Editor’s Note: Each contributor is reflecting upon Comparison of 15 Traditional Catholic Hymnals. Rather than rehashing Mr. Craig’s article, they were given freedom to “expand upon” this vast subject. Click here to read all the installments that have appeared so far.
Five Tips • “Rousing, Inspiring Hymn Playing”
Introduction: It’s Sunday morning and you’re off to Mass in an unfamiliar church. As you settle into your pew you note the page number for the opening hymn and throw wide the hymnal to check it out. “Excellent!” you think, as you see “Come Down, O Love Divine” to the great Ralph Vaughn Williams hymn tune, DOWN AMPNEY. You turn around to examine the organ and you’re delighted to spy a fair-sized pipe organ in the gallery and an organist seated at the console. Things are looking good, and you can’t wait to sing along to a great organ accompaniment. AND THEN… the organist plunks out the slow final-four-bars intro, and proceeds to accompany all four verses with no variation, all on an 8’ flute, at a snail’s pace. Ugh. After a verse and a half, you don’t even feel like singing anymore, and you’re not the only one. As you and most of your fellow congregants resignedly return the hymnals to their holders, a few old ladies continue to bleat out two or three beats at a time before gasping for breath, that one wannabe oktavist is off exploring the recesses of the basement of his range, a cantor with a major-third vibrato wobble tries to keep things afloat, Father sings a few phrases here and there through his lav mic in the key of Y-flat-half-diminished as he intermittently remembers a few words, and the organist plods along mercilessly, dully, unendingly.
An organist holds the power to render a hymn powerful, exciting, and rousing of great spiritual thoughts… or he/she can leave the Faithful bored, annoyed, and anxious for a swift end to the tedium, as in the hypothetical—perhaps a touch hyperbolic, but not unheard of—situation above. Daniel Craig brilliantly analyzed 15 hymnals for us in his article, giving us great food for thought concerning the “pros and cons” of the material available to us. But regardless of the hymnal we choose (or have foisted upon us), we organists still must play the hymns, and we ought to strive to play them well.
Let’s consider a few tips to help place your hymn playing in the “rousing and inspiring” category, rather than the “dull and tedious” category. This is by no means an exhaustive list, much less a complete course in hymn playing; but I hope that a few of these ideas and tips from my own hymn playing arsenal will prove useful to others.
1. Study and Internalize the Text
Playing hymns is about more than just the notes on the page. Read each verse of the text, and take notes about the overall themes, moods, etc. conveyed in the different verses. Then use these to help inform the musical decisions you’ll make about tempo, registration, harmony, and texture. Is the verse about the awe and majesty of God? That might be a good one for a full registration, a thick texture, and some big, altered chords to drive the message home. Or if it’s a verse about Our Lord’s passion, perhaps it’s time to back off, soften the registration, simplify the accompaniment, and let the sorrow of the verse pierce through.
And what about phrasing? Study each line and each phrase, and work to create a combined sense of musical and textual phrasing. If you’re accompanying a choir, work out the phrasing with your director. If you’re just accompanying a congregation, help lead their phrasing with your own on the instrument.
2. Keep It Moving, But Don’t Rush
Different hymns demand different tempos. Don’t fall into the either of the extremes of playing everything like a funeral dirge, or the opposite extreme of playing everything like it’s a race. The compositional style, period, and text can all help inform the appropriate tempo. Then you can account for nuance like your own abilities, the ability of the singers to enunciate clearly or to carry complete phrases, the characteristics of your acoustic, etc. to help establish tempo. And if all else fails, think of most processional-type hymns as a stately march: it should move along without dragging, but not cause the procession to rush!
Don’t forget to give the congregation space to breathe. My friend and colleague, Evan Brickner, principal organist at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, PA, recently gave me a needed reminder on this point. We as musicians sometimes want to impose our perfectionist ideals of timing and phrasing on the congregation; and while we can certainly lead and teach by example, let’s remember that most of them are not trained singers or musicians! Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Give them space to breathe.
