“Holy, holy, holy” is by John Bacchus Dykes, one of the most prominent hymn-composers of the era, a precentor at Durham Cathedral, then vicar of St. Oswald’s, who wrote tunes to many hymn texts for Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). This was one, set to Reginald Heber’s 1826 text written to commemorate the Trinity. The tune, entitled “Nicaea” (Nicaea was the location of the Council that established the doctrine of the Trinity, A.D. 325 [McCutchan 18]) is sometimes thought to be Dykes’s finest tune (Watkins 245). Set in the key of E major in Hymns Ancient and Modern (Hymn 135), the melody is set syllabically while the homophonic chordal system is intermixed with non-harmonic tones to create tension and resolution often, though not exclusively, through the alto and tenor lines moving amongst the four parts. Heber represents the Trinity with three repeated “holy’s” which Dykes represents symbolically by moving upward through a broken triad for each “holy,” creating movement and majesty. The meter is irregular—labelled 188.8.131.52—which Dykes uses to create an ABAC musical scheme with an extended melody for the 12-syllable, second (“B”) line: “Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.” However, the biblical reference to “glassy sea” is mystifying to children, as would be “Cherubim and Seraphim [angels] falling down before Thee” in this context. And Heber’s use of antiquated verbs (“Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be,” v. 2) and inverted syntax (“Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see,” v. 3) are also hard to decipher, in fact obscuring the sterner theology (“the eye of sinful man”). Yet the majesty of the tune sweeps a singer along so that the obscure and stern references are quickly forgotten. Children I teach it to continue to love this hymn because of the tune.
More discussion of this hymn can be found in Chapter 3, British Hymn Books for Children.