Tuesday, October 23, 2012

O Praise Hymn: King's College Sings "Best Loved Hymns"

(reflections on a recording by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge of "Best Loved Hymns" from The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, selected and conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Notes by Cleobury and Richard Abram.  Issued by EMI recordings, 2001. Also, Vaughan Williams on Music, by David Manning. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, displayed on Google Books. (p. 32). Reflections on the Hymnbook itself.)

If director Stephen Cleobury had asked for my favorite hymns from the Episcopal Church's 1982 collection, my list would've matched the program for his CD of "Best Loved Hymns."  Unfamiliar to me when the hymnbook was new, some of these songs affect me now as old friends.  Hearing Cleobury's choir sing "The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended," its tune gently rocking up and down like a lullabye, I recall how singing it by candlelight at Sunday evensong brought serenity to this young teacher, who always came to the service anxious about Monday morning.  But there are other features of these songs to love, and perhaps I can help some hymno-skeptics to listen to them the way I do. 

First, however, we must acknowledge a cultural prejudice.  There's a presumption that fast music is "happy" and slow music must be "sad."  Our culture has forgotten how a deliberate tempo can express a wide range of emotions that aren't in the vocabularies of my seventh graders today.  Serenity, contentment, yearning, wistfulness, resolve, and reverence require explanation.  Unless the reader understands how music can be solemn without being sad, then the discussion has to stop here.

If you're still with me, you may already understand that hymns are not "slow" in a strict sense: they just lack the rhythm track that fills between beats in pop music.  For example, both Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and this recording's stately performance of Herbert Howells's "All My Hope on God is Founded" move at 120 beats per minute; Jackson merely squeezes more syllables into each measure.  Hymns are often much "faster" than pop music where chord changes are concerned. We  are used to pop songs that repeat bass lines every four measures under three chords, or even two chords. We should appreciate the frequent changes that Vaughan Williams makes in every measure of "Come Down O Love Divine," relaxing the tension at the end of each verse, as on the phrase, "Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling."

If we think of melody as the lines of a drawing, then chord changes fill in color.  Herbert Howells (d. 1983) shifts harmonies frequently under his tune for "All My Hope on God is Founded," words by Seymour Bridges (d. 1930). He named his tune Michael, for his young son who died around the time of this song's composition in 1930.   (Tunes exist independently and are traditionally re-used for other words.  For example, the tune for "God Save the Queen" is used for "God Bless our Native Land" and "My Country 'tis of Thee").  Howells shifts to unexpected chords out of the home key while we sing that "change and chance" undermine our expectations,  and even "tower and temple fall to dust."  Howells' harmony comes back to the home key under the reassurances of the verses' final phrases: "Christ doth call / One and all; / Ye who follow shall not fall."  

Here, we should also appreciate the craftsmanship in the words of these hymns.  Notice, in the Howells, how the concluding clauses click in place with the added third rhyme: ...call - all - shall not fall.  This last line of all gives us a bonus with wordplay on "fall" and "follow."  An earlier verse makes a lovely theological point, too: "From His store / Evermore / New-born worlds rise and adore."  An alert choir director can find songs to relate to the readings for any Sunday -- even when the text is about Jesus as priest "like Melchizedek!"   The words often develop complex ideas in three or four verses, densely packed with meaning.

John Ireland (d. 1962) also uses harmony to paint such a rich text for "My Song is Love Unknown." The verses by Samuel Crossman (published 1664) reach their climaxes in lines about Christ's suffering, emphasized by inner rhyme:

...O, who am I
that for my sake,
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die? ...
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry....

Here, as in Michael, the harmony unsettles us.  The hymn, in both words and music, expresses reverence and reassurance, tempered by resignation and regret. Happiness? Sadness? We're way beyond those categories.

We can also appreciate artistry in the melodies themselves.  The tune we know as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" by Joachim Neander (d. 1680) is danceable in a vigorous 3/4 time.  Neander works variety into the melody, while still repeating enough to make the song "catchy."  The first line starts low and leaps up a fifth to "the almighty," slopes down in small steps and then up again in a "V" pattern. The second line repeats the pattern, but the third line inverts it, starting high and dropping down, then stepping up and down ( ^ ).   The step-by-step motion continues in the last line, sloping upward ( / ) before settling on the home note, right when words reassure us that God "sustaineth" or "doth befriend" us. 

There's a different way to balance repetition and variety in the lovely folk tune Slane, to which we sing the words "Be Thou My Vision."  There's a catchy little slide that we do going down on the word "my" (sung "my-y vision") and up on "o" (sung "o-o Lord").  That's the song's hook, giving us something familiar while the melody changes with each phrase. At "Thou my best thought," we get two of those little hooks in a row signalling the climax at our highest note ("Thou my-y be-est thought") before we settle down to where we started.  So the melody, prase by phrase, tends upward, never repeating before it relaxes at the end.  But we recognize the hook wherever it happens, and each phrase picks up where the one before leaves off, so the song has a unified feeling.  Reaching upward and upward, then falling like a sigh: it's a musical metaphor for yearning.

Some Episcopalians complain that the hymns "aren't familiar," but Vaughan Williams, writing in the preface to a hymn book of 1909, faced the same complaints.  He pointed out then that the "familiar" tunes hadn't been familiar for long, all being less than fifty years old. The program for this CD spans 400 years, so that we are hearing music that worshippers have sung all that time, with words that go back much further.  Here's something else to love, then: When we sing, we share "one body, one blood," and one voice, in time as well as in space.

Listening to the CD reveals something else to love.  Even at our thinnest, on bad days, our choir reminds me how these songs sound in halls such as King's College, where the sounds fly to every dark corner and glowing window of a vast space, and pauses bring the flying notes back down to human level. Reverb captures the feeling on CD, and I can't help but think both of God's transcendance and his immanence when I hear both the grandeur and the silences in these recordings.

1 comment:

Bill said...

I enjoyed this. Interesting and beautifully written. My only objection is that now I have "Beat It" stuck in my head.