3. Vary and Get Creative with Registration
One of the best and easiest ways to add some interest to your hymn playing is to vary the registration from verse to verse. This does not require a doctoral-level understanding of organ registration. Even if you don’t know much at all about the organ’s voices, you can achieve this simply by experimenting while practicing, and letting your ear be the judge.
It’s often helpful to start the first verse with a reasonably full registration to lead the congregation confidently into the hymn. Consider starting with flutes and principals at 8-4-2’ to kick things off. If it’s a big, majestic hymn, you can include a reed and mixture on the swell, coupled down to the great, using the swell pedal (assuming your swell is under expression) to regulate how much punch you want from those more imposing voices.
In tip #1 above, we analyzed the text. Now we can use that information to choose registrations that fit each subsequent verse. Some verses will dictate softer registrations, such as those with themes of mercy, love, sorrow, etc. For these, try reducing your registration to just 8 and 4’ flutes, or perhaps use all of your strings and flutes together at 8’.
If there’s a light-hearted, happy verse, create that atmosphere of levity by increasing the distance between the pitches in your registration, such as using 8’ and 2’ flutes or principals (you can also combine manual stops at 16’ and 4’ for a similar, but heavier effect). A soft tierce or larigot can add some sparkly color if desired.
Use solo stops such as trumpets, oboes, cornets, etc. to play the melody of an entire verse, or just bring it in to highlight important phrases. To add a bit of variety, consider playing the solo reed down an octave in the tenor range (if you have a 16’ reed, you could just use this instead in the normal range). If your reeds are too thin or harsh to effectively serve as solo stops, try adding an 8’ flute or principal to fill and round out its sound.
Final verses are often a grand doxology, and these are effectively rendered with larger registrations leading the mind to thoughts of the majesty, power, and grandeur of God. This is where you can add bigger mixtures, mutations, and reeds to your flutes and principles. You can give yourself room to crescendo by coupling a full swell (including 16’ stops if you have them) down to the great, giving an initial “restrained beast” sound of the closed swell box that slowly builds as you open the swell shades to bring the verse to its grand conclusion.
You can even vary the registration within a single verse. I already mentioned using a solo voice to highlight a particular phrase. But you can also add to or subtract from the registration within a verse if it more effectively conveys the musical and textual meaning. Just be careful to avoid any novelty or excess that distracts rather than enhances.
Keep in mind that hymn registration is not always a well-defined formula. It’s a musical decision, and your ear will be the guide. The foregoing ideas will hopefully inspire you to experiment and find registrations that will be effective at highlighting and conveying the underlying meaning of a hymn. But if there is to be one well-defined takeaway, it should be this: never use the same registration for more than one verse.
4. Play Interesting Intros and Interludes
It’s quite common to introduce hymns using one of three methods: 1) first phrase, often four bars; 2) final phrase, also often four bars; or 3) once through the whole form. If you are introducing a new unfamiliar hymn, it will be helpful to play through the whole form to get it in the ears of the congregation. If it’s a somewhat familiar hymn, using the opening is usually effective since it gets in their ears the exact phrase they’re about to sing. I would generally advise against using only the final phrase; it certainly lets them know what hymn it is, but it doesn’t effectively plant the beginning of the melody in their ears and mind. Keep in mind with any of these methods it is important to establish the tempo at which the hymn is to be sung; don’t end an intro with a ritardando!
But there’s another category of hymns beyond simply “familiar and unfamiliar.” There are those hymns which your congregation knows inside out, upside down, from memory. These are often the more universal hymns that most Catholics will know, regardless of age or location. Hymns like Holy God, We Praise Thy Name; Praise to the Lord the Almighty; and Immaculate Mary come to mind. For these, a plain statement of the melody is unnecessary to effectively introduce them. And in these cases, there is a great opportunity to get more creative with the introduction.
This does require more music theory knowledge and improvisational/compositional comfort than the first three tips, but it’s still not rocket science! Play around with different ways to build into the hymn. If you’re a comfortable improviser, you can do this on the spot. If not, spend some practice time working out an idea, and either memorize it or write it out.
