Pilgrims' Hymn is one of Stephen Paulus's most performed and beloved works. It is from one of Stephen's operas, The Three Hermits.
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Duration: 150 Seconds
Commissioned by: House of Hope Presbyterian Church
Dedication: To Molly MacMillan
Premiered by: House of Hope Presbyterian Church
Publisher: Paulus Publications
In April, 1997 I had a one-act opera called The Three Hermits (based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy) premiered at The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN. That organization also commissioned the work which was written for a small cast, an orchestra of 11 players and the church's Motet Choir. Thomas Lancaster was the conductor and the one hour work received four sold-out performances. My friend and colleague, Kathy Romey, conductor of the Minnesota Chorale and also the Head of Choral Activities at the University of Minnesota, saw one of the premiere performances and encouraged me to have the final chorus in the opera published as a separate work. I thanked her for her interest and put off the task. I really like to move on to the next commission and not dwell over any past work. She persisted and eventually I sort of grudgingly adapted and extracted a short choral work from the opera consisting of just the final chorus. I printed up a 1000 copies at a local print shop and decided that this would be the first work to be published by my own company - Paulus Publications, Inc. I did it as a favor to Kathy and never expected it to garner any great results. The first 1000 copies sold out quickly and we eventually started printing up 3000 copies and then 10,000 copies at a time. To date the work has sold over 160,000 copies and is the lead seller in our choral catalogue. It has also been sung at the funeral services of both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It pays to listen to your conductor friends!
Stephen called me over one afternoon in January 1997 to hear his setting of the words from Russian Orthodox liturgy, an evening hymn, that conclude the second scene of The Three Hermits, the church opera, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, which was scheduled for its first performance in April at House of Hope Church in St. Paul. The words begin with: “Now that the day has come to a close / we ask Thee, O God.” (Words from the Orthodox liturgy are woven throughout the work.)
The music was haunting, memorable. We had been needing a hymn to conclude the work, at the end of scene three, and I intended to write it making use of the words from scripture (Matthew 6, verses 7 and 8) that Tolstoy had selected as an epigraph to his re-telling of the old folk-tale: “And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
I asked Stephen if he would consider using the same melody at the end of scene three, for which I would write new words. He was uncertain, since it is not customary to repeat a theme in this way, but he ended up playing the melody for me while I recorded it, and so for a week or two after that I went on my walks humming the music to myself and gradually coming up with the words for “Pilgrims’ Hymn” (Stephen’s title, by the way). It was an extraordinary privilege, and challenge, to come up with words that matched, in some measure, Stephen’s very beautiful music. The resulting piece has changed both our lives.
After the premier, Kathy Salzman Romey suggested to Stephen that he might make a separate anthem out of “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” and so he did, doubling up the voices and changing the key (from D flat to F major), and the response in terms of sales was so strong that Stephen founded Paulus Publications and began to publish more and more of his own music. It is a deep joy to both of us that this piece has entered the choral repertory, and that it brings peace and comfort to so many.
--Michael Dennis Browne
Pilgrims' Hymn has been performed by thousands of choirs all over the world, but on the morning Stephen Paulus passed away it was being sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Here is that performance:
Pilgrims' Hymn Lyrics (Lyrics by Michael Dennis Browne)
Even before we call on Thy name
To ask Thee, O Lord,
When we seek for the words to glorify Thee,
Thou hearest our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.
Glory to the Father,
and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.
Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Thy name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in Thee;
Endless Thy grace, O endless Thy grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.
Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,