Heard in 2012 (9): Page CXVI’s ‘Be Thou My Vision’

Page CXVI have done us all a great service by reviving the great hymnal tradition of reformed Christianity. Modern congregational music tends to lack the depth of the words of the classic hymns (perhaps because so many of them were written by pastors and theologians). In addition, they tend to sound like whatever is most popular on the radio at any given time—which is fine, but often just comes across as lazy and disengaged. Admittedly this is a mammoth generalization and there are notable exceptions to this critique, some of which come from my native Sydney.

What Page CXVI have consistently succeeded in doing is to breathe new life into old songs. ‘Be Thou My Vision’ exemplifies this well, capturing the soaring grandeur of the hymn. It packs the same depth and joy and ecstatic quality of the hymn sung as by a cathedral choir and a chamber orchestra, but transposed into modern musical motifs. The syncopated melody of the first verse stops us from letting the song wash over us, as familiar tunes often do, and instead forces us to engage and lifts us up into the song’s movement and message. Then it bursts to life in a manner reminiscent of the shift from black-and-white to Technicolour in The Wizard of Oz. The bass line carries us toward the ‘goal,’ and the masterful trumpet part and the wordless, mantra-like backing vocals evoke ineffable quality of the theological ideas being expressed.

When Alison and I were married earlier this year we asked our brilliant musicians and choir to lead the congregation in singing Page CXVI’s version of the song. It provoked spontaneous applause (and, I’ll admit, a few tears on my part). It has become one of my favourite pieces of recorded music.

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