These intros can take on many forms and can be shorter or longer as desired. A brief fanfare on an 8’ trumpet is a great way to set the atmosphere of a hymn praising the greatness and majesty of God. Some hymns might beg a more harmonically colorful introduction akin to the French school of improv, or the composers like Messiaen and Tournemire. You can try things like playing the motif of the melody transposed and in a whole tone scale on an 8’ flute over a string/celeste accompaniment, working and building that toward the first verse. Or perhaps it’s a very traditional-style chorale, and you can improvise a fugal 8-bar introduction. Maybe you play a 5-minute improvised prelude on the hymn tune, finally building into the first verse. There are too many variables and options to suggest anything much more concrete in such a short article. The takeaway here is, don’t feel confined to strict statements of the hymn tune for introductions, especially when the hymn is well known to the singers.
Similarly, rather than trudging along verse-to-verse, try linking some verses together with brief interludes. In tip #2 we discussed registration. You can use an interlude to seamlessly build or reduce your registration between verses, all the while giving singers a moment to catch their breath. Interludes can also help you time the hymn to the procession or liturgical action without having to repeat verses. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also use an interlude to conduct a modulation, something that is often effective leading into a grand final verse with a big registration, and a nice reharmonization. Speaking of which:
5. Reharmonize a Verse or Two
Just as you needn’t confine yourself to introductions that simply state the tune, you can also reject the notion that the only acceptable harmony is the part writing on the page. Of course, if the choir is singing one or more of the verses in parts, then you do want to stick to the harmony they are singing. But any verses that are sung melody-only are open for reharmonization. Reharmonization is just one more tool to create the texture and mood of the verse (for those who might be unfamiliar: reharmonization simply means keeping the same melody but altering the harmony beneath it). There are many ways you might approach reharmonizing and multiple instances in which it is useful, but for now let’s just consider two situations.
First, let’s talk about those quiet, meditative, and even sad verses. For these, sometimes the constant motion of 4-part writing is simply too busy. You can simplify the accompaniment by reducing part movement and holding chords longer. Often a single chord can cover one or more measures with little or no alteration or motion. This is where experimentation comes into play. Play around and see how long you can remain on a single chord while still effectively complementing the melody! You can try changing some chords as well, and we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Another effective tool here is to use a pedal point under a large chunk of the hymn by holding a single note in the pedal, while continuing to play a basic harmony in the manuals. Often the root or the fifth of the key works well for this. Pedal pointing with the root gives a subdued, meditative feel, while pedal pointing with the fifth tends to build a bit of suspense for whatever the eventual resolution will be.
The other ideal moment for a reharmonization is the big final verse. For this, your goal is to drive home notions of grandeur and glory and majesty, pushing the congregation to sing with renewed energy. There are quite a few published collections of “Last Verses” on the market, so if you’re not the experimenting/improvising sort, that is an option. However, I find it much more rewarding to create my own rehamonizations.
Unlike the simpler, more subdued reharmonization described earlier, final verse reharmonization is about building excitement, and often involves surprising chords and progressions that the ear isn’t expecting, employing the sort of harmony often described as “crunchy.” Extensions and alterations of chords using sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, half or fully diminished chords, augmented chords, suspensions, and other such altered voicings that add significant color to the harmony are the foundation of last verse rehamonizations. This introduces excitement through tension and dissonance, which ultimately leads to a grand resolution at the end, leaving singers and listeners musically and spiritually invigorated.
But how do you decide what chords to use when reharmonizing? First of all, don’t be afraid to experiment, and especially don’t be afraid to make mistakes when you’re practicing this. Like any other skill it will take time and effort to develop. But most anyone with a basic understanding of chords and harmony will be able to experiment with reharmonization and produce useable results. I’m going to propose a few suggestions and ideas, but be aware that we’re barely scratching the surface. It would take an entire book to probe the depths of reharmonization.
