“Beethoven’s Ninth made the [Best of 2010] list ... with an ‘Ode to Joy’ finale that brought down the house.”


William Hawley (b. 1950)

William Hawley  (arr.)

Beautiful River  (1995)
(Shall We Gather at the River)

William Hawley, a longtime resident of Manhattan, now makes his home on the coast of Maine. His work has been commissioned or premiered by choruses and other musical organizations around the world, including Chanticleer, the Dale Warland Singers, Nederlands Kamerkoor, New London Singers, the Handel and Haydn Society, and dozens of college and university choral groups. His “Not One Sparrow Is Forgotten” was premiered for President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama in a private performance at the White House.

Hawley studied at the Ithaca College School of Music and at the California Institute of the Arts, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. As he pursued his career as composer and arranger, he worked to reintegrate the emotional and spiritual elements of pre-20th-century Western classical music with 20th- and 21st-century concepts and techniques, influenced also by Indian and East Asian classical forms. Beginning his creative life primarily as an instrumental composer, he gradually found his work assuming a deeper expression in the realm of vocal music, unaccompanied or in chamber and orchestral combinations.

The original text and tune for “Shall We Gather at the River” came to the Rev. Robert Lowry on a beastly hot July afternoon in 1864. Lowry was serving as pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, which gave the tune its title — “Hanson Place.” As he described the sudden inspiration:

I was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion. ... My imagination began to take itself wings. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness. The imagery of the apocalypse took the form of a tableau. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river, and the gathering of the saints. ... I began to wonder why the hymn writers had said so much about the “river of death” and so little about the “pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb.” As I mused, the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry, “Shall we gather?” Then they broke in chorus, “Yes, we’ll gather.” On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn.

The hymn was published in 1865 and quickly gained a permanent place in American hymnody. It was adapted for a variety of projects in wider American culture, including the early westerns of John Ford, later in Cat Ballou, and in the film version of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Charles Ives created a setting of the hymn, as did Aaron Copland for his Old American Songs. The tune, a compelling melody, remains in popular use around the world. In Sweden with different lyrics, it has also become one of the most popular convivial university drinking songs.

Beautiful River (Shall We Gather at the River)
Text and music by the Rev. Robert Lowry (1864)

Shall we gather at the river,
where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever
flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river,
that flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
washing up its silver spray,
we will walk and worship ever,
all the happy golden day.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river,
that flows by the throne of God. Amen