Archive for August, 2012

Tunes (Part 6)

When a new hymnal comes out, scholarly church members tend to pounce on songs with bad doctrine.  Older congregants might grumble about altered lyrics in the old hymns.  Younger congregants might complain that not enough of their own favorites were included.  What about church musicians?  For us, the most objectionable items in a new hymnal are often the keys of its tunes.

Welcome to Part 6 of the URC Psalmody Tunes series, where we’re slowly but surely weaving our way through some of the most important technical aspects of church music.  While we’ve previously considered meter, time signature, rhythm, and accent, today’s article brings us to the unbelievably controversial subject of key signatures.

For our non-musical readers, the most concise definition I can give is that the key signature of a piece determines its pitch—how high or low it is.  That’s why keys are so important (after all, they are called “keys”).  That’s also why even non-instrumental congregations often begin their songs with pitch-pipes: so the congregation can begin, and hopefully end, on key.

One unique aspect of key signatures is that the key of a tune can be changed.  Meter, time signature, and accent are all inherent to each tune, and altering them is usually ruinous.  Keys, on the other hand, can be raised or lowered at will, and that’s what makes them such a volatile subject in musical analysis—because, although the key of a tune always can be changed, it’s an entirely different matter to decide when it should be changed.

That’s a debate for another day, but in this series I would like to consider some of the ways in which key signature affects a hymn tune.

First, choosing the right key is essential to making the tune sing-able.  The average woman in your church isn’t going to be able to hit a high A, and neither is the average man going to be able to rumble away in the chasms beneath the bass clef.  Each of the four harmony parts in the music must fall within a normal range.

Key signature also determines whether the music can be sung in unison.  Congregants without vocal training sing the soprano line by default, since it carries the melody.  Thus, the melody line must fit within an attainable range for both male and female voices.  The generally accepted range begins somewhere around the B-flat just below middle C and ends at the E one octave higher.

The most significant impact of key regards the tone color of the music.  Each key signature has its own unique color: D-flat, A-flat, and E-flat are warm and mellow, whereas keys like A, E, B, and F-sharp are acute and brilliant; C, D, and G tend to sound bright and brittle, while B-flat and F fall into a comfortable middle ground.

This last property of key signatures can often make or break a particular tune.  Try playing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” (Psalter Hymnal number 318) in E as it’s written there, and then in D as it is commonly found in newer songbooks.  Or try playing “Nearer, Still Nearer” (number 454) in D instead of D-flat.  In both cases you’ll hopefully notice a drastic difference.  While a properly-chosen key powerfully complements the theme of a particular psalm or hymn, a poorly-chosen key makes the music at best colorless, at worst painfully jarring.

With these concepts in mind, let’s turn our attention once again to our ongoing experimental psalm setting, “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  In Part 5, we narrowed down our list of potential tune matches to this extent:

TRURO, 122

The next question we should ask is this: What color is implied in the text of this versification of Psalm 118?

(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.

The answers to this question will of course be subjective, since musical aptitude and taste vary from person to person.  (Hence the need for committees in order to publish new hymnbooks.)  However, I think we would mostly agree that Psalm 118 is a song of jubilant praise, with a theme that implies a bright or brilliant tone.  Key signatures that match these qualities include C, D, G, A, and E; I’ve disregarded B and F-sharp simply because they’re extremely difficult keys that don’t often appear in hymnbooks.

Having made this decision, our final step is to comb through the list of tunes above and select only those with matching keys.  Once this process is complete, our list contains the following selections:

TRURO, 122

Look at that!  Even though we’ve only considered a few elemental aspects of music, our original master list of 60 tunes has already shrunk to the convenient number of five.  Next time, Lord willing, we’ll wrap up this discussion with a few final considerations, and then I’ll reveal my personal preference for the final tune.  Meanwhile, readers, which tune from this “semi-final round” do you think should win?  Cast your votes!


Psalm 122

My heart was glad to hear the welcome sound,
The call to seek Jehovah’s house of prayer;
Our feet are standing here on holy ground,
Within thy gates, thou city grand and fair.

Ever since Psalm 122 was sung as the opening selection at Synod Nyack 2012, it’s held a special place in my church-musician heart.  Its praises of the holy city and its Builder are wrapped in a beautiful package of corporate praise and personal emotion.  It declares the glory of God’s house and the psalmist’s lifelong devotion to its service.  And the fact that Psalm 122 is a Song of Ascents, meaning that it was sung by Israelites on their yearly journey to Jerusalem, gives it all the more significance.

