Knowing the Song: A Companion to the Publications of the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust from 1993 to 2009 by Colin Gibson

Published by the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust and Philip Garside Publishing Ltd 2021.

Review by John Thornley

Knowing the Song cover pictureMy dictionary has two meanings for ‘know’ or ‘knowing’. Both describe aspects of this book.
First, ‘know’ means ‘to be aware through observation, inquiry or information’.  The ‘information’ on the hymns comes in two parts. Colin Gibson first tells the stories of how 506 hymns came to be written. The four books of New Zealand hymns: Alleluia Aotearoa (1993), Carol our Christmas (1996), Faith Forever Singing (2000), Hope is our Song (2009) and a further 54 hymns in The New Zealand Supplement to With One Voice (1982). The ‘information’ includes biographies of hymnwriters, the contexts (time, place, and culture), and the meanings/theologies. The second part describes the tune, how melody and rhythm convey the heart or feelings of the texts. The hymns are set out in alphabetical order, two columns per page. While the texts are not given, Colin’s story of each hymn, written as if in conversation with the reader, fully engages us with both subject matter and spirit.  In the final pages there are 3 Appendices and 3 Indices, including the history of the NZ Hymnbook Trust, hymn titles and tunes, Scripture sources, information on writings about the hymns and international publication of NZ hymns.
Second, ‘know’ means ‘to develop a relationship  through meeting and spending time with someone or something’  leading to a deeper friendship. Knowing Colin, I believe he chose ‘knowing’ rather than ‘learning’ for the connotations of humanness, humanity, even humour, in the imagery of ‘knowing’.  What lucky people they are who discover treasures/taonga of a kiwi theology in word and music in the hymnody of Aotearoa New Zealand.  As the cover blurb writes: ‘Ministers, preachers, worship leaders, church musicians and choir members will find a wealth of material in the Companion to entertain and inform them, and to share with their congregations’.  I like the word ‘entertain’ (my italics).  Let’s show from our church singing that we enjoy our worship!
New Zealanders can be proud of gifts Colin Gibson has given this land and our people.  A former Professor of English at the University of Otago, his skills combine literary research and teaching and music composition in hymn, choral and symphonic forms. Colin has led workshops and lecture series on hymns throughout New Zealand and in Australia, America, England, Japan and the Philippines.  He was a founding member of the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust and member of its Editorial Group. In 1981 he established in the Dunedin Public Library a national research collection of hymn books and study material. In 2002 he was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and music.
A special thank you to Philip Garside, who has produced an attractive publication with easily readable text size and layout. At $50.00 retail, this is a bargain. Every church, school and city library should have a copy!



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