Find room in your heart for the "other"

“Well, this Sunday we’re singing the other tune.” Please allow me to explain.

Hymnals contain music of all genres – plainsong chant, traditional hymns in four-parts, hymns sung in unison only, verse/refrain hymns, hymns with descants, and tune from literally all over the globe.

Hymnals also contain poetry of all kinds and from throughout the centuries – translated Latin texts, poem with rhyme and meter, hymns with verbatim scriptural texts, and litanies in which only key phrases change but have a recurring phrase, just to name a few.

Loving hymns as we do, we mistakenly come to believe that hymn texts and tunes are forever married, but this is not true. Many early hymnals contained all the texts in the front and all the tunes in the back; the singer was expected to “know” all the tunes. Then hymnals began printing the texts and tune on one page, with the tune at the top and the text at the bottom. The singer was then expected to exercise his/her neck muscles looking up and down.

Truth is that hymnal editors and editorial committees throughout the years marry hymn texts and tunes in their various new hymnals. There are many reasons for this practice, one of which that any hymnal committee worth its salt will ask or commission contemporary composers to write new hymn tunes for a new hymnal. How else would we have new music to sing if they did not?

Throughout my parish music career, I have heard a couple of times, “You played that hymn to the wrong tune.” There are a number of explanations to this complaint, some of which are good but none of which are completely satisfying.

Often the explanation is that a particular text was set to a particular tune that we remember in the Presbyterian or Methodist hymnal with which we grew up, the latter being very true for yours truly. Remember that the Epsicopal Church is the via media, the middle way, and 60 percent of the national Church membership consists of converts.

Indeed, we are also the happy meeting ground for many Roman Catholic and Baptist marriages! The Episcopal Church consists of a little of everyone, all with our unique faith traditions and experiences.

“Cradle Episcopalians” will remember that The Hymnal 1940, that great 20th Century hymnal with the longest life and usage of all hymnals, used superscripts along with the hymn numbers to indicate one text as set to two or three different tunes. Episcopal parish secretaries had to slightly roll up the manual typewriter roll to type the superscript number in the service leaflets.

While, as a pastoral, experienced, and fairly enlightened parish musician, I would never offer or suggest a different tune to many texts (“Amazing grace” being one), I can proudly say that this parish sings a number of hymns to different tunes or, for that matter, sings a number of tunes set to different texts.

I maintain that singing a beloved text to a different tune causes us to pay a little more attention to that particular text. The prime example in our parish hymn repertoire is “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Hymn 470 is the old Protestant tune, with which I grew up and still love; we sang this hymn this past summer. However, Hymn 469, Calvin Hampton’s tune from the 1970s, completely transforms this text into something else, something lyric and meditative, something completely beautiful. We have many parishioners who will testify to this fact, including me.

This Sunday (October 15) we will sing “Christ, whose glory fills the skies” as set to Hymn 6, the “other tune,” written by Australian-born composer Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003). We have used this tune numerous times before but perhaps not as much as Hymn 7, the tune with which this great Charles Wesley text has been associated for over a century.

Our published companion to The Hymnal 1982  describes Williamson’s tune as “a twentieth century pop style” and “a tune of particular simplicity and charm.” It was first published in Twelve New Hymn Tunes (London, 1962) and first appeared in this country in Ecumenical Praise, an Episcopal supplemental hymnal published in 1977.

You will notice an invariable rhythmic pattern of four eighth notes followed by three quarter notes throughout, which gives the hymn symmetry and accessibility to the singer. Singers, both experienced and novice, like rhythmic symmetry, which feels very easy to sing, as there are few surprises.

During Communion this Sunday, be sure to open the hymnal and sing Hymn 6 with the choir. And not to worry, we’ll sing “the other tune” again one of these days soon.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 15:21