So, without further ado, let’s plunge into the riches of Psalm 122 as adapted for the Psalter Hymnal.

262, “My Soul Was Glad”

“My Soul Was Glad” is the Psalter Hymnal’s contribution to Psalm 122 from the Dutch/Genevan Psalter.  Its text, set by Dewey Westra in 1931, is a little beneath the songbook’s typical standards for accurate versifications (for instance, there is no correlation to v. 8 in this setting, although many other passages in the psalm are unnecessarily elaborated).  Nonetheless, it’s certainly a workable versification and a great selection for an adventurous congregation.

(Above: Psalm 122 from the Dutch Psalter)

Although JERUSALEM’S PEACE isn’t the easiest of Genevan tunes, it’s extremely rewarding when played properly.  The version in the Psalter Hymnal is quite similar to the original arrangement, although its rhythm was tweaked in a few places and its harmonization updated in 1954 by Henry Bruinsma.  Nevertheless, for modern congregational singing, I think this version will prove to be the least problematic.

A few stylistic comments, however, may be helpful for the thoughtful accompanist.  First, take note of the melodic pattern in the second and third, fifth and sixth, and eighth and ninth measures.  Each pair is melodically identical, but should never be played identically—this kind of musical error is often what gives the Genevan psalms a reputation for monotony.  Bruinsma’s shifting harmonies will prove to be quite helpful in adding variety here.  In addition, consider slight dynamic changes or different focal points in each line.

Second, to assist the singers in determining the end of each line, I would highly recommend treating each whole note as a dotted-half note with a quarter rest (as is indicated in the 1984 Book of Praise).  This will provide a powerful hint to the congregation regarding where to breathe; just make sure you breathe along with them!

Third, there is the matter of tempo.  Although speed can usually be a major problem in renderings of Genevan tunes, I believe an unexpectedly wide range of tempi could be appropriate here—but only if each musical line has a clear direction and a strong half-note beat.

With regard to organ registrations, I wouldn’t shy away from using some reeds, maybe even festival trumpets in a few spots.  After all, this is an absolutely exuberant psalm!  Some well-placed 16’ stops in the manuals (or a soft 32’ in the pedal) can help to emphasize the references to Jerusalem’s “securely knit” foundations.  A constant crescendo is undoubtedly justifiable in the final stanza, and the very last phrase should be unequivocally thunderous.  A solid organ accompaniment, combined with a competent congregation, is all that’s needed to make this Genevan tune shine.

263, “With Joy and Gladness in My Soul”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“With Joy and Gladness in My Soul,” from the 1912 Psalter, is in some ways an entirely different interpretation of Psalm 122.  In contrast to the brilliance of number 262, this setting is soft and meditative—yet no less appropriate to this psalm’s theme.

Number 263 falls more or less within the realm of literal psalm settings, although it takes some very justifiable liberties in elaborating on worship and interpreting “the thrones of the house of David” as “Messiah’s kingly throne” in stzs. 2 and 3.

Chant-like tunes like this one can pose trouble for accompanists in keeping their tempo consistent.  It’s easy to hold the opening note a bit too long, rush through the six following quarter notes, and then cheat the whole note at the end of the line.  Instead, HARVEY’S CHANT should have a reasonable tempo (a little quicker than one half note per second) and a subdued but ever-present beat.

264, “My Heart Was Glad to Hear the Welcome Sound”

Although it is perhaps the most literal of the three settings of Psalm 122 in the Psalter Hymnal, “My Heart Was Glad to Hear the Welcome Sound” possesses some exquisite poetry.  Where it departs from the exact wording of the Scripture, it is still clear and accurate in meaning; and the rest of the text, as far as human compositions can go, is flawless.

(Above: Number 264 sung at Synod 2012)

Among the Psalter Hymnal’s renditions of this psalm, number 264 also has unquestionably the most familiar tune.  MORECAMBE, commonly associated with “Spirit of God, Dwell Thou within My Heart” (number 394), can convey both quiet meditation and heartfelt passion.  Be sure to emphasize the interaction of the inner voices (especially the two-note slurs in the tenor part) and the crescendo built into the constantly rising melody line.  In the version sung at Synod 2012, the very last phrase—“To thee my love shall never be denied”—was rendered so passionately as to leave no doubt of the worshippers’ sincerity.  Their hearts, like David’s, were truly glad to seek Jehovah’s house of prayer.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
‘May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!’
For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

–Psalm 122:6-9 (ESV)


Dale Grotenhuis: Establish the Work of Our Hands

A man who was powerfully used by God in the musical service of the church has recently left this earth.  Early yesterday morning, at the age of 80, Dale Grotenhuis went to be with the Lord.

Even if you’re not all that familiar with the Dutch Reformed world, it’s not unlikely that you already know the name—in the spheres of church music, it’s certainly a renowned one.   Just this past April, in fact, we were discussing the availability of some of his choral arrangements here on URC Psalmody.  I spoke to him myself via phone no more than three months ago and ordered some of his organ music.

From 1959 to 1994, Dale Grotenhuis served in a multitude of musical capacities at Dordt College.  Prior to his career at the college, Grotenhuis was also the chief music arranger for the 2nd Army Band and conductor of its Male Chorus, as well as a high school music teacher.

Perhaps even more significant than these accomplishments, however, is Grotenhuis’s legacy as a composer and arranger.  His well-known adaptations of the tunes from the blue Psalter Hymnal are featured on the album set “Be Thou Exalted, Lord,” and have permeated the CRC and URCNA in the form of sheet music for piano, organ, and choir.  His works are still regular repertoire for Dordt students; he even composed the school’s alma mater.  His name appears more than fifty times in the 1987 CRC Psalter HymnalIn a Christian Renewal article dated January 31st, 2007, Glenda Mathes writes:

[Grotenhuis] has composed over 600 songs, of which more than 260 as well as five works for symphonic band have been published.…About 90% of his work is church music.  The remaining 10% is written as commissions for churches or schools, some as memorial pieces.  Retirement allows him the opportunity to help smaller schools, like Zion Christian School, a fledgling Christian school in Byron Center.1

Throughout his long career, Dale Grotenhuis devoted his utmost efforts to assisting the church in its worship.  Even after his retirement, he was still eager for ways, as he said in the article, “that I can be used in my old age while I still have my health.  I love to be used by God for the church and His kingdom.”

One of my personal favorites is his choral work “Lord, You Have Been Our Dwelling Place,” with themes from Psalms 89 and 90.  A video from Dordt College’s Celebration of the Music of Dale Grotenhuis in March 2011, embedded above, provides a stirring rendition of this piece.

As I reflected on Grotenhuis’s life and death, I was struck by the profound words of Psalm 90, some of which are sung in this arrangement.

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

–Psalm 90:10-17 (ESV)

By God’s grace, Dale Grotenhuis’s life spanned eighty full years on this earth.  And while I am sure he would have agreed that “their span is but toil and trouble,” I also know that he used his days wisely in the service of his King.  The work of his hands has been lastingly established in countless ways.  To think that God could utilize one man so powerfully for His glory, in such a variety of capacities, should serve as an inspiration to all of us.

Reflecting on his long career in 2007, Dale Grotenhuis testified to Glenda Mathes:

I have had a full, rich life for which I am so grateful.  Certainly I have been undeserving.  But the fact that I have been able to be used by God has brought so much happiness.  I would like to be used to my very dying day to the furtherance of His kingdom.

“Establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”

–Michael R. Kearney

1 Glenda Mathes, “Dale Grotenhuis: Making Music to God’s Glory.”  Christian Renewal, January 31st, 2007.  <> (accessed August 18th, 2012).

“The Organ Portfolio”

Along with the electronic organ I have in my basement came a file box packed with organ music.  The previous owner of this organ, an accompanist for at least forty years at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church, had been a subscriber to Lorenz’s The Organ Portfolio since 1963.  This bi-monthly magazine contains about a dozen organ arrangements for prelude, offertory, and postlude in each issue.  Needless to say, I probably have enough organ music to last me well into my old age.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten a bit more familiar with the contents of this magazine.  Besides the musical entries, each issue usually includes an article on some aspect of organ playing—from technique to humor.  Especially in the earlier volumes, there are so many helpful tips and tidbits that I could probably find an entire college course in organ performance between its pages.

Since Lorenz is by no means a Reformed music company, the selection of The Organ Portfolio is sometimes weak when it comes to the psalms.  However, our organist made painstaking notes on the front pages of many of the arrangements, in which she marked instances of Psalter Hymnal tunes and included directions for adapting the music to our worship services, along with the dates on which she had played each piece.  On one page I found this formidable assortment (click to enlarge):

As you can plainly see, this is quite an extensive set of notes—and I didn’t even include the pencil marks within the score!  I’m so grateful to have not only this valuable set of organ music, but also the heritage and expertise of a seasoned organist at my disposal.  I’m sure it will not go to waste.

“So,” you might ask, “are you recommending that we all purchase subscriptions to The Organ Portfolio now?”  Perhaps not, but I’d still like to at least mention this resource.

After a bit of research on Lorenz’s website, I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that the quality of their music has generally waned over the past few decades.  From a glance at the 2011 Organ Portfolio index, one can notice that the publication’s selection of hymn tunes is limited and predictable—“Fairest Lord Jesus,” “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” &c.—while the magazine’s editors are fond of including myriads of virtually unknown pieces from modern organ composers.  (I consider this kind of music undesirable for reasons I explained in a previous post, “The Significance of Service Music.”)

On the other hand, if you’re willing to sort through the reams of music The Organ Portfolio entails, it’s entirely likely you’ll find some gems for preludes, offertories, and postludes.  For instance, you could repurpose “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” as “Jehovah Reigns in Majesty” (Psalm 99) and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” as “Within Thy Temple, Lord” (Psalm 48).  Some of the Bach chorales based on psalms or hymns could serve as exquisite “special occasion” service music.  And regardless of their suitability for corporate worship, all of the selections are excellent practice pieces.

My recommendation, then, is simply this: Check your organ bench or the music storage area at your church for back issues of The Organ Portfolio or some of its sibling publications, The Organist and The Sacred Organ Journal.  If you can find a few, you’ll probably be able to mine some valuable treasure from their depths—especially if they’re older issues.  I close with an excerpt from an essay by L. N. Porter in the April, 1965 issue of The Organ Portfolio, entitled “Feeling Versus Technique.”

Music that the members like and understand may be the right kind, but what feelings does it stir up?  If it is aspiration, exaltation, contemplation, or other such notable attitudes that lend themselves to worship, well and good.  If on the other hand, it is earthly sentiment, physical ease, associations with nonreligious experience, then the music is not fulfilling its function as an inspirer of worship.  Yes, this is a very difficult line to define; no wonder that some of our austere denominations frown on any music with ‘feeling’!…

Technique does have its place, and an important one it is!  If our fingers and feet are not well enough trained in organ technique to play correctly service music such as hymns, anthem accompaniments, and organ solos, we shall make mistakes, we shall fumble, and what will be the result?  We shall make the congregation conscious of the music as an end in itself instead of as a means of leading people to worship.  One might go so far as to say that the best church music is that which the congregation never hears, for it has served to elevate their thoughts to heights above our present level, beyond our senses.  Poor technique, with its inevitable mistakes and slovenly style, will keep the congregation earth-bound.

So, I still urge you to work to improve your technique, for it is when these routines are mastered that we can best fulfill our function as a church organist—the all-important function of leading the congregation to worship.


Tunes (Part 5)

The “Tunes” series continues here on URC Psalmody.  In our last article I introduced the concept of time signature.  Today, we’ll consider a closely related element of music: accent.

Just like “meter” and “time signature,” the term “accent” can mean a lot of different things.  In this discussion we’ll take it to refer to which syllables and musical notes are emphasized in a song.

The theory behind rhythm and accent can appear pretty daunting, but it’s essential to remember that you already know how to apply these principles—even if you don’t realize it.  For instance, if I asked you to recite Psalter Hymnal number 13 (“Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”) and give it special emphasis, the result would probably sound something like this:

LORD, our LORD, thy GLOR-ious NAME
ALL thy WON-drous WORKS pro-CLAIM;
IN the HEAVENS with RA-diant SIGNS
LORD, our LORD, in ALL the EARTH,
EX-cel-LENT in ALL the EARTH;

The crucial tenet of accent is simply this: Every beat in poetry (and music) is either weak or STRONG.  Don’t let the fancy terminology (including mouthfuls like “dactyl” and “spondee”) overwhelm you; as long as you can locate the weak and strong beats in a psalm or hymn, you have a fully functional understanding of accent.

In the accent pattern shown above, the syllables of each line alternate between weak and strong, and the first syllable of each line is strong.  Most hymn poetry is similar, though often the lines begin with weak beats instead.  A rarer form (known as “amphibrachic meter,” which I mentioned in Monday’s post on Psalm 121) has strong syllables only on every three beats (weak-STRONG-weak-weak-STRONG-weak-weak-STRONG).

So far, I’ve described how accent applies to the text of a song.  But how is accent manifested in a piece of music?  In three ways, namely:

  1. Downbeats.  The first note in every measure of music is called the “downbeat,” and it nearly always corresponds with a strong syllable in the text.  You can confirm this with a quick scan of number 13—the strong syllables “LORD, GLO-, ALL, WORKS, IN, RA-, EV-, and GREAT” all occur on downbeats.
  2. Strong beats within a measure.  Each time signature has a unique internal structure which contains its own strong and weak beats.  In 4/4 time, the third beat is strong (though usually not as strong as the downbeat).  In 6/8 time, the second beat (counting by the dotted quarter note) is strong.  In time signatures like 3/4 and 3/2, only the first beat is strong.
  3. Long and short notes.  Most often these will correspond with the strong beats described above (for example, all the quarter notes and dotted quarters in “Lord, Our Lord” are located on strong beats).  The length of the notes becomes more important when setting a particular text to music, as explained below.

As with everything we’ve discussed so far, there are plenty of exceptions to these rules.  For instance, the first “How” in the refrain of number 13 is a weak syllable located on a downbeat.  Still, these principles are reliable enough to provide a solid basis for an understanding of accent.

Now comes the time to step out of the theory and back into the real world.  In the third installment of the “Tunes” series, I chose an obscure rhymed text of Psalm 118 as the base for a practical experiment in psalm versification.  The full text can be found in that article, but for now I’ll just copy the first stanza:

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.

To get an idea of the pattern for the accent of this poetry, we need only treat it as we did number 13.

For EV-er-LAST-ing IS his LOVE;
Praise HIM, ye SAINTS, your SAV-ior PRAISE,
For-EV-er GOOD in ALL his WAYS.

This is the typical emphasis pattern for a long-meter ( poem.  With this knowledge, we can proceed to check our prospective list of tunes against the pattern of this text.  Neither time nor space permits us to examine each possibility in detail, but let’s work with two examples: numbers 236 (APPLETON) and 237 (DUANE STREET) in the Psalter Hymnal.  In theory, both long-meter tunes are compatible with the text, but that doesn’t mean they’re equivalent.

In number 236, the first note of the tune is located on a downbeat.  Thus, even though the first syllable of the text (“Give”) is weak, its location on the downbeat (rule number 1 above) and on a long note (rule number 3) gives it a greater-than-usual emphasis.  This is repeated throughout the four lines of the tune, leaving us with something that might sound like this:

GIVE thanks and PRAISE to GOD a-BOVE,
FOR ev-er-LAST-ing IS his LOVE;
PRAISE him, ye SAINTS, your SAV-ior PRAISE,
FOR-ev-er GOOD in ALL his WAYS.

Now we are confronted with a difficult question: Is this emphasis pattern compatible with the text?  In order to come to a conclusion, we must consider the accents implied in the text of each stanza.  This is a tall order!  For the sake of time, I won’t analyze each verse here, but I would like to point your attention to the fourth stanza.  Here it is, in the same “revised” metrical pattern as v. 1 above:

FOR at my SIDE the LORD is NEAR;
THE Lord my HELP-er, I shall WIN
THE vict’ry O’ER the HOSTS of SIN.

While this emphasis pattern might be suitable for the first stanza, it dramatically stilts the poetry in this verse.  The “helper” words at the beginning of each line (articles and prepositions) are given precedence over the “main” words (foes, Lord, victory).  This problem also occurs in most of the other stanzas.  Using the tune of number 237 instead, we encounter none of these difficulties.

So, if you’ve followed my reasoning process so far, hopefully you’ll agree: APPLETON, sadly, is a dead end for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  DUANE STREET, however, is still a viable option.  For convenience, I’ll sort out about ten tunes that follow the pattern of each of these selections; then we can narrow down our choices to the tunes that are fundamentally similar to number 237.

Like 236, APPLETON



TRURO, 122

This seemingly small distinction of accent can make a huge difference in the final combination of text and music.  With the ten selections listed on the right, we have a pool of a much more reasonable size from which to determine the final tune of “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  Next time in the “Tunes” series: mood and key!


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