Urbane Hymns

Songs let loose from the congregation, from Bach to the present day.

A Village Choir, by John Webster. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve long been fascinated by hymns. A big part of that fascination is their community role as songs for common worship. But I’m also really interested in how hymn tunes are taken out of the church pews, and put into different contexts – sometimes even made into symbols.

The necessary simplicity of hymns for untrained voices also makes them an easy subject for instrumental elaboration. A good example are Bach’s chorale preludes for the organ. Bach is the towering figure for hymnody in the German Lutheran tradition, composing and arranging many tunes in four-part harmony, which are still used as models for teaching today. But his organ preludes spin these chorales out into a more polyphonic texture.

Luther himself composed hymns, including the famous Ein’ Feste Burg. For the 300th anniversary of the 1530 Augsberg Confession – a declaration of Lutheran faith – Mendelssohn composed his Symphony no. 5, known as ‘The Reformation’. It culminates in a finale with Ein’ Feste Burg for full orchestra, glorifying God’s ‘mighty fortress’. Its first movement also includes a references to the ‘Dresden Amen’ figure – a grand hymn cadence that was later used as a Leitmotif by Wagner in his religious-themed opera Parsifal.

On a more intimate scale, an obscure hymn tune unearthed in The English Hymnal was made into a Passacaglia for viola and piano by Rebecca Clarke. This ‘old English tune’, with its austere opening and expressive descending phrase, was attributed to Thomas Tallis. Clarke’s piece is a short masterclass in contrapuntal elaboration, with a powerful punch. It reaches an impressive climax as it turns to the hymn’s final rising line.

Sometimes hymns appear in instrumental works with a personal significance. Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra was commissioned to mark the Millennium of Poland’s Christianisation in 1966. Panufnik – who had already defected to England from what was then part of the Eastern Bloc – used the Medieval Polish hymn the Bogurodzica to powerful effect. Its emotional resonance for the exiled composer is not difficult to imagine.

Similarly heartfelt is Alban Berg’s violin concerto, a work dedicated to ‘the memory of an angel’ – the recently deceased young girl Manon Gropius. In its second movement, Bach’s harmonisation of Es Ist Genug emerges out of Berg’s expressive serialism, set for quiet clarinets. The words of this chorale deal with the preparation for death. The homogenous, ghostly sound of the clarinets could be a remembered choir, or an organ.

Hymns are a source of comfort, and are often sung at funerals and memorials. But when Cheryl Frances-Hoad was commissioned to compose a piece to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, she chose a title that subverted this idea. The composer – then only 20 –  borrowed A Refusal To Mourn from a poem by Dylan Thomas which had made a deep impression in her school English lessons.

Thomas’ arresting anti-elegy invokes religious imagery in the face of a wartime tragedy, even as he seemingly refutes its usefulness. In her piece for oboe and strings, Frances-Hoad makes a similarly bold plundering of two Bach chorales, reorganising pitches to construct chord sequences, motivic cells and retrograde versions.

The delicacy of the string writing and the bright piercing tone of the oboe lends much of the piece an ethereal aura, whose lyrical nimbleness mostly avoids the steady tread of hymnody. But in its final, serene ‘Chorale’ section, the gentle outline of Christus, Der Ist Mein Leben becomes clearer in the oboe’s part. This fascinating and beautiful piece ends on a quietly ambiguous chord. 

The small scale of A Refusal To Mourn seems suited to its material. Lutheran chorales are given a much more expansive canvas in Psalmos, a ‘concerto for orchestra’ by Theirry Escaich. In a video introduction to the piece, Escaich cites the influence of Stravinsky’s hard-edged Symphony Of Psalms, and – perhaps surprising given his source material – the overriding importance of rhythm.

Psalmos is prone to outbursts of vitality and violence, and the chorales, when they make themselves clear, seem to be part of a disturbed dreamscape. Escaich clearly delights in the range of timbres available, including marimba and vibraphone. This composer, steeped in the French organ improvisation tradition, takes us through all the metaphorical stops.

If hymns can help mark important anniversaries, they can also be more nebulous symbols of the past. Vaughan Williams gave a Tallis hymn a famously mysterious treatment for double string orchestra, replete in dying echoes. His friend Holst borrowed an old Genevan Psalm tune for a choral setting with a similarly Gothic aesthetic. In both cases the hymns appear first as ruinous fragments – they give us a magic window into the past. But it soon becomes clear that these musical artefacts are actually expressing timeless human frailties.

A very different example from the other end of Vaughan Williams’ career is his Fantasia On The Old 104th Psalm Tune for orchestra, choir and piano. This gloriously eccentric piece takes a somewhat dour melody through ruminative piano cadenzas to bombastic, neo-Baroque choral counterpoint. It is a marvellous and surprising work from his remarkably experimental old age, and it reaches a thrilling conclusion.

A similarly comprehensive treatment of a short hymn – though on a much smaller scale – comes in the Variations On Love Divine by Ailsa Dixon. This series of nineteen short movements for string quartet uses John Stainer’s melody to the oft-set text Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. But the variations are titled with parts of the Gospel, ‘exploring the meanings of divine love in a series of scenes from the incarnation to the ascension and a final vision of heavenly joy’. In the recording below, the title of each movement is narrated.

