There are times that words and music are viewed as intertwined; however, in this instance, the words were written in 1824 in America, but the music was composed in 1825 in Germany.
George Washington Doane (1799-1859), Lyricist
George Washington Doan was born in Trenton, NJ on May 27, 1799. He was named George Washington because he was born the year George Washington died. He graduated from Union College of Schenectady, NY, and he attended the Protestant Episcopal Church where he was ordained a deacon and priest. He became a Professor at Trinity College. He was made Bishop of New Jersey and was able to establish Burlington College.
“Thou Art the Way” is also a song that he wrote which is in Church Gospel Songs & Hymns. “Softly Now the Light of Day” was written in 1824. It was written in 77.77 meter which means each major phrase has 7 syllables. According to Hymnary.org, this is by far his most popular hymn although he wrote others. It was a tradition that this hymn be sung at St. Mary’s Hall (now known as Doane Academy) during their weekly chapel service each school year.
He was married to Eliza Greene Perkins Callahan Doane on September 19, 1829. She was a widow who had children from her first marriage, but they did not have children of their own. George Washington Doan died April 27, 1859 and is buried in Saint Mary's Episcopal Churchyard in Burlington, New Jersey.
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernest von Weber (1786-1826), Composer
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernest von Weber was born December 18, 1786 in Eutin, Germany. An interesting statement about Weber: “With the exception of J. S. Bach, Weber probably had the longest musical pedigree of any of the great musicians.” (Our Hymnody, p. 248) He began studying music under his father’s direction at age 3 and published his own music at age 10. He wrote operas and was a famous pianist who toured Germany. He was also taught by Joseph Hayden’s brother. During this study he published his Opus 1 Sechs Fughetten.
His music has been used to the lyrics of “Savior, Teach Me” and “My Jesus As Thou Wilt” in Church Gospel Songs & Hymns. The music to “Softly Now the Light of Day” was composed in 1825 and was titled SEYMOUR. According to Hymary.org, SEYMOUR was his most popular tune for religious music. In fact, the same tune is used for the hymn “Savior, Teach Me”. The tune SEYMORE as from the chorus of Weber’s last opera called Oberon. Apparently, Henry G. Greatorex arranged the words and music to create this hymn in 1851. There is an alternate tune used with these words in other hymnals called MERCY which was composed by a Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869).
On November 4, 1817 he married Caroline Brandt but there is no record of any children. Weber died in London, England on June 5, 1826. It is reported that his favorite motto was “As God wills” and his last words were “Let me go back to my own home and then ‘God’s will be done.’” (Our Hymnody, p. 352) He was originally buried in Moorfields Chapel, London when he died of tuberculosis while attending the premier of his last opera from which the music of this hymn was taken. In 1843 his remains were moved to Old Catholic Cemetery in Dresden, Germany. Richard Wagner performed the eulogy at his reburial.
Softly Now the Light of Day
When this hymn was first published, it included a scripture reference of Psalm 141:2 which reads “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (NKJV.) Psalm 141 has been described as one of David’s prayers for protection against the actions of wickedness whether by others or himself being tempted to act wickedly. We certainly live in a very troublesome age where wickedness seems to have the upper hand in our society; however, we need to take solace in the fact that we have dual citizenship. We have citizenship in this country, but we also have eternal citizenship in heaven. The apostle Paul, as he was facing execution, wrote “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" (Philippians 3:20-21, NKJV.)
It is interesting that Weber, who composed the music, used as a favorite saying “As God wills.” Especially when the subject matter of the lyrics has to do with the fact that life here is not eternal and our duration is by no means assured. It brings to mind the advisory that James penned about being over confident with our calendar planners—“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:13-14, NKJV.)
May we remember these words and apply them day-by-day “So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, NKJV.)
V. E. Howard, Editor, and Broadus E. Smith, Associate Editor, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1937.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.