-famous songs were composed. “Silent night, holy night …” the Christmas hymn, was written during a crisis in the small church of St. Nicholos in a little Austrian town in 1813. “What a friend we have in Jesus” was written by Joseph Scriven (1819-86), an Irishman, to comfort his ill mother. “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home…” was composed by Thomas Dorsey after his wife died in childbirth and soon after his infant son too, in Chicago. “Lead kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom” came to Cardinal Newman in the 19th century, while his ship was becalmed in the Mediterranean and he became sick and doubted whether he would reach his home shore safely.

For Mahtama Gandhi “Abide with me” was a prayer for courage and strength during the frustrating years of the freedom struggle. Thankfully, it will continue to be a part of the parade at Rajpath.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 5:05:41 pm |