Stainer’s eight-bar tune is the model of humility, but it seems to have a symbolic role – it is only after the ‘incarnation’ movement that it is clearly heard, as the now-pregnant Mary makes her way to Bethlehem, with a clip-clop imitation of a donkey. From then on, this hymn is continually varied as we’re taken through the story of Jesus’ life.

There is something quietly thought-provoking about Dixon’s insistence on using this modest, contented-sounding tune to cover such large theological ground. Funny as it sounds, I can’t help but think of the parish church Nativity diorama – the message of this work seems to be that a whole world of religious meaning can be revealed through even the smallest means. In that sense it is closer to the civic role of hymnody than any grander setting.

Of course, hymns have been used for religious story-telling before. Chorales form part of Bach’s Passion settings. Likewise, in Britten’s operatic update of the Mystery Play Noye’s Fludde, he sets three familiar English hymns to mark important points of the story. This fits with the community aesthetic of the work, which includes roles for children, and is designed for performance in churches or other small-scale venues. At the conclusion of this most familiar Biblical tale, with the full audience coming together in song, the sense of ritual through mass participation is truly moving.

As it happens, Britten had used church music to portray a much darker aspect of community in his earlier opera Peter Grimes. In Act 2, we hear off-stage singing of the church’s Sunday morning liturgy – a sinister reminder of the Borough’s collective moral presence, which will be quick to pass judgement on the suspected Grimes. Britten, as a homosexual and Conscientious Objector in wartime Britain, would have been all too aware of dangers of parochial groupthink and religious dogma that church communities could represent.

But however much real life may fail to live up to their sentiments, hymns remain a tempting symbol of an idealised, united society – of Heaven on earth. This unattainable ideal is a poignant subject of Adelaide Anne Procter’s poem A Lost Chord, which was set to music by Arthur Sullivan. Its narrator sits idling at an organ, while feeling ‘weary and ill at ease’, when they chance upon ‘one chord of music / Like the sound of a great Amen’:

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

This moment of musical glory is fleeting. At the poem’s conclusion, we find ‘It may be that only in Heav’n / I shall hear that grand Amen’. Sullivan’s song setting – The Lost Chord – was a huge hit, and though it may sound starchily Victorian today, it is not hard to see why. It is magnificently constructed, with direct emotional appeal and clever word-painting – its introduction even recalls the style of an organ prelude.

Quite aside from specific references, the homophonic, melodically limited style of hymnody is a recognisable musical trope in itself. Some fascinating allusions to the ‘chorale style’ occur in Chopin’s solo piano pieces. In the central section of his Nocturne op. 37 no.1, we hear a series of block chords which sound remarkably like hymnody. For a master of idiomatic piano writing like Chopin to resort to such simplistic means is surely no accident. Perhaps he was expressing a personal religious sentiment, perhaps he was toying with the idea of what piano music could could be. Nocturnes are night-time pieces after all. In darkness thoughts wander, and forms take on uncanny new appearances.

Meanwhile, some passages of music are so irresistibly hymn-like that they simply demand words be set to them. The ‘trio’ from Elgar’s first Pomp And Circumstance March is now virtually inseparable from its later guise as Land Of Hope And Glory. The grand theme that concludes Sibelius’ Finlandia has been set as several songs and hymns – most bizarrely, it even became the national anthem for the briefly secessionist African state of Biafra. Equally counter-intuitive is that the majestic chorale-like theme from the finale of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony was turned into a hit 1978 song with a reggae beat, appropriately titled If I Had Words. The song’s video was even set in a church.

As any parish organist will know, hymn tunes are naturally promiscuous – they frequently find themselves with several lyrical partners. But in adding words to instrumental music, we put it to a new purpose altogether. Whether it is secular, religious, or political, we lose some of the inherent flexibility in the music’s meaning.

For this reason, I have always much preferred the great hymn-like theme that emerges in the middle of ‘Jupiter’ in Holst’s The Planets to either of its settings as I Vow To Thee, My Country or World In Union.

There’s also an obvious problem here: Holst’s tune in Jupiter covers a range of an octave and a sixth – and it rises which each repetition, totalling three octaves. To be sung easily, its second part has to be transposed down an octave. So in pinning this tune to lyrics, it not only loses ambiguity, but also much of its ascendant, transportive power.

While Holst’s melody is not a hymn, it does seem to be a kind of hymn-essence. It arrives without warning in resonant unison strings, and rises gloriously, unconstrained by the human vocal range, and all the messy baggage of its words.

In my mind, that is what makes this music so much more moving than any attempt to put it into verse, however well-meaning. Jupiter – the ‘bringer of jollity’ – is a planet of astrological pondering, a source of marvel beyond our grasp. This is a hymn of impossibility; a song of pure love, free of our earthly liturgies and flawed human communities. Perhaps that is why, just before its final climax, it vanishes back into thin air. It leaves us with its own lost chord. It may be that only in a heaven, of one kind or another, that we can hear such a grand ‘Amen’.

This article was powered by dedication…and a lot of caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.