When I survey the wondrous cross
Text: Origins. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” has been called “not only the best of all Watts’ hymns” but also “among the greatest hymns in the [English] language.” It first appeared as the seventh of twenty-two texts in part three of Isaac Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707 | Fig. 1). In the preface to the book, Watts indicated he had “prepar’d the Third Part only for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, that in imitation of our Blessed Saviour we might sing an Hymn after we have partaken of the Bread and Wine.” While he said “almost an hundred Hymns” in other parts of the book were also suitable for singing at the Supper, Watts believed the ones in this section used expressions that “confine ’em only to the Table of the Lord, and therefore I have distinguish’d and set ’em by themselves” (p. xii). Most of the hymns in part three do indeed mention specific elements of the Supper, but “When I survey the wondrous cross” does not. Thus the text has been used frequently both at communion celebrations and as a general hymn on the Passion.
Watts titled the hymn “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ” and provided a reference to Galatians 6:14, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (KJV). The biblical basis is expressed most clearly in the second and fourth of the original five stanzas.
In the second edition (Fig. 2), Watts made two important changes to the text. The first was to alter the second line in stanza one from “Where the young Prince of Glory dy’d” to “On which the Prince of Glory dy’d.” The second change was the placing of brackets around the fourth stanza, indicating it “may be left out in Singing without disturbing the Sense.” Such suggested omissions were designed either to preserve time or to avoid “Words too Poetical for meaner Understandings, or too particular for whole Congregations to sing” (preface to the second edition, p. xiv). Most subsequent hymnals have followed Watts’ option to omit the fourth stanza, though, as noted above, it contains a clear reflection of the scriptural background for the text and is also important in the symmetry of the hymn.
Text: Analysis. One of the most remarkable structural features of the text is its use of chiasmus (the crossing of words or ideas) in the third stanza, where “Sorrow and Love” is reversed to become “Love and Sorrow.” The Greek letter chi (X), which gives this rhetorical figure its name, has often been used as a symbol of the cross; it is also the first letter in the word “Christ.” Since this chiasmus occurs in the exact center of the hymn (the middle lines in the third of five stanzas), it appears Watts has placed a symbol of both the cross and the Man who was crucified on that cross at the very heart of the hymn. Chiasmus also appears in the last two lines of the original fourth stanza: “Then am I dead to all the Globe, / And all the Globe is dead to me.”
Other poetic devices also appear in the text, including paradox (“My richest Gain I count but Loss / And pour Contempt on all my Pride”), hypotyposis (using vivid imagery to bring a scene to mind; stanza three and the opening lines of the original stanza four), and climax (“Demands my Soul, my Life, my All”). The phrase “Prince of Glory” does not appear in the Bible but seems to combine ideas from Isaiah 9:6 (“Prince of Peace”) and Psalm 24:7 (“King of glory”).
In what Albert Bailey has called a “combination of imagery, insight, and passion,” Watts captured the essence of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the appropriate Christian response to that sacrifice. It is a vivid reminder of the debt owed to the “Prince of Glory” whose love demands our “All.” Erik Routley has written:
Yet it surely must be agreed that this is the most penetrating of all hymns, the most demanding, the most imaginative. It these things precisely because its style is so simple. It is drawn throughout in strong, clear, simple lines and colours.
In the United States, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is commonly sung to HAMBURG, an adaptation by Lowell Mason of an older tune. Mason’s arrangement first appeared in the third edition of The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (1825 | Fig. 3), where it was set to an alteration of the first stanza of Watts’ “Sing to the Lord with joyful voice” (Psalm 100), with the melody in the tenor part, and given a metronome marking of quarter note = 72.
In this 1825 collection, Mason credited the tune to a Gregorian Chant, “Benedictus,” in Vincent Novello’s The Evening Service (London: J.A. Novello, 1822 | Fig. 4, image pending). Novello’s chant is based on the first Gregorian psalm tone traditionally in use in the Roman church. His setting was arranged in six parts and called “Gregorian Chant for the Benedictus at Tenebrae.” This was preceded by another chant, “After the Lamentations at Tenebrae.” Mason must have consulted both of these chants, since the beginning of HAMBURG is identical to the Lamentations, while the rest follows the Benedictus.
