Rock Of Ages - Hymn Devotional

Posted by Martin Cooper on 8 January 2015

It turned out that never having heard the original melody is an advantage when you want to write an updated version of a classic hymn. At least, it was for me when I sat down to do a number on Rock Of Ages.

I was free to take the pictures painted from the wonderful metaphors in Augustus Toplady’s lyrics and shape them into a new melody that I felt reflected the themes in the words. In fact, the lyrics and music of this new version of the song directly influenced the direction of the artwork that turned out to be my Rock Of Ages album. 

I found that there are some wonderful lines and couplets in this song: 

“Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Saviour or I die”

The intense understanding that without a Saviour there’s no hope of life cuts to the chase. There’s no sugar coating it, and the way that the alliteration of “foul, fountain and fly” adds to the drama of the narrative is poetry set to music. 

Then there are these lines: 

“While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyes shall close in death

When I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne”

Together they paint one of my favourite pictures of any scene from any song. The way that death is immediately followed by a sense of soaring to worlds unknown is a beautiful way of saying that death really is just the doorway to other worlds; for the Christian it is the doorway to a better world.

As I read through the lyrics of the verses I got an immediate idea of the type of melody that I wanted to write; it needed to be dramatic and poetic but with a sense of beauty and mystery, and I hope that’s what is conveyed in the recording. The new chorus lyrics and music that I wrote simply summarise the underlying theme of the song – that there’s hope to be found in Jesus and the cross - and the final line of the chorus continues the theme of one day returning home to be with God.

I made the conscious decision to keep the language of the verses as they were originally written, keeping thee instead of changing to you and so on. When I teach songwriting lessons I often talk about the ‘shape’ of the melody; the specific vowel sounds and how they are accented can drastically affect the success (in artistic terms) of a song, a line or even a word, so it’s worth thinking about. In this instance the ‘e’ of thee is much stronger than the ‘u’ we'd be left with if I’d changed it. 

I also think that the original language in this particular song adds to the majesty of the whole story. It’s a song that addresses sin and redemption, a righteous Judge and the need for a Saviour, the certainty of death and the hope of a new life. 

It’s a wonderful narrative and I hope I did it justice with the new music, new chorus and the new recording.

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