David & Barbara Leeman: Hosanna in Excelsis (Part 1)

John FarrellBy John Farrell13 Minutes

John Farrell: Tell me a little bit about your book Hosanna in Excelsis.

David Leeman: It’s a collection of all the most familiar and loved Christmas hymns and carols, plus probably at least a dozen, maybe 15 or so, that we think are equally great, but for whatever reason are not as familiar because they’re fairly new or because they’re more tied to certain denominations.

Our goal was to return to the Canon of music that Christians sing at Christmas, the great lasting hymns of Christendom.

We narrowed it to 43 because we wanted it to be a daily devotional beginning at the earliest period of the church here called “Advent” and all the way through the end of Epiphany, which is January 6th. Each year the Advent season varies in length because it starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. That can change, but the longest period that ever occurs is 43 days. So, that’s how many hymns there are in the book.

JF: What is the overall message you want readers to take from the book?

David: I think that the message is that within these hymns and carols is not only the story of Christmas, that obviously is pretty familiar to certainly at least to Christians, but also the depth of the wonder and even the doctrine of the incarnation and what that means to us. To understand that you need to study the lyrics a little bit, to know the background of the story.

When you see the story, for instance a song as familiar as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” when you stop and read it carefully, you’re amazed at the theology that’s in it. Normally, we just gloss over that when we sing it.

We feel there’s a lot that can be learned even on just the one page we have for each carol that describes the history of the author and the composer, and then gives a devotional that says here’s what you should think about as you sing this hymn.

Barbara Leeman: Our object was to give families and individuals a tool to go through Advent, Christmas, and into Epiphany and bring these carols and the truths of them and the truth of the Christmas story. To give them a tool to use with their families to educate themselves in some of them, to learn carols they don’t know, to sing the ones that they do know with their families. In that way, just really enrich the entire season individually and for families. And I think that we’ve accomplished that.

When you get back to the carols and the music of our Christian tradition in which some of it goes back 1,500 years and you’re reading autobiographies of Christians that have gone before us and how in their poetry they’re telling us how they celebrated Christmas, the theology of Christmas to them, and what it meant to them. They give us words to express those things that we really wouldn’t be able to come up with ourselves. This is some of the greatest sacred poetry of our Christian tradition and we want to give that to people and make it accessible to them.

David: And by accessible, part of that is that they’re not long essays. There aren’t a lot of books about hymns or about carols, but often there are pages for each carol, each hymn, and it’s way beyond a devotional length.

We think it can be condensed so that you get the heart of the story without having to have a huge amount of detail. It’s not just the biography that’s important, but a little bit of a devotional study of what they were trying to say when they wrote this poem.

Barbara: We feel that we’re the minor authors of this book. It’s a book that’s been written by around 45 other great writers. That’s the gem of the book, their poetry and what they’ve written. And then the music that’s been put to it. Sometimes music that was joined to that text hundreds of years later, maybe in a different country, but somehow these have come down to us joined together as they are and have created, again, some of the most beautiful music and poetry of our Christian heritage.

David: Our book also has the melody and lyrics for all the verses on the right-hand side of the page with the writing about it on the left-hand side of the page. It also has chord symbols if you play guitar or can play the chords on the piano. If you want the full piano part, we have a separate book.

This book that we’re talking about is published by Moody Publishers. It’s a beautiful hardback edition with a gold ribbon inside to keep your place if you’re doing it daily as a devotional. Our accompaniment book that I’ve arranged all the pieces for is sold separately. We’ve self published that and it’s spiral-bound so that a pianist can lay it flat on their piano.

We also have a recording of all 43 songs that you can have in two different ways. One is with voices singing it — like a family, a male and female and three children. They’re singing all 43 songs. Right after that, the pianist plays the carol so you can sing along with a piano. You don’t have to be a pianist and you don’t have to sing it a capella. Those two things that come in the book and the recording are available on our personal website, which is HosannaHymnals.com.

JF: Each hymn is divided into three different sections: Text”, “Tune”, and “As You Sing This Hymn.” How do these three sections differentiate from each other? And where did you get the idea for the book’s unique format?

Barbara: Actually, it goes back to a former book that we wrote. I was a music teacher in a Christian school for 23 years in Dallas and we had a hymnal that we wanted to replace. This was probably 13 or 14 years ago. When we started, we decided if we’re going to do a hymnal for students in this school let’s give them some background information for each hymn.

I know that if I know the background of something, I’m a lot more interested in it and I can relate to it a lot better. So, we just simply came up with what they needed to know. The text is the poem. It’s the words that were written. The tune is the melody. And then, as I said before, they often are written by different people in different countries and they come together in other ways.

If you’re going to write about one of these carols, you have to tell about both the people who wrote it. Someone wrote the words and someone else wrote the music. So, we wanted to tell them that.

Then again, because we were writing for children at the time, we wanted to give them something to think about or look for as they considered the words and as they learned them. In that particular hymnal, it would have been defining some of the theological words. This hymnal, Hosanna in Excelsis, is directed more toward adults. So, it’s not as quite didactic. It’s more inspirational about the text or about the composer.

That’s where the three sections come from. It’s just basically a background for music appreciation, if you will. It’s background information to help you understand and appreciate more, maybe even help you learn the unfamiliar names or learn about the songs you’ve been singing all your life or maybe the phrases that you’ve sung over and over, but didn’t really understand what they meant.

David: I think one of the interesting questions that’s kind of curious is what causes certain hymns to last the test of time? If they were written in 500 AD, why are we still singing them? Or if they were written in the 1800s, what’s caused it to still be a part of what you’re going to sing this Christmas at church. That’s no small accident, but there’s a quality there that causes people to love it.

Most people don’t realize, for instance, that “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, the great Methodist evangelist, and the tune was written by the esteemed composer, Felix Mendelssohn. The tune itself is a masterpiece and that’s why even in the secular media, if you’re watching movies, a lot of times you’ll hear these tunes, these carols, and you have to think “do these people know what this music that they’re listening to and singing is really about?” The answer is probably not.

Barbara: Also, in answer to your question about how it came about, we had to keep our first hymnal to around a hundred hymns that can cover everything, which meant that the Christmas portion of the hymnal was only 21. We had to leave out so many of the great carols and choose just the ones that went into the book.

And so out of that, we decided to do a separate book and call it Hosanna in Excelsis. The first hymnal is called Hosanna, Loud Hosannas – children singing praises. Hosanna in Excelsis just kept with our Hosanna theme, but basically praise.

We had the joyful task then of being able to include not only all the well-known carols, but then Dave did some research. He has a broader knowledge of hymns than I do. But he had the fun task of going in and picking out some of the more unusual carols that people don’t know, but had the same greatness like “O Rejoice, Ye Christians, Loudly” that we have in there. And some that I had never heard before.

Order your copy of Hosanna in Excelsis: Hymns and Devotions for the Christmas Season by David and Barbara Leeman