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The Humble Hymn

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Archives / 1961 / February



The Humble Hymn

H. B. Hannum

Professor of Music, La Sierra College


THERE is nothing to them. They are simple, easy to play. I never give them a second thought."  How often the play­ing of hymns is dismissed by an otherwise capable musician with just such carelessness. The playing of hymns on either the organ or the piano is no insignificant matter. Too often the musician neglects his education in the truly effective playing of hymns.

Not all hymns are of equal musical value, it is true, but regardless of this, every hymn used by the congregation is worthy of being played in the most efficient and musical way, giving support and spiritual power to congre­gational singing.

The organist or pianist should make it his first duty to learn to play every hymn in the Church Hymnal.  He should be able to play every note perfectly, in correct rhythm, and in the right tempo or speed. It is so easy to get into the habit of playing all hymns in nearly the same moderate tempo. There is a great variety in the music of hymns, and the various styles of music call for differences in the speed of their singing. For example, some of the great chorales of the German reformation should be sung slower than they are usually sung. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (Church Hymnal, No. 261) is frequently sung too fast. It should not be sung too slow, either, but there is a majesty in this hymn that is lost at the rapid pace we usually sing it. The organist should know this, and should know at just what tempo to play it for greatest effectiveness.

Other hymns are frequently taken at too fast a pace. Such hymns as "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Church Hymnal, No. 73), "O God, Our Help" (Church Hymnal, No. 81), and "Now Thank We All Our God" (Church Hymnal, No. 90) should not be sung rapidly. There is'majesty in a slower speed, especially in large congregations, which we often miss by a hurried tempo. Of course, singing at a slow pace is not the equiva­lent of dragging. There should be life and spirit in the slow speed. Here the organist should know how to make these hymns effective by his playing, even at slow speeds.

Slow speed is not synonymous with spiritual singing, neither is fast singing necessarily flip­pant or trivial. For example, the hymn "Cour­age, Brother" (Church Hymnal, No. 263) might be sung a little faster than the luke\varm, moderate speed one is apt to choose. There is no one speed that is necessarily right for every hymn. It would depend upon the circum­stances, the size of the congregation, the nature of the room, and other factors. So it is unwise to state that any hymn must be sung at only one tempo under all conditions. But it is im­portant that the musician playing the organ understand all these things. He should know what tempo is best for each hymn under vari­ous circumstances.

The musician should know the hymn thor­oughly, so as to bring out the sense of the hymn. The organist should remember that his main responsibility is to play the music of the hymn so effectively that he will stimulate congrega­tional singing. Hymn singing is a congrega­tional exercise, not a display of the organ or the organist.

On the organ hymns should be played ex­actly as written, with each of the voice lines kept clear. At times the pianist will want to fill in the harmony judiciously, but seldom if ever does this have to be done on the organ. The organist should play the soprano, alto, and tenor parts on the manuals, and the bass part with the pedals. By careful registration he can make the fullness needed to lead the congregation. The congregation should not be overwhelmed by the organ, but supported and led by the instrument. A church musician should learn how to lead a congregation by the skillful playing of cither the piano or the organ. If necessary he should seek the help of an or­ganist who is recognized as a good leader in hymn playing, for this is a skill that takes much study and practice.

The adding of runs, chromatic or otherwise, the introducing of flourishes, the changing of the harmonies, the "improving" of the hymns by adding notes here and there—all these should be avoided. The organist should never use the tremolo or vibrato for congregational singing. Hymns should not be sweetened or romanticized in any way. The modulation be­tween stanzas is a practice that should be used only rarely and for special occasions. In other words, hymns should be kept simple, and theyshould be the glory of the congregation in uniting in praise to God.

Where there is an adequate organ it is not necessary to have a piano play along with the organ. In fact, it is much better not to use the piano and organ together to accompany hymns. Either the piano alone or the organ alone is fully sufficient to accompany the congregation..

In addition to a good technique, the secret of good hymn playing is for the organist to put his heart and soul into the playing of the music. He should read every stanza along with the congregation. He should phrase his playing to suit the phrasing of the words. He will pause sufficiently at the end of lines and at the close of the stanzas so as to give the congregation time to breathe. He will keep a good, steady rhythm throughout the stanza. These are mat­ters that every church musician should care­fully consider.

It is not the easiest thing in the world to play hymns. Our churches need musicians who believe that this is an art that needs thorough and careful study.


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