Music of the Month: When I Behold Jesus Christ

This month's selected piece is a well-crafted modern hymn concertato scored for two-part voices, two treble instruments, piano, optional congregation, and optional violoncello by Matthew Machemer. “When I Behold Jesus Christ” features repetitive and overlapping piano patterns that are complemented with polyphonic instrumental lines and accessible choral writing. The overall feel of the piece has a minimalist flair.

The Text and Tune

The hymn “When I Behold Jesus Christ” comes from the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia. In response to the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus developing a hymnal and requesting new hymns be written, Almaz Belhu created this text and tune around 1970 when she was just sixteen years old. It was translated into English soon afterward and appears in Lutheran Service Book (#542).

Both the text and tune are relatively simple and repetitive, yet profound. The hymn invites the singer to ponder the depth of Christ’s love—love that led Him to suffer death on the cross to free His beloved creation from the bondage of sin. The text, with its refrain at the end of each stanza, asks the rhetorical question “What kind of love is this?” sixteen times by the end of the piece. The tune, with its pentatonic melody, carries the text in a lovely and lilting manner.

Fresh and Approachable Instrumentation

Matthew Machemer has composed a concertato setting of the hymn that features piano and accompanying instruments as well as a setting for two-part voices on the third stanza.

“I think the hymn itself calls for a certain type of instrumentation. I chose these instruments because I wanted to present the tune in a way that was fresh—perhaps even modern—but still approachable,” Machemer said when asked about his work. “Because this setting is for congregation and choir, the instruments provide the added heft on congregational stanzas that the piano may have trouble supplying on its own.”

The instrumental parts both double the melody and create lovely countermelodies and harmonies on the congregational stanzas. The piano part uses sixteenth-note patterns throughout that guide the tempo and the character of the tune.

“The instrumental parts are constructed using fragments of the hymn melody and are intended to fit together almost like pieces in a puzzle,” Machemer continued. “Each of the instruments takes turns doubling the melody during the congregational stanzas while others dance around that melody in various patterns, figures, and countermelodies. The piano accompaniment is intentionally minimalistic in order to provide a repetitive pattern upon which the instruments can play.”

Flexible Choral Arrangement

In this concertato setting the first, second, and fourth stanzas are intended to be sung in unison by the congregation. The third stanza features a simple two-part choral setting for a choir. Machemer said he wrote this setting at first for a children’s choir, and it’s flexible enough to be sung by children, adults, or a combination of voices.

“The choir’s two-part section beginning with the refrain ‘What kind of love…’ is primarily canonic until the very end, when the top voice has a sort of countermelody to the bottom voice,” Machemer commented of the third stanza. “These simple choral parts allow the piano to provide some very slow-moving and dark harmonies appropriate to the stanza, which deals with Christ’s passion. Another notable feature in the third stanza is the parts for the treble instruments, which are derived from the Lutheran chorale ‘O Dearest Jesus’ (Herzliebster Jesu).”

Machemer stated the piece would be fitting throughout the Church Year, but perhaps especially during the season of Lent—even at the end of Holy Week during one of the services of the Paschal Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday).

“I think there is great benefit in singing this text and tune. Its beauty and simplicity speak to us on a variety of levels,” Machemer said. “The text and melody can be sung easily by a child but are meaningful enough to speak to adults in the midst of struggles and anxieties. It provides a fresh perspective upon the work of Jesus and our response to that work.”

Try this setting at your church by ordering copies of “When I Behold Jesus Christ” below. 

Order the Music

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Written by

Nathan Grime

Nathan Grime is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a 2020 graduate of Hillsdale College, where he studied rhetoric, public address, and journalism. Nathan is the fifth and sixth grade teacher at Our Savior Lutheran School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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