Sunday, August 31, 2008

Neo-medieval plainsong

Today in church the bulletin said “Hymn 482". The first stanza is written
"Lift up your hearts!" We lift them, Lord, to thee;
Here at thy feet no other may we see.
“Lift up your hearts!” E’en so, with one accord,
We lift them up, we lift them to the Lord.
In Hymnal 1940, there are actually two tunes, but whoever printed the bulletin forgot to designate which tune, so I was wondering which one we’d end up singing. The choir director normally picks the oldest tune of the two. We have a great choir (and sanctuary) for renaissance and baroque music, so it makes sense to pick a 16th century tune over a 19th century one, both for their tastes and also their abilities.

This time, however, the choice was between two 20th century tunes: Sursum Corda (1941) and Magda (1925). The former was obviously written just in time for Hymnal 1940. My money was on the latter, because at the bottom it said “R. Vaughan Williams.”

However, the organist played the former, a tune by Alfred M. Smith, and I was very pleasantly surprised (as was the choir director). The tune is very singable, but has a very Mode V, medieval plainchant feel to it. The lines are reminiscent of Divinum Mysterium (“Of the Father’s love begotten”), but with a much simpler rhythm.

The 1881 words by H. Montagu Butler are set to two other tunes in the CoE hymnals. The English Hymnal (1906) and New English Hymnal (1986) use All Souls by J. Yoakley. The Songs of Praise Enlarged Edition (1931) prints only Pfigysbren, a Welsh tune.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m resistant to (or perhaps even surly about) musical change. With the exception of a few pieces by Britten, Rutter and Bernstein, there’s not much church music worth keeping that was composed since Vaughan Williams’ prodigious contributions to The English Hymnal. 20th century tunes seem to range between unsingable tonality bending (Stravinsky without the talent) and the more recent, rock-influenced pop pablum.

Here is proof that such modernist failings have little to do with the times, and everything to do with choices made by the composers who lived in those times. This is particularly true if you flip to the back of Hymnal 1940, and see that Smith contributed three separate plainsong tunes. Living in the 20th century is no impediment to making lasting church music.

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