Hymn Playing – an idea on how to vary each verse (without reharmonization and advanced techniques) and to fit the hymn to the situation
HE past few months many of us have been separated from the people, places and things we love: and for many musicians, we’ve been separated from our routine of preparing music for the liturgy. In this time, I wanted to give everyone, organists in particular, a little thought to help them rethink their old favorites. There is also a practical homework assignment at the end for those interested!
The art of playing hymns is a foundational part of learning to play organ (or to play keyboard in the church). In this post, I am focusing more on the instrument of the organ than other keyboard instruments. One glance at the literature on hymn playing yields many, many discussions of using alternate harmonization, adding layer upon layer of extra non-chord tones, re-voicing the hymn to mix up the layers of voices… Eventually you will come upon the caveat: “DO NOT OVERCOMPLICATE THINGS”. I am reminded of some of the hymn reharmonizations of the early twentieth century (looking at you, Tertius Noble!1): either they sang hymns really slow, or the organist made life incredibly difficult for little return. Personally, I use overly-complex reharmonizations as dictionaries of things I could do…. not as things I should do in a single verse.
In many of these texts, the author lays a lot of stress on the rule of thumb that the organist is accompanying; the organist should be aiding the singing of the hymn. The texts say to avoid playing a series of loose, remote harmonies. See Langlais’s reharmonization of the Passion Chorale: (‘Mon ame cherche une fin paisible’ from Neuf Pieces pour Grand Orgue): my goodness, I couldn’t imagine a congregation singing along with that! To be fair to M. Langlais, he was not writing with singing along in mind. A good example of reharmonized hymns that work well with a normal Sunday Mass is Noel Rawsthorne’s 400 Last Verses. There are a few tricks he uses that work well in context and don’t jar the congregation, as well as preserving the general shape of the melody. (Though you do have to prepare people for the reharmonization, otherwise it sometimes feels slapped on.)
Anyways, I wanted to get across to the readers of the CC Watershed website two much simpler and overlooked ways of adding variation to hymns: we’ll call them “Shape” and “Context”. What’s the shape of the overall structure of the hymn through the verses? And what part of the Mass/ Liturgy are we looking at?
Tell me if this is familiar: first verse, simple stops, clear harmony; second verse, a little more complex, with a deceptive cadence thrown in here and there; third verse, louder, with more alternate harmonies; fourth verse, even LOUDER with thicker harmonies…eventually you get to “PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS!!!” or do a nifty KEY CHANGE. Basically, this way of playing a hymn matches Ravel’s Bolero: One. Big. Crescendo! This type of shape works very well, but it’s only one shape among many. Think of musical works that end quietly or intimately. Think of works that maintain momentum throughout without too much up and down. Think of the golden mean, or of making sure the climax remains at two thirds of the way through the piece (was it Rachmaninov that said that once?). These are all shapes we can apply to our hymn-playing (as long as they serve the congregational singing).
I believe one reason that we default to O.B.C! (One. Big. Crescendo!) is because we have interiorized the claim that the vast majority of Catholics don’t want to sing. The remedy for this must be to make it so exciting, that you can’t resist joining in. It is exciting to ride a big wave of sound, but I would think that part of our task is to form the minds of Catholics to be able to express their faith in many and sundry ways. The voice of the Lord thunders – stripping forests bare (Psalm 29:9) But don’t forget: The Lord was not in the storm or the fire or the earthquake…but in the still small whisper. (1 Kings 9:12) A question I ask myself when preparing hymns is: can I shape this hymn in another way?Context
This one is important – because it can change the fundamental approach to your chosen hymns. Are we using Hyfrydol2 for Entrance, Offertory, Communion or Recessional? In fact, I think each of us could conceivably play Hyfrydol (or any other hymn tune) several different ways in order to fit it in the liturgy where it is played and sung. We aren’t just talking shape here – because you could play O.B.C! in four completely different ways.
I find thinking of the context as a moment I am setting a sound track to to help. Just take a moment and imagine the soundtrack to these four scenarios: 1) Hyfrydol as we anticipate and enter the Sanctuary 2) Hyfrydol as we gather our offerings to set them on the Altar of Sacrifice 3) Hyfrydol as we are embraced by Christ Himself in Communion 4) Hyfrydol as we triumphantly march out upon receiving salvation and witnessing victory over death. Very different, huh? And the best part is that you don’t even have to change the harmony, or the voicing, or the shape.
What is profoundly amazing about so many of these hymn tunes (and the lyrics) is that they support many different ways of being ‘musiked’. You may have even changed the tempo to fit the current situation. (Yet always remaining singable and consistent in tempo throughout a single playing!). I can imagine taking a tempo more relaxed at Communion than at Recessional. Though we could switch that, make the Communion hymn more hopeful and infused with joy (quicker) and the Recessional grand and more expansive (slower). We can also hold the melody line and articulate the three bottom voices, or articulate (separate slightly) all the voices…or a mix of articulated and legato playing.
I hope that you have an idea of what I am getting at: that we can vary the way we play hymns without resorting to more complex tricks and maneuvers. Just simply changing the shape and being aware of the context can inform the way you play the hymn. Here’s your homework: start with a favorite hymn of yours. Without changing harmony or adding notes, play through it several times thinking of different shapes. Then take that same hymn and play as if it was at a different point in the Mass. Can you make a Recessional start loud and become intimate and wind down? Can you play a Communion with confidence and bravado without betraying that part of the Mass? The one criteria is to not change the harmony or voicing at all. Play the harmony from your standard hymnal. (Dare I say, play the standard version from the Brébeuf hymnal, or would that be a shameless plug?) We’re doing an exercise in revitalizing something very familiar. This has been on my mind in particular as I have been composing some Interludes for organ for exactly this purpose – each interlude is intended to have several ways of being played without altering the notes (I am currently calling them “Versatile Interludes”). If you are tech-savy, maybe even record yourself playing the hymn in several different ways and upload them to Facebook or YouTube (making sure you tag @ccwatershed, and myself @cyprianstudios). Also put the hashtag #CCWatershedHymnChallenge so that everyone can find your upload. I look forward to hearing from you all!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 See both the 50 Free Harmonizations and also 100 Free Harmonizations of Tertius Noble. Most of the hymns have a constant presence of eighth notes, and a change of harmony sometimes every half beat.
2 Common Lyrics for the tune Hyfrydol are “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”