Hymns at St Peter's

Music Matters – July 2018

The Director of Music writes…

In March, I reflected on the process of choosing the choral music for the term, commenting at the end that “all that remains is to choose the hymns”, adding that in fact this is just as complex a puzzle!  St Peter’s congregation has a diverse background – one of its great strengths – but that does mean that what is a well-known hymn to some may be unknown to others. This is at the forefront of my mind when I choose the hymns for each term; I try to strike a good balance between regular use of well-loved hymns and maintaining a wide and extensive repertoire (indeed I try not to repeat a hymn during the course of a term which, incidentally, equates to a repertoire of almost one hundred hymns – a very impressive number of which the congregation should be very proud!).  I don’t want our repertoire of hymns to seem stagnant, however, and so every so often I will introduce a hymn that I believe might not be well-known, but one which people may like were it to become so! In these cases, I try to only introduce such a hymn when the choir is present, and to repeat it after not too long a time in order to solidify it in our minds. On this subject, I am particularly pleased that we will be singing a brand new hymn at the Patronal Eucharist on 1st July with words and music both written by our own Rector (a boast that can’t imagine many parishes can share)!  Alongside these concerns, I am also mindful of the place of each hymn in the service: processional/opening hymns should be well-known (but see above!), inspiring, and ideally introducing the theme of the service (as set by the gospel reading of the day); I try to ensure the Offertory Hymn will cover the time needed to take the collection (but also have the luxury of an organist team that have the skills to elegantly extend the hymn in case of misjudgments here); the Communion Hymn will usually be subdued and prayerful in character; the Final Hymn aims to send us out with a good tune on our lips!

Members of the congregation may have noticed that we have something of a ‘policy’ when it comes to how the choir helps support the singing of the hymns.  The first verse of each hymn is always sung in unison (i.e., without the harmony parts); in this way, the melody line is reinforced, serving as what I hope is a useful reminder before we add in some musical variety by breaking into harmony for the middle verses (of course the organist also has an important role in creating this musical variety, by using the different colours of the organ to illustrate the different moods and characters of the text).  If hymns are longer than three verses, we usually resume singing in unison in the final verse to make for a strong, confident finish (sometimes ornamented by a descant or an organ reharmonisation).

Naturally, the organist has a key role in supporting the hymns.  The first thing to which he or she must give thought is the speed of the hymn; we do not have a big, reverberant acoustic at St Peter’s which means hymns do not have to be sung slowly – indeed our preference is always that they flow forwards at an elegant pace, but never so fast that quicker notes become difficult to fit in.  Next, the organist must decide how much of the hymn to use as an introduction; this should be long enough that members of the congregation can find it in their books, but it must also make musical sense. The hymn tune ‘Melita’ (“Eternal Father, strong to save”) serves as an interesting example here, as the first half (usually a safe bet for an introduction) ends in the key of E minor which results in a particularly uncomfortable lurch when going back to the C major of the opening!  All this requires careful thought; I know of at least one establishment where a complete verse is always used as an introduction but, though it appeals to my love of consistency, this can start to feel uncomfortable in a hymn tune where each verse is rather long – ‘Thaxted’ (“I vow to thee my country”) is an extreme, twenty-four bar long, example!

Another key issue on which the organist must decide is the gap inserted between verses.  It is important that the metre of the hymn is not too disturbed by this – if counting the beats thoughout the hymn (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, etc.) the silence between verses should maintain this regular pulse, in time, and in proportion.  For example, in a quadruple metre hymn that starts on the last beat of the bar (such as ‘Repton’/“Dear Lord and Father of mankind”) our usual practice is for three beats on the last chord plus two beats rest, because the potentially more obvious (and certainly more mathematically pleasing) solution of four beats on the final chord and three beats rest can often feel rather too drawn out in our acoustic.

As with so many things, there is more to think about that one might at first presume when it comes to hymns!