Tunes (Part 3)

Yesterday, we considered a primary element that characterizes a hymn tune: its meter.  Today, in the third installment of our series on tunes, I’ll endeavor to apply some of the concepts we’ve already examined to a practical situation.

Remember our illustration of the imaginary Psalter Hymnal without music?  Well, suppose one of the texts for which you have to find a tune is a versification of Psalm 118.  Its ten stanzas read like this:

(1) Give thanks and praise to God above,
For everlasting is His love;
Praise Him, ye saints, your Savior praise,
Forever good in all His ways.

(2) Let all His servants tell abroad
The never-failing grace of God;
Let all who fear Jehovah’s Name
His everlasting love proclaim.

(3) In bondage of distress and grief
To God I cried, and sought relief;
In wondrous love He heard my plea
And set my soul at liberty.

(4) Though foes assail I will not fear,
For at my side the Lord is near;
The Lord my helper, I shall win
The victory over the hosts of sin.

(5) Who put their trust in God Most High
On everlasting strength rely;
Their confidence shall pass away
Who make the arm of flesh their stay.

(6) Ye gates of peace and joy untold,
Ye gates of righteousness, unfold,
That I may enter in and raise
A song of thankfulness and praise.

(7) Within Thy gates, O God of grace,
Thy saints shall find a dwelling-place;
My thanks and praise to Thee I bear,
My Savior, Who hast heard my prayer.

(8) What wondrous things the Lord hath wrought!
The stone the builders set at naught,
Established by no human hand,
The chiefest cornerstone doth stand.

(9) In this the day the Lord hath made
To Him be joyful honors paid;
Let us Thy full salvation see,
O Lord, send now prosperity.

(10) Hosanna!  Praise to Him proclaim
Who cometh in Jehovah’s Name;
May blessing from God’s dwelling-place
Descend on us in boundless grace.

For this exercise, I’ve chosen an old versification of Psalm 118 from the 1912 Psalter.  It’s far from perfect, but it should at least suit our purposes.  As we continue the series over the next week or two, we’ll make it our goal to find a fitting tune for this setting.

The first step in choosing a tune for this text, as I described in the previous article, is to find a metrically compatible tune.  Simply count the number of syllables in each line to determine the meter—but be sure to check all the verses for consistency, since some lines may have been “tweaked” to include more or fewer syllables.  (Note that the last line of verse 4, “the victory over the hosts of sin,” contains ten syllables instead of the usual eight.  This problem is resolved by contracting some of the syllables: “the vict’ry o’er the hosts of sin.”)

If you complete this step, you should arrive at the conclusion that this versification is in, or “long meter.”  Since this is one of the most common meters for a psalm or hymn text, we can expect to find a wealth of possible tunes at our disposal.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll limit the scope of this project to tunes within the Psalter Hymnal.

The next step is to check the metrical index of tunes in the front of the Psalter Hymnal.  In the “L.M.” category I see as many as fifty possible choices—but that’s only the beginning.  You’ll also notice listings for “L.M., 5 lines,” “L.M., with refrain,” “L.M., 6 lines,” “L.M., 6 lines, with refrain,” “L.M., 7 lines,” and “L.M.D.”  How do we differentiate between these confusingly similar meters?

To answer this question, we may need to study our text in a little more depth.  In its original form, “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above” has stanzas of four lines each.  It’s entirely possible that we could leave the text untouched and select a standard L.M. tune from those fifty possibilities.  But here are some other options:

  • We could repeat the last line of each stanza and set the text to a five-line L.M. tune.  (To hear how this would work, try singing the first stanza to BACA, number 75.)
  • We could reorganize the lines into six stanzas of six lines each (with four repeated at the end).  In this case, lines 1 and 2 of stanza 2 would be added to stanza 1, lines 1-4 of stanza 3 would be added to stanza 2, and so on.
  • We could use a L.M.D. (double long meter) tune by changing the eight four-line stanzas to four eight-line stanzas.  (Sing stanzas 1 and 2 to HE LEADETH ME, number 60.)
  • We could adapt PAXTANG, which is essentially an L.M.D. tune (L.M., 6 lines, with a 2-line refrain), to suit the same purpose.

As it turns out, not all of these options are practical.  The first possibility, repeating one line per verse in an eight-stanza song, would make the piece far too long; the second clearly wouldn’t work, since it would break up the flow of thought in each stanza.  However, the third and fourth possibilities are equally valid.

Up to this point, although we’ve eliminated a few options, we still have far too many choices: about fifty regular L.M. tunes, plus nine L.M.D. alternatives.   (The tenth, SCHMÜCKE DICH, O LIEBE SEELE, is unusable due to the layout of its syllables—try singing the text to it and you’ll understand why.)

Hence begins the process of narrowing down our possibilities.  I’ll explain the next steps in a future post, but for now, I’ll leave the ball in your court.  Do you favor keeping this text in four-line long meter, or would you rather repartition it into four longer stanzas of eight lines each (L.M.D.)?  Does the poetry itself give you any clues?  From the L.M. and L.M.D. listings in the index of the Psalter Hymnal, do any tunes strike you as particularly appropriate for this setting?  Why?

I hope we can use this simple exercise to stimulate some practical thought and discussion.  In the next article, we’ll consider two more criteria to be considered in selecting a tune: rhythm and time signature.  But for the present, I look forward to your responses.


6 Responses to “Tunes (Part 3)”

  1. 1 Gary August 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    I won’t presume to impose a tune upon the text here, but recall well when a Pastor, armed with some fundamentals of metrical notation, decided to frame a certain song from the Psalter with another tune. It happened, however that one of the two included an extra line in each verse. The pianist played from the alternate tune, the congregation sang from the specified song, and toward the end of the first stanza “decently and in order” began to experience some severe strains.

    • 2 Michael Kearney August 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      Ha ha, I can certainly imagine how that would sound! A similar situation frequently occurs here in West Sayville, because one of our supplemental songbooks has a number of familiar hymns set to completely unknown tunes. So an innocent congregant will shout out “Number 321” during a song service, but they have no idea how awful the associated tune is. Some are so bad that the pastor cuts them off midway through the first verse!

      Needless to say, we’re trying to learn to avoid those.


  1. 1 Tunes (Part 4) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 9, 2012 at 7:06 am
  2. 2 Tunes (Part 5) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 15, 2012 at 6:07 am
  3. 3 Tunes (Part 6) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 22, 2012 at 6:01 am
  4. 4 Tunes (Part 7) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

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