By J. R. Martin, Full Member of the Texas Lodge of Research AF&AM
Presented to the Texas Lodge AF&AM of Research on September 15, 2001
at Brownsville, Texas and published in Transactions, Texas Lodge of Research
Volume XXXVI at Pages 47-55.
(For references and endnotes, please refer to the Volume of Transactions, Texas Lodge of Research mentioned above.)
The residents of Charleston, South Carolina, delight in calling it the "Holy City." This name is rumored to have come from the ancient ordinance preventing city buildings from being built higher than the highest church steeple. A visitor notices immediately that almost all the numerous downtown churches have extremely tall steeples, each spire trying to outdo the next in closeness to Heaven. At noon, the longshoremen on the docks need no lunch whistle because so many of these churches sound bell chimes and carillons.
Each workday at high twelve, the writer used to walk the streets bordering Calhoun Park by the Old Citadel and hear a comforting hymn from one of the highest steeples, entitled "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chime." Whether the music director or pastor of the church were masons or just loved the beautiful tune, the hymn, "Pleyel's Hymn," was a comfort to the writer because it was a reminder of the lesson of the architect in the third degree of masonry.
All South Carolina Ancient Free Masons hear "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chime," also known as "The Masonic Dirge" or just the "Dirge," sung to the tune of "Pleyel's Hymn" during the performance of the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason. It is universally sung slightly off key by the lodge brothers and used as a dirge before the "raising" of the architect. In an age of few piano-playing masons, it is, typically, the only music of any kind heard in a South Carolina lodge.
The tune of this most masonic hymn is a beautiful melody often called "Pleyel's Hymn." It was written by Brother Ignaz Pleyel in the Eighteenth Century. When played from the steeple at noon, it is unintentionally emblematic of Charleston's dual role as the cradle of South Carolina's freemasonry in 1735 and as the "see" of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry since 1801.
To the parochial senses of a young South Carolina mason, Pleyel's Hymn seemed as universal as freemasonry itself. There were even rumors that Florida and Virginia used it in the third degree work. However, upon transferring jobs and moving his family from the "Holy City" of Charleston to Houston, Texas, in what Texans call the "Promised Land," the writer was amazed to learn that Texas was not only different in some of its ritual work, but that Texas had lost "The Masonic Dirge."
Whence Cometh the Dirge
Pleyel's Hymn, the melody for "The Masonic Dirge," was written as a part of "4th Quartet, op. 7" by Brother Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, and published 1791. Brother Pleyel was a student of Brother Joseph Haydn, but was less famous for his compositions than for his pianos. After a mediocre career as a composer, Brother Pleyel settled in Paris, France, and, with his sons, founded one of that city's most respected piano-making firms.
The melody, Pleyel's Hymn, has been used by many lyricists and appears in many hymnals. These include at least one early edition of a Methodist hymnal, as well as in Hymnbook for Christian Worship (Judson Press and Bethany Press: 1970), as Hymn 340: 'Word of Life, Most Pure, Most Strong" with text by J. P. Bahmeir (1740-1841); and, Christian Worship: A Hymnal (Judson Press: 1940) as three hymns: Hymn 267: "Children of the Heavenly Father" with lyrics by John Cennick (1718-1765); Hymn 595, "Praise to God, Immortal Praise" with lyrics by Anna L. Barbauld (1743-1825); and, hymn 640, "Jesus, Hear Our Humble Prayer" with lyrics by John Newton (1725-1807). Pleyel's Hymn was even used as the church recessional in the movie "Mrs. Miniver".
The lyrics for the Masonic Dirge take this popular melody and add the funeral air of freemasonry's third degree and were written in 1813 by another mason, Brother David Vinton, an itinerant American masonic lecturer, who died in 1833. Although little is known of Brother Vinton, he is known to have taught the York Rite degree work in North Carolina and Georgia, but he died and was buried without masonic honors in Shakertown, Kentucky.
Although as many as six verses are recorded for the Masonic Dirge, only two verses, the first and last, are in general use, as set out for South Carolina use in the Ahiman Rezon. The six verses are:
1. Solemn strikes the funeral chime. Notes of our departing time, As we journey here below Through a pilgrimage of woe.
2. Mortals now indulge a tear; For mortality is here! See how wide her trophies wave O'er the slumbers of the grave.
3. Calm, the good man meets his fate; Guards celestial 'round him wait. See! he bursts these mortal chains, And o'er Death the vict'ry gains.
4. Here another guest we bring; Seraph of Celestial wing, To our funeral altar come, Waft this friend and brother home.
5. There enlarged, thy soul shall see, What was veiled in mystery; Heavenly glories of the place Show his maker face to face.
6. Lord of all! below - above- Fill our hearts with truth and love; When dissolves our earthly tie, Take us to Thy Lodge on High.
Though Brother Vinton's success as a masonic lecturer may be in doubt, the influence of his Masonic Dirge on masonry in the United States is evident. But little evidence of its use outside the U. S. has been found except in the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and in American Lodges overseas, particularly in George Washington Lodge No. 585 A.F.&A.M. in Vicenza, Italy. Often a popular dirge or song such as "Auld Lang Syne" or "Abide with me" will be played during this section of the ritual in British lodges and those in former British possessions such as Ontario, Canada, or Australia. Or as in Finland, the compositions of a native freemason, such as Jean Sebelius, are used.
The Dirge is or has been used in most of the states in the union, including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota and parts of Alabama. Tennessee may have used it, as shown in the 1915 version of their Tennessee Craftsman, the masonic manual for that jurisdiction.
North Carolina lodges may also have used the hymn, but whether used in these states or not, the Monitors or Manuals of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and Vermont, contain "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chimes" as a masonic dirge for use in the lodge.
However, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and parts of Alabama use another hymn, "Hark From the Tombs a Doleful Sound," which is incorrectly sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" written by another mason, Brother Robert Burns. The Alabama Monitor allows use of either "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chime," which is used in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, or "Hark! From the Tombs" which is used in the rest of the state as the funeral dirge in the Master Mason's degree . But Georgia Lodges only use ""Hark! From the Tombs" even though their monitor contains "Solemn Strikes" as well.
Mississippi Monitors also contain both "Solemn Strikes" and "Hark! From the Tombs." But as with Georgia, the song "Hark! From the Tombs" is universally sung as the masonic dirge in the third degree.
While "Hark! From the Tombs" is familiar to all Texas masons, as set out in the Monitor of The Lodge, how did Texas come to use one and not the other?
The Spread of the Dirges
The earliest ritual books of masonry, such as William Preston's Illustrations of Masonry in 1775 and its revision by Thomas Smith Webb in 1797, contain many songs for occasions that we might today call "festive boards," but they do not contain any funeral dirges for the third degree work or at all. This suggests that the need of a funeral dirge may not have been felt until the acceptance of "Solemn Strikes" or "Hark! From the Tombs" as funeral dirges in the 1800s.
It seems clear that as western civilization moved westward on the North American continent in the Nineteenth Century, freemasonry moved with it. Those states and territories lying North of Georgia adopted the dirge "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chime" as they were colonized and then accepted into the United States.
Conversely, as shown above, Georgia and the states formed directly west of it, Alabama and Mississippi, adopted the "Hark! From The Tomb" dirge as masonry spread with the American population, but kept "Solemn Strikes" as an alternative in their monitors.
However, then we come to Louisiana. Louisiana uses "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chime." And the states to the west of Texas also use that hymn. Louisiana claims Masonic foundations in the earliest parts of the colonization of this continent, and much of its ritual was written and rewritten during the middle of the 1800s. Albert Pike bringing rites from South Carolina and other influences seem to have instilled the use of "Solemn Strikes" throughout the Pelican State.
With Louisiana using "Solemn Strikes" as the masonic dirge, it seems only logical that Texas would use it too. Texas masonry, as we are taught, was founded concurrently with the independence of Texas by a warrant from the Grand Lodge of Louisiana forming what would eventually be Holland Lodge No. 1 and the Grand Lodge of Texas A.F.&A.M.
But the founding of the Grand Lodge of Texas was by no means a unilateral or monolithic enterprise. As aptly put by Dr. D. D. Tidwell, Past Master and Fellow of the Texas Lodge of Research, in his groundbreaking paper, "Development of the Texas Ritual," "It just grew like Topsy." And by the time of the Civil War, several attempts had been made to standardize the ritual used in Texas with only a little success. However, in 1858, a special committee recommended to the Grand Lodge of Texas the work that has since become known as the Taylor ritual, recognizing Past Grand Master William M. Taylor’s overwhelming contribution to that work. But J. W. Speight, a former Grand Master of Masons in Mississippi was the only member who was not a Texas-made mason. Dr. Tidwell continues, "It is possible that each member of the committee made some contribution to the final formulation of the Texas ritual, but if so, it was so minor in comparison with the contribution of William M. Taylor that not a reference remains of their contribution. The elimination of the use of rods in the Texas floor work was probably due to J. W. Speight, Past Grand Master of Mississippi, since Mississippi and Texas stand alone among the Grand Lodges of the United States in this respect."
This close connection between Mississippi work and that of the Grand Lodge of Texas may also account for the use of "Hark! From the Tombs." But are there other indications?
Conclusions in the Texas Monitors
Further indications of the close connection between Texas work and the Mississippi work are found in the Texas monitors. The current Texas Monitor of the Lodge, copyrighted 1982, contains only "Hark! From the Tombs" as the "Funeral Dirge" for the third degree work on pages 81 and 82. However, L. L. Walker, Jr., Past Master and Fellow of the Texas Lodge of Research, tells us in his paper, entitled "Music, Masonry's Lost Art," that the Taylor-Hamilton Monitor in its 13th Edition of 1907 contained both "Hark! From the Tombs" and "Solemn Strikes The Funeral Chime" in the same manner as we have previously noted in the monitors of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi of the present day. Further, the Manual of the Lodge compiled and authored by Past Grand Master Jewel P. Lightfoot, often called Lightfoot's Manual, as late as1965, has both dirges in the same form as the Taylor-Hamilton Monitor that preceded it. The several editions of both Lightfoot's Manual and the Taylor-Hamilton Monitor list "Solemn Strikes" as sung to "Pleyel's Hymn" and as an alternative to "Hark! From the Tombs." This research suggests, therefore, that the absence of "Solemn Strikes" from the current Monitor is a revision in the 1982 to reflect current usage.
The origin and preference for "Hark, From the Tombs," the dirge actually used in Texas work, may well be a subject for future research. But clearly, its preference over "Solemn Strikes" as the "Funeral Dirge" in Texas work of the third degree follows a pattern of westward expansion of freemasonry and masonic work along southern states from Georgia to Alabama to Mississippi and thence to Texas, possibly under the influence of Past Grand Master of Mississippi J. W. Speight in 1858 or those who followed him in forming the standards for Texas work. And the complete loss of "Solemn Strikes" comes in the most recent revisions of the Texas Monitor to reflect the actual exclusive usage of "Hark! From The Tombs" in the third degree. Thus, on the historic road from the "Holy City" of Charleston to the "Promised Land" of Texas, Texas freemasonry lost Pleyel’s hymn, the "Masonic Dirge."