My family and I sat down to watch Hymns and History, Volume 1 – First Century-The Reformation, a documentary on the history and people behind four well-loved hymns the day after it arrived in the mail! The film project was undertaken by a family as the first volume in a series of films highlighting various periods throughout history. This one quickly traverses 1500 years, beginning with an exploration of the old Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”, and the legacy of the courageous St. Patrick, who lit a fire atop the Hill of Slane in defiance of King Leoghaire’s decree. Based on a medieval poem attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, the viewer is next introduced to the story of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” In seven sections, the poem addresses various parts of Jesus’ body, describing His sacrifice on behalf of His people.
Moving forward to the 13th Century, we find the devoted St. Francis of Assisi expressing his love for all of God’s creation in the majestic words of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” St. Francis’ prolific writing, including over 60 hymns, continues to influence Christians hundreds of years later. And finally, the viewer joins Martin Luther, giant of the protestant Reformation, as he nails his 95 Theses onto the door of the Wittenberg church and pens the stately hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The words of the hymn, based on Psalm 46, ring true in the life and work of Luther as he evidently finds strength in God to stand alone often against the corruption of his day.
Each hymn is accompanied by original musical performances, panned images of historical documents and art, and background film clips reenacting the people and events that are discussed. The music is beautiful! Lovely original musical performances by Charlie Zahm, Amy Salter Rutherford, Ross Smithe, and others capture the depth and richness of each of the four hymns. The accompanying information is interesting and well-narrated, but honestly the visual imagery didn’t add much to the presentation. The reenacted clips, in particular, lacked purpose and seemed more to fill space than aid in the viewer’s understanding or appreciation of the material. That said, the project is a worthy one, and I’m sure that each subsequent volume will continue the tradition of well-researched historically-rich information and, undoubtedly, improved effective use of film to engage and educate students of history and music. As an aside, I know from my very limited experience working with my students to produce our Isaac Watts documentary several years ago that it is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging to embark on such a project, so I appreciate what the Smithe family and their crew have accomplished. In addition to watching this film for its educational value, I could see it also being a great resource for any teachers that are interested in working with their students to create a similar type of documentary as a studio project.
Here’s the great news: City on a Hill Ministries has offered to give away one copy of their DVD to a Music Matters Blog reader! Leave a comment below if you’d like to be entered to win so that you can view the film for yourself. The drawing will be held on Thursday, February 3, at 12:00 noon (CST) using a random number generator.