Malagasy: Ny hiran’ny lanitra tsara tokoa
Norwegian: Den Himmelske Lovsang
Text: Elevine Heede (1820-1883)? Tune: James Murray (1841-1905)?
1. The music of heaven is sweeter and richer
Than chiming from pure silver bells.
More lovely than any of earth’s joyful singing
That echoes through forests and valleys and hills.
R/Sing glory to God, Sing glory to God
In heaven above!
O heavenly host,
O heavenly host, exult in his name!
2. Like loud, rushing waters, cascading and roaring,
All heaven is filled with its voice.
The blessed are joyfully praising their Savior
And now in his presence forever rejoice.
3. May all join in singing the heavenly praises
Whom God has redeemed by his grace!
Believing in Jesus and serving our Father,
Received by the bridegroom we meet filled with praise!
Tr, Carl Vaagenes
May 1991. I had been humming the tune that whole day. It was graduation time at Luther Seminary. We were saying good-bye to our friend and colleague, Péri Rasolondraibe. He was returning to Madagascar, his home country, after four years teaching at Luther. He had been an M. Div. student at Luther years before and was well known here, in Madagascar, in Norway, in the Lutheran World Federation where he would later serve as Director of the Department for Mission and Development for ten years. We would miss him. In the service to wish him farewell, we sang a song translated from Malagasy into English, "Ny hiran’ny lanitra tsara tokoa."
We had discovered it when a student in my hymn writing class, who had spent a year in Madagascar, brought it to the class in translation with the music. The group quickly learned it and sang it as part of our work in multicultural hymnody.
All the same, it did have a familiar ring to it. I had driven down to Minneapolis from our place on the North Shore that early morning and driven back after the baccalaureate service that evening. All the way it ran through my head. When I got back, about 10:30 that evening, my parents were already in bed. I went in to say I had arrived safely and then sang the tune. "What is it," I asked. My father opened his eyes and said, without missing a beat, “Den himmelske lovsang.”
Of course. I had heard it sung at prayer meetings in Norway, and faintly recognized it from the book many Norwegian-American choirs used, Frydetoner. It was the first song in the book, and if you have a copy of the book, you will find the first page beaten up by frequent use. In fact, in many of the books, it will have been taped back into the book.
The Norwegian Mission Society's (NMS) efforts had focused on Madagascar since 1867. In 1870 Christian Borchgrevink (1841-1919) and his wife, Johanne Christiana (1836-1924) went there. She founded a girls' orphanage supported by many Norwegian and Norwegian American women, like my great grandmother, Jonette Adrianna, who saved their nickels in the corners of a handkerchief to give at their missionary society ladies aids. Borchgrevink built and led the Medical Missionary Academy in the capitol city. He and his wife made significant contributions to Malagasy society. As did many other missionaries from Norway. In 1888, Augsburg Seminary would send two missionaries to join the mission in Madagascar: Erik Hansen Tou (1857-1917), Johan Peter Hogstad (1858-1911). Georg Sverdrup,(1849-1907) President of the Seminary, edited a magazine, Gasseren, on the mission there. Madagascar was close to our hearts.
Bill Holm (1943-2009), the Icelandic American writer, in his book Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary, (2000) noted that any Norwegian American Lutheran kid in the 1930-1950s could tell you where Madagascar was on the world map. He or she had probably gone to Junior Mission Band in their congregation which would have had a map with red threads stringing from Minnesota to Madagascar. We all knew missionaries there, Sister MIlla, the Rossing, Vaagenes and Quanbeck families. We could even say the name of the capitol city, Antananarivo. We had seen pictures of Malagasy people and places on the primitive slide shows the missionaries managed to bring us. We would watch them during Mission Festivals which were always in Epiphany, during the frigid winters of North Dakota.
Of course my father knew it immediately. It was his foster mother Anna’s favorite song. At her funeral he remembered how she loved that hymn and would sing it frequently as she walked around the small town of Ferndale, WA, asking people for donations to her various causes like this mission. Now she was singing it with the saints, he said.
In 2014, the year I retired from Luther Seminary, the George Aus Lectureship committee invited Péri to give the address.(See link below to hear it.) He was the last lecturer in the series who could still remember Aus as his teacher. It was a joyful reunion for him, his wife Ernestine, his children, faculty and friends, as well as the missionaries who had known him in Madagascar as a star student. Again we sang the song.
As we sat around at the luncheon, people told stories about him and he about them. It was a foretaste of heaven to be together, people from all around the world, filled with joy and laughter because of our shared faith in Jesus Christ, trusting in his promises to one day be together where “The blessed are joyfully praising their Savior/And now in his presence forever rejoice.”
No one is quite sure where this hymn comes from. All we can make are educated guesses. The composer may be James Murray, an English composer of Gospel songs. The original text we think was translated from English by Elevine Heede, but it could be an original text by her; we don't know. Its first appearance in Norway is in Heede's collection Den lille Zions Harpe/The little Harp of Zion printed in either 1876 or 1877. Very little is certain! Typically, the missionaries brought their hymnal and song book with them from home. This hymn became significant to Malagasy Lutherans, but they have also gone on to write their own hymns, one of which, "Jesus, ja, han Alene er Ordet fra Guds munn," by Ratovondrahety, is in the new Norwegian hymnal.
Malagasy instrumental with words
Norwegian version/from the prayer house
Sanger fra Bedehuset
Arndt Haugens Reviderte with Henning Sommerro
Aus Lecture by Péri