After a workshop on Hymnody and Hymnals I started to pay attention to the music within the covers of many hymnals. Although, when you compare different pages in a hymnal, much of the music looks the same as every other page, there is a large variety of styles, eras, and words to be found, including ancient chant, Renaissance dance music, German chorales, Folk music from various cultures, and so much more. The age of the music ranges from the 8th century to mid 20th century. Some was directly written for the church, but a lot of it is adapted from the secular music of its day. At the bottom of the page of each hymn is a lot of information about it, and sometimes indications of how to perform it.

Just for fun, let’s examine the hymns we sang for Easter Sunday. Hymn # 205 “Good Christians All” is a fun one to sing because basically it’s a dance tune. Not only is it a dance tune, but specifically it’s a Renaissance dance tune of the type known as a Galliard. A Galliard is a vigorous, leaping dance, full of off beat twists, meant in part for the men dancers to display their abilities in showy kicks, jumps and turns. Not that the women were just standing around admiring their partners, they too danced strenuously. Dancing the Galliard is a good aerobic exercise. The dance music of the Renaissance is, in general, known for syncopated rhythms and quick turns of phrases. Fun. Naturally, for singing in a church, the speed is slowed down some, but the feel of the music stays true to its roots and after singing it, the congregation feels joyfully uplifted. If you look at the bottom of the page you find a small instruction to sing the Alleluias in harmony if you wish; the person who wrote the words is listed; and the source of the music is listed, as well as the name of the tune and the composer if known. In the case of hymn #205 the words are late 19th or early 20th century, but the music is late 16th century, right at the height of the Renaissance Dance Era.


Moving on to Hymn # 199, “Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain”, we land right in the middle of light musical theater from the later 19th century. This charming and light hearted music, by Arthur Seymour Sullivan echoes his well known style found in all of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas. If you’ve ever heard a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, you will recognize the style. The words are from the 8th century translated into English in the mid 19th century.

The beautiful 20th century hymn #178, “Alleluia”, which we sang at communion, was meant for church singing from the beginning. Both words and music were written by the same man, but if you look at the bottom of the page under music it seems that the arrangement was done by committee. The result is a simple and moving hymn worthy of singing every Easter, which we pretty much do.

And the fourth hymn of our Easter this year,  which we sang first,  is the almost indispensable  #207  “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”.  This hymn is from the early 18th century,  the time period known as the High Baroque.  J. S. Bach was 23 years old and just embarking on his long career as an organist and composer.  Rembrandt was painting portraits.  And Louis XIV of France ruled his kingdom with an iron fist.  Music was meant for the entertainment of the courts and was frequently very big in sound.  Like the time in which it was composed,  this hymn is larger than life; a foursquare confident march with a noble feel,  full of the vigor brought on by religious zeal of the truest form.   It is meant for the ringing of bells at every Alleluia. There is no question about where this music is headed, and  at the completion of the final Alleluia we want to jump up and down and cheer for the Risen Lord.

And there was our Easter hymnody for this year. A five hundred year journey in four hymns. There are seven hundred and twenty hymns in the Episcopal 1982 Hymnal. Just imagine what else there is to discover between those covers.


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