Inspired by J.S. Bach and his prolific contribution to church music, Carla Klassen’s These Songs We Sing is a lovely collection of 52 short meditations and reflections on favourite hymns.
The book emerged from Klassen’s music blog, The Hymn Project, for which she created and recorded piano arrangements for these beloved hymns, one every week for a year. Her new book develops some of the accompanying reflections included in the original blog posts, and provides a wonderful companion to the recordings, which are still available online at thehymnproject.net.
Klassen reflects on a diverse range of hymns, and the spiritual insights and comforts they offer. They range from classics like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” children’s songs such as “Jesus Loves Me,” and African American Spirituals (“Were You There?”), to Advent and Christmas hymns, and the Mennonite standard, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” Her openness to the beauty and challenges of both music and text in such a wide selection of beloved hymns is one of the book’s strengths.
A lifelong singer, piano teacher and church musician who was raised on hymn singing, Klassen could simply have chosen 52 of her own favourites for her blog and book. Instead, she collected suggestions of cherished hymns from family and friends.
These Songs We Sing laces together Klassen’s own memories and relationship to some of the hymns with the personal stories and recollections of others in her circle. For example, we learn that the arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy” was suggested by a friend who, as a child, requested it repeatedly in post-service hymn singing, a wish happily indulged by his congregation. In her reflection on this story, Klassen writes, “It’s interesting to me how powerful our communities can be; how much they can carry us through our lives; how much they shape the way we interact with the world.”
As her collection demonstrates, hymn singing is for many an integral link between individuals and their faith communities, the wider world and the divine.
Most of the entries in These Songs We Sing centre on a theme suggested by each hymn, such as peace, beauty, hope, faith or grace. The collection loosely follows the church year, and occasionally refers to contemporary events that might have influenced Klassen when she chose a particular hymn to arrange from her list of requests.
One of my favourite parts of the book were the notes Klassen shared about the history of many hymns, and their contexts and legacies. For example, we learn that the text of “Jesus Loves Me” comes from an 1860 poem meant to comfort a dying child; that Charles Wesley wrote something in the neighbourhood of 6,500 hymns in his lifetime; and that the tune of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” has become the unofficial anthem of Welsh Rugby and was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral.
It is fascinating to consider the kinds of experiences—many of them tragic—that inspired so many familiar hymns, whether we are aware or not. The ability of tune and verse to travel across centuries and between hearts, is amazing: God’s Spirit at work.
Klassen’s book is a treasure trove of lively writing, wise insight, personal stories, and loving celebration of the power of sacred music and singing together. No one will be able to read this without silently humming the tunes of the hymns. Best of all, you can read a chapter, then search Klassen’s piano arrangement on her blog and listen to her beautiful music. I would suggest this book, read together with the recordings, as a weekly devotional to inspire and comfort you throughout the year.
Jan Schroeder is a member of Ottawa Mennonite Church and a professor of English at Carleton University in Ottawa.