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hymn, song of praise, devotion, or thanksgiving, especially of a religious character (see also cantata).

Early Christian hymnody consisted mainly of the Psalms and the great canticles Nunc dimittis, Magnificat, and Benedictus from the Bible and of the Sanctus, Gloria in excelsis, and Te Deum. These were chanted in unison (see plainsong). Metrical Latin hymnody began with the hymns of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, in the 4th cent. This type of hymn, usually four-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter, was the basis of nearly all Christian hymnody until the 16th cent.

Notable Latin hymns are Corde natus ex parentis by Prudentius in the 4th cent., and Fortunatus' 6th-century processionals, Vexilla regis and Pange lingua (whose meter was imitated in the Pange lingua of St. Thomas Aquinas). From the 11th cent. came Wipo's Easter sequence, Victimae paschali laudes. The Dies irae, probably by Thomas of Celano, and the Stabat Mater dolorosa by Jacopone da Todi are great hymns of the 13th cent.

With the Reformation came the development of Protestant hymnody. The first hymnbooks in the vernacular are probably those published by the followers of John Huss in Bohemia in 1501 and 1505. In 1524 the first Lutheran hymnal was published at Wittenberg. The early Lutheran hymns were translations of Latin hymns, folksongs with new texts, often paraphrases of biblical verses or passages, or sometimes original melodies. Calvinism contributed the Genevan Psalter (final version, 1562). It contained the Psalms, translated into French verse by Clément Marot and Theodore Beza and set to music, most of which was supplied by Louis Bourgeois, who used some original tunes and adapted others. The familiar doxology tune Old Hundredth is the tune of Psalm 134 in this psalter.

The first collection of English church tunes was Sternhold's Psalter (1556), published at Geneva and consisting of metrical versions of the Psalms by Thomas Sternhold (d. 1549) and others, which were set to unharmonized tunes. John Wesley's hymnal (1737) contained metrical psalms, translations from Greek and German, and original lyrics and melodies, and was thus the first hymnal in the modern sense. Other notable English hymnists of the 18th cent. were Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper, poets whose hymns are still sung in nearly all Protestant churches. In the 19th cent. there was a revived interest in plainsong that resulted in many translations of ancient Latin hymns, such as those by John Mason Neale.

In America the Puritans used psalters brought with them from Europe until the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the earliest American hymnal, was published at Cambridge, Mass. William Billings wrote the first original American hymns as distinguished from paraphrases of psalms and psalm tunes; another important composer was Lowell Mason, whose song collections, such as Spiritual Songs (1831), compiled jointly with Thomas Hastings, attained wide distribution.

In the latter half of the 19th cent. the gospel hymn was developed (see gospel music). It is marked by lively rhythm, constant alternation of the simplest harmonies, and sentimental text. Arthur Sullivan's “Onward Christian Soldiers” (1871) is a well-known example of the martial hymn of the period. In the 20th cent. radical variations in church music emerged: folk-song and jazz elements were integrated with older music and frequently replaced it. Troubadour-style “protest” songs with theological content were common in the 1960s alongside a newly vital, more conservative hymnody.


See A. E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (1950); H. W. Foote, Three Centuries of American Hymnody (1940, repr. 1968); L. F. Benson, The English Hymn (1915, repr. 1987); I. Bradley, ed., The Book of Hymns (1989); W. J. Reynolds, Songs of Glory (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a ceremonial song with programmatic verses. There are state, revolutionary, military, and religious hymns, as well as hymns in honor of historical events and heroes.

In ancient Greece a hymn was a religious song in honor of a god, such as Apollo or Dionysus. In the seventh to fifth centuries B.C. hymns were written by Alcaeus, Alemán, and Pindar. Epic narrative poetic works known as hymns have survived. The most famous of them are the so-called Homeric hymns (attributed in antiquity to Homer) and Orphic hymns (from the late Hellenic period). The early Christians created a hymnody that became part of church worship and prayer (the hymns of Romanos Melodos and John of Damascus in the eastern church and “Te Deum laudamus” in the west). The socioreligious movement of the 15th-16th centuries gave birth to many spiritual hymns, including the Protestant (Lutheran) chorale in Germany (the outstanding example is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”—“Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”) and Hussite songs in Bohemia. The Great French Revolution evoked revolutionary hymns, including the “Marseillaise.” The revolutionary proletariat created its own hymn, the “International,” which was also the national hymn of the USSR until Jan. 1, 1944. In 1944 a new national hymn was introduced (music by A. V. Aleksandrov), and the “International” became a party hymn.

All modern states have national hymns, in addition to national emblems and flags. The hymn is the state’s official symbol. Each of the union republics of the USSR has a hymn. The hymn genre is represented in choral, operatic, and symphonic art (for example, the final choruses of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin).A song about the Great Patriotic War was written in the spirit of a hymn (“The Holy War,” lyrics by V. I. Lebedev-Kumach, music by A. V. Aleksandrov).


Bernshtein, N. Istoriia natsional’nykh gimnov. Petrograd, 1914.
Nettl, P. National Anthems. New York [1952].
Diehl, D. S. Hymns and Tunes: An Index. New York, 1966.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a Christian song of praise sung to God or a saint
2. a similar song praising other gods, a nation, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005