Friday, February 22, 2008

My hymn tunes

I have done a quick-read criticism of hymn tunes by several other composers - and I have more to come on that thread. But can I subject my own hymn-tune compositions to fair criticism? Probably not. But here goes anyway:

For some years now, I have been working on some hymnal projects of my own. One project that on which I have just gotten off to a big start is a book of hymns as daily devotions. Another project, which has been going on for a much longer time, is a treasury of hymns that live within the bounds of Lutheran spirituality and good taste. Plus, of course, there is my even longer-running study of hymn tunes and their use especially in 20th-century Anglophone Lutheran hymnals.

All of these mutually-interpenetrating projects have put me in a position to notice when a fairly decent hymn doesn't have a fairly decent tune to go with it. So I have taken it on myself to compose hymn tunes for them. I didn't agonize over the process. I didn't pound on a piano until a melody came to me. I pretty much just read the text, hummed whatever came to mind, and typed it straight into my computer, using a music font and a word processor. Here are the results. Perhaps you can help me with some feedback - are these tunes "gut Choral," as Hans Sachs would say?

Five ThousandI wrote this tune yesterday, on the fly, to go with my hymn on Jesus' feeding of the 5,000. You can read the text of the hymn here (though I have made some minor revisions since I posted it). The chief problem I faced in composing this tune - and, as I have said before, I approach composition as a problem-solving exercise - is how to write a completely original tune in the ubiquitous LM ( metre) while avoiding, on the one hand, being indistinguishable from 1,001 other LM tunes and, on the other hand, being so weird that no one would ever want to sing it. How did I do?

Four ThousandCompare the above hymn with my hymn on the feeding of the 4,000, which you can read here. I think the contrast between the hymns highlights the contrast between these two miracles, which some Bible critics have labeled "doublets." Clearly there are different things going on between these two miracles. At least, I thought so. And therefore, I didn't let the fact that both hymns are in the same metre stop me writing a completely different tune to go with this hymn. I thought putting it "in 5" would make a cute compliment to the text's running metaphor. Putting the lie to my previous statement that I didn't agonize much over these tunes, I did go back and revise this tune after I realized that it bore unintended similarities to a tune called Dunedin by the late Vernon Griffiths.

GrundtvigI wrote this tune back in 2003, to go with a Christmas carol by the Danish theologian N. F. S. Grundtvig. The poem, which in J. C. Aaberg's translation begins with the words "Christmas with gladness sounds," was in such an unusual metre that I had no choice but to create an original tune for it. My aim in this piece was to recapture the spirit of 19th-century Scandinavian chorales, such as those written by one of my heroes, Ludwig M. Lindeman. A secondary problem, quite obviously, was creating a melody that holds together in spite of the strange pattern of syllables it needs to match. I am still fairly pleased with it. In fact, I like my tune better than Grundtvig's hymn. But I would like to see what happens when other people are introduced to it. Maybe it will prove a surprising success!

Or maybe, the same will happen to this tune as another tune I wrote in 2003 to go with a different Grundtvig hymn. I decided, on further reflection, that the hymn was not up to snuff, and deleted it (tune and all) from my Treasury project. Now I wish I had at least saved a hard copy documenting the tune I wrote; but, alas, it is 5 years gone.

HallgrimurLike the first two hymns above, I threw this tune together yesterday while working with my Devotional Hymns project. The text is a passion hymn by the Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson, translated by Charles Venn Pilcher. Again, the metre was peculiar, so necessity demanded that I draft a new tune to go with it. My aim with this tune was to "channel" the sound of a 17th-century Icelandic hymn, though I have only a handful of examples to guide me. My dream of success is to find this tune, years from now, in someone else's collection under the credit line "Icelandic traditional melody."

O Kingly LoveEverything I have to say about this tune, including the lyrics I wrote it to go with, can be read here. Only, if you're interested in getting hold of the piano version (with harmony by the composer!), get in touch and I'll send you a PDF. This is the only tune of mine that has been harmonized - except, I believe, Oxenford - because, at this writing, they are the only ones that have been played and sung in public. But upon request, I can quickly furnish harmonizations of any of my tunes. Perhaps I will publish them as a set, with texts, as a "taster" of my Devotional Hymns book.

OxenfordI wrote this tune in 1998 after coming across an Easter hymn by Paul Gerhardt, translated by one J. Oxenford. The text begins with the words "I know that my Redeemer lives," but runs considerably deeper than Samuel Medley's hymn that begins with the same words. It also has a metre in which, to-date, I have only found two other tunes: G. W. Torrance's Adoration, which in 1998 I considered unspeakably bland; and R. F. Smith's There Came Three Kings, which I find downright repulsive. Since then I have had ambivalent feelings as to whether my tune improves on Torrance's. My current thinking on the matter can be summed up by observing that I put both Adoration and Oxenford above Gerhardt's hymn in my Treasury. However, I also put Oxenford (and only Oxenford) to the hymn "Lord Jesus Christ, Thou highest Good," translated by F. W. Young from the German of Bartholomaeus Ringwaldt.

PresenceI wrote this tune yesterday to go with my devotional hymn on the Lord's Supper, which you can read here (give or take some more recent revisions). I cannot recall trying to do anything special with this hymn, other than to make it as simple, clear, and cohesive as possible, and to avoid the yawning deathtrap of "da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM..." EDIT: After doing a 4-part arrangement of this tune, I recognized that (perhaps unconsciously) I modeled this melody upon the tune Ich sterbe taeglich, widely paired with the Communion hymn "I come, O Savior, to Thy table" - which also influenced the shape of my hymn text. Hmmm.

PruningHere is another tune I wrote yesterday, while spiffing up my Devotional Hymns project. It also goes with a text I wrote some time ago, "O Christ, who art the church's Life." I haven't posted this hymn on my blog yet, but I can tell you this: it's a hymn that explores Jesus' teaching that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God the Father is the Vinedresser who prunes the branches so that they may bear more fruit. This relates both to the theology of suffering and to the way God unites us to Himself, and keeps us in Him, through the Word and Sacraments that create and sustain faith. My aim in this hymn was simply to write something more interesting than the general run of CM tunes ( metre), yet not too far-out to play in Peoria; plus, something that accents the emphases in the text without developing a blocky, plodding rhythm.

"With her cruse of Alabaster" is yet another Grundtvig/Aaberg hymn, this time based on the story of the "Anointing at Bethany," when a woman poured costly perfume on Jesus' feet in a penitential gesture that He interpreted as preparation for His death and burial. In my Treasury this hymn is situated in the "Pre-Lent" section. While a search for tunes in the metre turns up numerous results, most of them have a different pattern of accented syllables from this hymn, which is why I felt compelled, in 2003, to write a tune "tailor-made" for this hymn. I like the result, which has an appealing tenderness combined with a memorable economy of material.


hn160 said...

One can certainly tell that you are a Lutheran. I have heard it said that true Lutherans always look around to see if there are three more verses to a hymn.harry

Robbie F. said...

It's what the hymn says that's important, I think. By the way, my study of hymns has acquainted me with some enormously long Methodist, Anglican, Moravian and Reformed hymns too. To say nothing of Catholic ones that go on for pages. Maybe it's more the age in which these hymns were written - people grasped that if something was worth saying, it was worth saying well...and in a way you could put to music!