Start by playing through the melody and choosing a couple of target notes or points that you really want to highlight musically with an alternative chord. Which notes you choose might be based on melodic focal points, moments of musical climax or tension, or maybe more related to the underlying text.
Once you’ve selected those targets you have to choose your new harmony. A solid starting point is to look at the melody note itself and run through the different functions it could have in a chord. By way of example, let’s say you’ve chosen a target note which happens to be an A natural. What is A, harmonically? It’s the root of all A chords (major, minor, diminished, augmented, etc.); it’s the minor third of F# minor; the major third of F major; it could be the suspended 4 of an E major chord; it’s the perfect 5th of D major; it’s the sixth of C major; it’s the dominant 7th of a B major chord; it’s the major 7 of a Bb major chord. That’s not exhaustive, but it is illustrative of the many ways an A natural can function harmonically. Construct those chords under the A and listen for the sound you want. Other starting points for choosing alternate chords might include drawing from the relative minor of the original key, or drawing from the chords of the IV and V keys of the original key. Once you are satisfied with your new chord, make note of it.
Okay, you’ve got one new chord in your reharm. Now what? Well, the existing harmony probably doesn’t exactly lead to your new chord in a logical fashion, and in many cases it’s probably too jarring and unpleasant to just “plop” into the new chord. You have to think backward from your target, and consider the ways to get to the new chord. A good starting point is to use the secondary dominant to lead to the new chord (a secondary dominant is basically the V or V7 chord of the chord/key that you’re targeting, as opposed to the “primary dominant,” which is the V of the overall key of the piece). Often you can make the secondary dominant fit cleverly in the measure leading to your target to create a harmonically interesting and palatable transition. If, for example, we chose to use our A from the example above as the dominant 7 of a B Major chord, we’d try to work an F#7 into the note or measure beforehand to lead us there. Obviously, this won’t work in every instance, so you would have to play with other cadential options to lead to your new chord. Then simply continue working backward until your new progression integrates well with the original harmony (and note that reharmonized verses often only use alternate voicings and chords in some spots, rather than altering every single note/chord).
It’s worth reiterating, at this point, that this is a process of trial and error, and it may take a lot of experimenting to arrive at your desired result. Don’t give up!
The aforementioned pedal point technique on the fifth of the original key can also be hugely effective in final verses to build excitement and energy, often coupled with a registration crescendo. A technique I like to use is to pedal point the 5 in the pedal and play a whole step trill in the left hand between the 5 and the 6, while playing the melody with block chords in the right hand. For example, in the key of F Major, the pedal would hold a C, the left hand would trill on C & D, and the right hand would play the melody with block chords beneath it. Adding to the registration while you do this can create intense energy to lead into a “crunchier” and exciting final phrase!
It can be difficult to visualize and audiate all of those ideas without concrete examples, but hopefully it at least provides some ideas to play with on your own. If an example is helpful, here’s a video I recently made looking at my last verse reharmonization of Holy God, We Praise Thy Name (GROSSER GOTT):
It should also be noted that even in a big, crunchy final verse, some restraint is still necessary. Like anything else, if the music becomes a novelty or a distraction, it is no longer serving its proper function (i.e. raising hearts & minds to prayer and devotion). Always remember that liturgical music, including hymn arrangements, should be the “humble handmaid of the liturgy,” as St. Pius X reminded us in his motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini!
Conclusion: Regardless of the hymnal you choose—and I urge you to read Mr. Craig’s article to help with your decision—make sure that your hymn playing lifts hearts & minds to God, highlights and accentuates the musical and textual themes of each verse, and encourages, rather than discouraging, participation! If you apply yourself to analyzing the text of the hymn, pace the hymn well with good energy and solid phrasing, and work out varied and complementary registrations, you’ll be providing solid and engaging accompaniment that will uplift the faithful and encourage energetic participation. If you can add in more interesting introductions, interludes, and reharms, all the better! And while you’re at it, don’t forget to have some fun!