The rhythm and pitches of Mason’s tune HAMBURG tune in 1825 were considerably different from the form of the tune as it is usually sung today. Mason continued to tinker with the piece in subsequent collections, and in The Boston Academy’s Collection of Church Music, 3rd ed. (1835 | Fig. 5) it appeared more or less in its current form. In that collection, it was set to “Kingdoms and thrones to God belong,” which is an excerpt from Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 68, “Let God arise in all his might.”
The first linkage of the tune with “When I survey the wondrous cross” apparently did not occur until The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book (1859), compiled by Lowell Mason, Edwards A. Park, and Austin Phelps; even there, it was only one of several texts given for the tune. The catalysts for the firm association between HAMBURG and “When I survey the wondrous cross” were apparently Ira Sankey’s Gospel Hymns No. 4 (1881) (along with the comprehensive edition of Gospel Hymns Nos. 1 to 6, 1894), and The Hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1895), edited by Louis F. Benson.
Church music scholar Paul Westermeyer has noted how the tune is both loved and hated, pointing at once to Carol Pemberton, a devoted scholar of Lowell Mason’s work, who said HAMBURG is “an impressive, durable piece of music,” whereas esteemed hymnologist Erik Routley bemoaned, “as a hymn tune it has no merit whatever and claims none: the attempt to square up Gregorian chant into a regular 4/2 rhythm and to harmonize it with straight chords was fatal to the enterprise.” Westermeyer believes the truth falls somewhere in the middle, “dull to the analyst, but often appreciated by congregations.”
In Great Britain and Canada—as well as some United States hymnals—“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is printed with ROCKINGHAM, an anonymous melody which first appeared under the name TUNBRIDGE in Musica Sacra: Being a choice collection of psalm and hymn tunes, and chants, in three parts, with a figured bass, as they are used in the Right Hon. the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapels, in Bath, Bristol, &c. (ca. 1774-1778 | Fig. 6). Neither the exact date of the book nor the editor’s name is known. The title page claims “Many of the Tunes were never before printed,” and this piece was probably among them.
TUNBRIDGE also appeared in a second supplement to Aaron Williams’ Psalmody in Miniature (3rd ed., 1783). A copy of this collection once in the possession of Methodist church music scholar James T. Lightwood was believed to have been owned by Edward Miller (1735–1807) and annotated in Miller’s hand. TUNBRIDGE was marked “Would make good long M.”
In 1790, Edward Miller published the tune in The Psalms of David for the Use of Parish Churches, giving it the name ROCKINGHAM and revising it into the form in which it is generally sung today. Perhaps reflecting knowledge of the printing in Psalmody in Miniature, as noted above, Miller annotated each appearance of ROCKINGHAM with “Part of the melody taken from a hymn tune.” The piece appeared seven times in Miller’s volume with a variety of texts, with an eighth instance appearing in an appendix (Fig. 7). It was printed with melody and bass lines but included cue sized notes and bass figures to facilitate keyboard accompaniment.
Fig. 7. Edward Miller, The Psalms of David for the Use of Parish Churches (London: W. Miller, 1790).
Melodically, Miller’s version starts on 1 rather than 3, then rises only to 6 rather than the original flat-7, which to some ears might feel like a loss (one early 20th century observer called the rise to flat-7 “particularly beautiful”). Miller’s third phrase starts by borrowing from the original tenor but ends with notes from the upper harmony part. The fourth phrase ends with a slightly different cadence. Each of the texts is an excerpt from the New Version of the Psalms of David (1696/8) by Tate & Brady. The version of the tune in the appendix is in three-part harmony, melody on top.
ROCKINGHAM was first linked with Watts’ text in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). This tune is said to have been named after Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730–1782), a former British Prime Minister and 2nd Marquis of Rockingham. The melody is quite favorably regarded by church music scholars. Nicholas Temperley, whose knowledge of English tunes is unrivalled, wrote, “This fine warm tune is one of the best of its period.” Hymnologist Carl P. Daw has asserted, “The chief virtue of this tune … is that it reinforces the iambic scansion of the text. … Our cultural associations with triple-meter tunes also dispose us to perceive them as more reflective than duple-meter tunes, so that this tune strengthens a singer’s sense of participating in the author’s meditation on the image of the crucified Christ.”
