I suppose you cannot really understand what a hymn is all about unless you’ve had a personal encounter with a hymn, maybe singing with hundreds of people in a vast cathedral to the visceral accompaniment of a mighty organ, or maybe picking out the notes on your ancient piano on a quiet Sunday evening with your sister singing alto to your soprano. If you’ve ever been singing a hymn and had a moment where the music just gets to you, and a few of the notes choke your voice just a bit, and you have to pretend nothing happened but you were actually, deeply, stupidly moved by what you were singing, I suspect that was a good hymn, or maybe not.
What makes a great hymn is what we’re struggling with in Pax Christi Chorale right now as we judge the finalists in our “Great Canadian Hymn Competition.” The final 17 were chosen from 75 entries, and last night at rehearsal we sang through all the candidates for prizes. After due consideration the singers will vote online and choose their top 4 hymns. We’ll come back next week with a short list and choose our prizewinners.
A hymn is really a very simple form of music – usually strophic, so that the same music is repeated for each verse of the poetry. It’s meant for singing in a large group of untrained singers, so the range cannot be too great, nor can the harmonies be overly difficult. But a great hymn does require an engaging melody, effective harmony, and a perfect marriage of text and music. The right formula can make a simple thing a thing of great beauty (see Joy of Cleaning blog.)
Last night many of the choristers claimed that they like this year’s offerings even better than the hymns we recorded and published three years ago. We will not be recording and publishing this year’s offerings. It costs too much (see Walnut Cruller blog.)
We will sing all of the 17 finalists’ hymns at our concert on Sunday October 6, at Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto at 3:00pm. We’ve invited all of the composers to come. Hopefully they will enjoy hearing their compositions sung in a beautiful space with Simon Walker accompanying.
I do hope YOU will also come. It costs a bit for a ticket, but you will have a chance to rub shoulders with composers from across the province, perhaps from across Canada, and you will receive a gift – our publication and CD recording of Great Canadian Hymns – absolutely free. You will also be able to hear beloved Canadian mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin who is our special guest at this concert. She’ll be introducing the hymns and the composers, as well as sharing some of her own personal encounters with hymns.
Finally, I wonder – what do you think makes a great hymn? What have been your meaningful encounters with hymns? And what hymns do you abhor, and why? I’d be very interested in your feedback, as ever.

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3 Responses to What is a hymn?

  1. Andrew Harding says:

    Hi Stephanie, in the Old Hundredth, I am rather drawn to the sense of people gathering together, creating and celebrating something greater than themselves. Hymns enabling that type of worship really connect. But being rather a contrarian, what really, really grated in my youth was the cringing sentimentality of Blessed Assurance. And actually, abhor is the right word! A close second on the abhor list is I Surrender All – and like the theologian Stanley Hauerwas (in Hannah’s Child), I never could get ‘saved’ by the seventh verse either – in hindsight a blessing. Wish I could be at the concert tomorrow, but have the next one clearly in my diary.
    Andrew

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Hey Andrew. I’m a big fan of the Old 100th and the Genevan psalter. Check out this recording that puts an old spin on an old repertoire:
      http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/stephaniemartinconductor

      For this recording we resurrected the old versions of the tunes and put them alongside renaissance dance tunes and motets. i think it makes for a very pleasant mash up.

      • Andrew Harding says:

        Thanks Stephanie, refreshing to hear an earlier version, and Byrd’s Sing Joyfully on the CD reminded me of doing just that, at a choir weekend in Suffolk (England) a few years ago. Cheers.

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