Composer Spotlight: Mason and Bradbury

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When you think of some of your favorite hymns, do you ever wonder what draws you to those hymns in particular? A few years ago, I was wondering this so I looked closely at each hymn for something that might tie them all together. I ended up making a spreadsheet, with columns for the text title, tune title, and composer. Sure, that seems unnecessary to some of you, but in the process I discovered an important fact. Many of the tunes I love were written by the same people. In fact, two names showed up repeatedly: Lowell Mason and William Bradbury.

That was probably the first time I started to really notice the writing credits in the hymnal (now it's one of the first things I look at). It made me realize how important certain people were in the development of our hymnody, and Western Christian music in general. Even though most people would not recognize these two names, we have all heard their songs. These two composers wrote songs that are so famous, and so otherwise unconnected, many will likely be surprised to realize just how many and exactly which songs they wrote. Similarly, I find this with Neil Diamond.

Mason and Bradbury were both Americans whose careers mostly spanned the decades preceding the Civil War. They started out playing organ and piano in churches, which blossomed into writing new tunes for their congregations to use. Of course, they also compiled collections of their works for publication as they gained popularity.  The prevailing trend in America in the first half of the 19th century was to reject the songs and styles used in Europe. Most churches didn't want "high-brow" music, which they saw as overly complicated and a poor representation of their people (this was the birth of the Sacred Harp style). Mason, in particular, found this idea preposterous, and worked to diminish the prevalence of this "unscientific" music. I suspect Bradbury shared some of Mason's feelings, though he was not outspoken on the topic. Some criticize them for this, but in any case, it led them to write some great melodies.

Looking through the list of songs by these two composers, a few things stand out: quality, breadth, and enduring appeal.

Consider just a few of each man's most famous tunes.

Mason: "Joy to the World"; "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"; "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"; "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"; "Praise the Lord, Sing Hallelujah".

Bradbury: "Jesus Loves Me"; "He Leadeth Me"; "Just as I Am, Without One Plea"; "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less"; "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us".

I suspect most of you are humming one of those songs right now. There are very few composers in the hymnal who can claim as many songs as good as those. Furthermore, those lists comprise a fairly wide variety of styles, especially Bradbury's. And while the composers didn't necessarily write or even select the texts for their songs, their compositions were paired with lyrics that cover many different aspects of faith and worship. I think that also speaks to a large breadth of style.

I really want to draw your attention to another interesting thing about these two composers' songs. In a recent post, Joyce Borger highlighted the modish practice of reviving old hymns, either by simply using guitars and drums, or by adding new refrains and bridges. I like this idea, mostly, and it can be a simple way to use songs that worshipers from all generations can enjoy. Some people wonder where to find good hymns for revitalization. The key is finding songs with rolling, singable melodies, especially ones that sound good with strong percussion. It seems Mason and Bradbury have already been discovered. Take a look (I'm not including any YouTube links, but you can easily find them):

  • "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" ("The Wonderful Cross") - Chris Tomlin
  • "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" - David Crowder
  • "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less" ("Cornerstone") - Hillsong

Additionally, in our own church we have led "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" with guitars and drums. It sounds great, and several people didn't even realize it was an old hymn. If you look through a more complete list of their songs, you'll find that Mason and Bradbury songs are still being sung and recorded with regularity, "Joy to the World" and "Jesus Loves Me" notwithstanding. These two composers have a lot of songs that show tremendous enduring appeal.

So if you want to get in on the revival of old hymns, try finding some of the ones that have already been done. Then find other songs by the original composers. They may have written other tunes that work great with modern praise styles. And, as Joyce pointed out, there might be someone in your congregation who can add a new bridge or refrain. Before you know it, your church will have a beloved song that got new life in their very midsts. Even if you don't love Mason and Bradbury as much as I do, try looking up who wrote your favorite hymns (or modern praise songs, for that matter). You might find other songs to add to your list of favorites.

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