3. EUCHARIST (OLIVET)
Another tune frequently associated with “When I survey the wondrous cross”—mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is EUCHARIST by Isaac B. Woodbury (1819–1858). The first known printing of the tune was in Woodbury’s The Dulcimer, or the New York Collection of Sacred Music (1850 | Fig. 8), where it was undoubtedly one of the “more than Four Hundred tunes and set pieces that are entirely new, or never before published in any church music book in this country” (preface). The tune was titled OLIVET, attributed to “W**,” linked with William B. Collyer’s text “Soft be the gently-breathing notes,” and indicated to be sung “With great gentleness and delicacy.” Four years later, OLIVET was “Inserted by request” into Woodbury’s The Cythara (1854), set to “When I survey the wondrous cross.”
Woodbury’s tune is distinctive in the way it begins and ends on the third degree of the scale. The name EUCHARIST was applied to the tune by at least 1881 (see the Canadian Methodist Tune Book: A Collection of Tunes Adapted to the Methodist Hymn Book), probably because of the association with Watts’ text and to avoid confusion with Lowell Mason’s OLIVET. EUCHARIST became the common name, though OLIVET was still used occasionally when the tune was not associated with Watts’ text.
by DAVID W. MUSIC
for Hymnology Archive
13 September 2019
Louis F. Benson, Studies of Familiar Hymns, New ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1917), p. 131.
Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 50.
Erik Routley, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Hymns and the Faith (London: John Murray, 1955), p. 112.
Carol A. Pemberton, Lowell Mason: His Life and Work (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), p. 192; cited in Paul Westermeyer, Let the People Sing (2005), p. 299.
Erik Routley, The Music of Christian Hymns (Chicago: GIA, 1981), 122B-123A.
Paul Westermeyer, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2010), p. 676.
“Church and Organ Music,” The Musical Times, vol. 50, no. 795 (1 May 1909), p. 314: PDF
“Church and Organ Music,” The Musical Times, vol. 50, no. 795 (1 May 1909), p. 314: PDF
Nicholas Temperley, “ROCKINGHAM,” Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3B (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), p. 892.
Carl P. Daw Jr., “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 227-228.
John Julian, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London: J. Murray, 1892), pp. 1269-1270.
“Church and Organ Music: The Tune Rockingham,” The Musical Times, vol. 42, no. 705 (1 Nov. 1901), pp. 736, 745-746: PDF
“Church and Organ Music,” The Musical Times, vol. 50, no. 795 (1 May 1909), pp. 313-316: PDF
Louis F. Benson, Studies of Familiar Hymns (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1903), pp. 127-136.
Albert Edward Bailey, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” The Gospel in Hymns (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), pp. 49-50.
Erik Routley, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Hymns and the Faith (London: John Murray, 1955), pp. 111-117.
Frank Colquhoun, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Hymns that Live (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), pp. 76-82.
Carlton R. Young, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 691-693.
Nicholas Temperley, “ROCKINGHAM,” Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3B (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), pp. 892-894.
J.R. Watson, “When I survey,” The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study (Oxford: University Press, 1997), pp. 160-170.
J.R. Watson, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: University Press, 2002), pp. 135-137.
Paul Westermeyer, “HAMBURG,” “ROCKINGHAM,” Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA, 2005), pp. 196-197, 299.
Paul Westermeyer, “ROCKINGHAM OLD,” “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2010), pp. 113-114, 675-676.
David W. Music, “‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’: A Commentary.” The Hymn, vol. 65, no. 2 (Spring 2014), pp. 7-13: HathiTrust
Carl P. Daw Jr., “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 225-228.
David W. Music, “The Origins of Lowell Mason’s Tune HAMBURG.” The Hymn, vol. 68, no. 1 (Winter 2017), pp. 24-30.
“When I survey the wondrous cross,” Hymnary.org:
Alan Gaunt, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
The Hymn Tune Index:
Robert Cottrill, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” WordWise Hymns:
Rachel Tillay, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” History of Hymns, United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries: