In some ways this post perfectly exemplifies what I had in mind when naming this blog—the old for the new. That phrase can be read and interpreted many different ways, all of which might be correct. It can be true from the perspective of faith, or my obsession with older ways of thinking and living, or with combining old and less-old ideas to create something new. As Kirby Ferguson has said in his engaging four-part web video series Everything is a Remix. In this particular instance, I’m referring to my experience of the creative process, which is always about making something new out of older elements. Specifically, arranging a medley of hymns for my church’s Easter Sunday service.
Given the limitations of available personnel (we’re small), instrumentation (flute, clarinet, saxophone, euphonium, electric bass, and piano), budget (there isn’t one), and existing church-owned choir music (there isn’t any to my knowledge)—because of all those reasons, I felt the best solution would be to tailor the music to the forces we have, rather than try to find something else.
So when the going gets tough, make lemonade. So when the going gets tough, that’s amore. So when the going gets tough, the tough remember they have a B.A. in composition and arranging.
I’ve been gripped by this project. I’ve lost track of how many hours I have joyfully spent working out the puzzles it has presented me. The creative process works differently for different people, but mine is of the all-consuming variety—the sort which puts just about everything else on hold until the ideas can be externalized. I doubt that will always be feasible, but it works for me right now.
From a short list of about seven hymn tunes, I chose four that had Easter/Ascension texts. (I know they’re different, but what’s one without the other?)
- Lift High the Cross. The text was originally written in 1887 by George W. Kitchin and revised in 1916 by Michael R. Newbolt. The tune Crucifer was written in 1916 by Sydney H. Nicholson.
- I Know That My Redeemer Lives—Glory, Hallelujah!. The text to the verses was written in 1775 by Samuel Medley (and appropriate name), but the refrain is anonymous. The tune Shout On is an American folk hymn from the 19th century.
- A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing. This one’s old. The text is by the Venerable Bede (AD 672/3–735), translated by Benjamin Webb in 1854. The tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen is of German origin (Geistliche Kirchengesäng, Cologne, 1623), but comes to us via the English Hymnal, so we probably have Ralph Vaughan Williams to thank for keeping it around. Typically we associate this tune with All Creatures of Our God and King.
- All Praise to Thee, for Thou, O King Divine. The text was written 1938 by F. Bland Tucker (an unfortunate name, to say the least). The tune Sine Nomine works with this text, even though it is typically associated with For All the Saints. Again, Vaughan Williams is responsible for keeping this tune alive and well, and for giving us the his 1906 harmonization.
Lift High the Cross didn’t play well with others, so I had to cut it off and make it into its own entity, which the choir probably won’t have time to get ready in addition the medley that did emerge. So the final version only contains the latter three hymns.
Now if I’m being honest, I chose these hymns for their tunes rather than their texts. Music that comes in groups (like song cycles, medleys, or any multi-movement work) requires certain considerations. What is the musical/historical/cultural baggage that comes with each tune? How well do these tunes get along with each other? What will be the artistic and psychological implications if tune X is heard before tune Y, versus after? What keys should I use in order for people to sing them? How can I link those keys in a logical and aurally pleasant (or at the least, acceptable) way? What motives embedded in the tunes themselves can serve as linking material between verses and between songs? Do I use the original harmonization? Do I tweak it? Do I write a completely new one? How well might said tune(s) work contrapuntally, and can they be placed in imitation of each other?
Some of those answers I can tell right away, but most require experimentation. I often don’t even know what I want until I find it. So here is a brief description of some of the highlights.
- Research—Two of the tunes have some folk music influences. Shout On is explicitly folk, and American folk music shares a number of idioms with Scottish and English folk music. Enter again, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was intensely interested and immersed in the musical folk traditions of his native England. He’s the one who harmonized the most commonly used version of Sine Nomine. There’s my Musical/historical/cultural link!
- Experiment—Parts of Lasst Uns Erfreuen work rather well in counterpoint. I always try counterpoint out on tunes I choose because I think polyphony can be one of the most satisfying textures to compose and to listen to.
- Musical Memory—The incipit of Lasst Uns Erfreuen is remarkably similar to the incipit of yet another American folk song from the Shaker tradition, Simple Gifts, which was popularized in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Old American Folk Songs.
So perhaps Anglo-American folk music idioms can unify all three hymns. (This is uncannily appropriate since we are located so near Appalachia.) The text of the Shaker song itself, written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett is described in Shaker manuscripts as a “Dancing Song,” implying that some or many of the lyrics may simply be dance instructions. However, read in light of the Resurrection, lines like “‘Tis the gift to be free,” and “Till by turning, turning we come ’round right,” take on more profound significance.
- Discovery—One of the hymns can actually work (with some metrical adjustment) superimposed on the other as a descant! This was truly a bizarre occurrence that I never planned. I had been trying to write a suitable descant for the final verse of the final hymn and couldn’t find the sound I wanted. I even looked around the web to see what solutions others might have come up with that could inspire me. Slim pickings. So I tried a wild stab in the dark with one of the hymn tunes I’d already chosen, and there it was—a solution that worked as both a descant and a unifying force between the end of the medley and the beginning. I am still kind of shocked that it actually worked. My last-ditch effort turned out to work better than anything else I’d tried. [In the recording below, see if you can pick out and recognize the descant, starting around the 5:00 mark. I’ve actually used the text of the Doxology there.]
I’ve including a sound file below of my best approximation of the end product. I compose in Finale, so this recording uses the Garritan Personal Orchestra samples that come in the package. For some added realism I recorded each instrument separately and put it into GarageBand so that I could adjust the balance better. Finally, I actually spent two days singing all the choir parts into my computer, so that the voice parts have words and can be distinguished from the other “computery” tracks.
- One caveat: I tried singing in falsetto for the higher voice parts, but the sound didn’t balance well with the stronger lower voice parts. My only recourse was to sing the higher parts in my lower range and then send them through a voice transformer. This makes the higher parts sound more processed and artificial in places and leaves digital artifacts I’m not skilled enough to eliminate. But for a first project in GarageBand, I think it turned out fairly well. I’m not happy with the balance or tuning of the high parts at the beginning, but if you can muscle through the 0:35–0:45 zone, it sounds much better thereafter.