Humming St. Christopher

The other day I woke up with a song in my head I hadn’t heard in a long time, the hymn Beneath the Cross of Jesus. The name of the tune is St. Christopher.

When I thought about the tune, I realized it has some fairly sophisticated harmony. My memory of the hymns I grew up with was that they were harmonically simple, mostly built around three chords: I, IV, V. But this hymn has a lot going on.

I imagine a lot of things that I remember as being simple weren’t. I was simple, and my world was richer than I realized.


You can find the sheet music for the hymn here. I’ll write out the chord progressions for the first two lines.

    I     idim | I            | V7   ii7 V7  | I   III | 
    vi   iidim | vi VI7 ii vi | II   VIII7♭5 | III     |

If you’re not familiar with music theory, just appreciate that there are a lot more symbols up there than I, IV, and V.

The second line effectively modulates into a new key, the relative minor of the original key, and I’m not sure how to describe what’s going on at the end of the second line.

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2 thoughts on “Humming St. Christopher

  1. Harmony is what you get when you put music through a slicer. Instead, rotate 90 degrees and look at the four voices. At the end of the second system that is what is called a “German [augmented] sixth”; but what you really need to hear is that stepwise approach in contrary motion to the E in the outer voices that is the dominant of a tonicization of A minor.

    Similarly, in the first full bar there is only one harmony, C major, root position. The rest is stepwise ornament that do not deserve to be thought of as “chords”. What we are dealing with is four-voice counterpoint with very little rhythmic independence; that is what creates the illusion of “chords”.

    What makes this one “better” and why you remembered it where you have forgotten a hundred others, is the balance between the greater interest in the counterpoint and the lesser interest in the rhythm. Many hymn settings have little interest in either.

    My standing as a composer to say these things may be found here: .

  2. ‘Harmony is what you get when you put music through a slicer. ‘

    That’s a really great way to put that! As an amateur composer with an interest in theory but very little formal training, I think a lot about the relationships between scale, harmony, and counterpoint, and that way of putting it really speaks to me.

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