Nothing works the frist time.

I may be up past my bedtime, having harmonised the little tune I wrote earlier.

Here’s a rough draft harmonised version:

Here’s a .pdf of the sheet music: While dead in sin 001

And here’s the problem: Revd Klages tweeted in haste, and the text he posted, while making sense, was not in fact, but rather Note the missing line and the one with the extra syllable. No problem, right? The text as I set it still makes sense…

Except that Thomas Thurman has written another verse, using

Let all that earthly life may boast
set sacrifices raising
to Father, Son and Holy Ghost
with infinite praising;
all I held dear,
all the comforts I have ever known
I am leaving here;
nothing there
to compare
to hearing Jesus calling his very own.

My brain hurts. I’m finishing some e-mails, and going to bed.

How to introduce new music in churches

I wrote this as a comment elsewhere, and thought it perhaps worth reproducing:

You can get congregations to sing new music, but it takes a bit of work and cooperation from your organist/music director/whoever.

1) If you have one, see if you can get the choir (or music group or what have you) to sing the new tune (possibly to old words!) as a Communion hymn or an anthem a few times.

2) In the weeks running up to the use of the new tune, ask the organist/musicians to play it as part of the processional or recessional voluntary (whichever people are more likely to listen to), or even a short verse after the reading of the Gospel if appropriate.

If people have heard it a few times, they’ll find it much easier to sing.

3) Having sung the new tune, don’t abandon it; use it again in a few weeks time, if possible. (Again, you might want the choir to do this with different words.)

If copyright allows, I also find it helps to include music notation for the melody in whatever the congregation are reading from. At our church we have a fair number who read music “a bit” but don’t sing in the choir, and between them and the ones who pick up tunes quickly by ear, it isn’t so terrible.

4) Try to get people to sit close together. If you are Anglican this is probably the hardest step, but it really does help.

I might add a few more points:

5) Try to make sure the first and last hymn or song of a service are tunes that people do know. I was taught that the first and last notes a musician plays will be what most people remember; this is also true of liturgy, and familiar, well-loved hymns at the beginning and end of a service will be less disorienting.

6) If the music is something people are going to be singing a lot (say, a hymn for Lent with different verses for each Sunday, or a congregational Mass setting), or if it’s a bit difficult (syncopation, changes between triplets and duple quavers, awkward leaps in the melody, changes in harmonic rhythm and so on), it’s worth offering a brief rehearsal at some point so people can go over the tricky bits. Try to make this short (ten minutes is plenty) and don’t expect to get things perfect. Make sure it’s at a time people can attend — after a service is usually best.

7) Try not to introduce new music alongside changes to the general format of services, and don’t introduce too many new things in quick succession, especially if it’s a long time since the congregation has had to sing anything new at all.

When you made this planet

Some time ago, Thomas Thurman drew my attention to a text to try setting as a hymn. The story behind the text, as well as the text itself, is here.

After spending the requisite months sitting in a “drafts” drawer while I got distracted by other things, and some help with editing from various people (Dr Christopher Parker at St Mary’s Addington was particularly helpful), I think it’s about as finished as it is going to get.

I’ve called the tune “Hitchin”, because that is the birthplace of the author of the text, and because clever Latin things ended up looking like “Cum hoc tellure” which, let’s face it, isn’t going to be a giggle-proof title for working with choirs.

Today the some churches celebrate or remember the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this morning after the necessary clarification about just whose conception this refers to (the Immaculate Conception is not the same as the Virgin Birth), I was thinking about that. I was thinking about how it is that when someone does something wonderful, or fulfills what we might call God’s purposes for them, we are sometimes tempted to say “Oh, but they’re special, we could never do that…” rather than being inspired by their actions. For me, the amazing thing about Mary is not that God chose her or somehow set her aside — whether or however that happened — but that she said YES. “Let it be unto me according to thy will,” she said.

Or possibly, in today’s language, “My Lord, I pray my life will mirror you.”

Here is a .pdf of the music.
Here is a .midi file of robots singing it.
As usual, the material is CC BY-SA.

Multi-tracking chant experiment

This is a brief experiment with multi-tracking chant. Creator lucis optime (English) by artsyhonker

You see, I’ve got this hare-brained idea about podcasting a sung Compline online, possibly in some kind of Whitacre-style virtual choir. That’s hard to coordinate, with chant: the pulse is directed by the words, so metronome markings are no help, for starters. But gathering together a little schola cantorum to come and sing with me in person once a week or once a month seems equally daunting. And I worry that singing Compline by myself is just going to sound a bit daft; there are too many responsorial bits, really.

So I thought I’d take something simple and see whether I can sing chant with myself, so to speak. In went the headphones and out came the hymnal to select something I’d not sung before. The results are… instructive, really. This will need a lot of work on intonation and timing before I’m happy to do an entire Compline. I did actually cheat and “mute” some sections of some voices in one or two places where the timing was just unbearably out of sync; I didn’t do any other fancy stuff, though. What you hear is what I sang.

I guess if I want an online Compline to be a recording of an actual prayer, rather than something that takes hours of editing and re-recording to get into acceptable shape for posting online, I need to find some people to sing with me, or get used to the idea of singing alone.

There are, of course, other folks who put this sort of thing online. Most seem to be regular “Compline choirs” in the US, who rehearse regularly, or monastic groups with their daily Office available as podcasts. I’m not entirely sure how what I want to offer would be significantly different, and maybe I need to figure that out, too. On a very basic level, I’d like it to be something that encourages people to join in. That means providing links to the text and preferably to notation with the text underlaid, not just an audio file as I have above.

Dances, not dirges

On Saturday I had the pleasure of conducting the <a href=””>London Gallery Quire</a>, not once but twice. We started with a service of Mattins at St John’s, Fulham, and then in the evening made our way to St Peter’s in the Forest for a concert as part of their Flower Festival.

Elsewhere there are conversations going on about music and liturgy, and as usual there is a certain amount of lamenting over organists who refuse to play anything “modern”, the boring drudgery of most hymns, and the problems this causes in making the church seem outdated or old-fashioned among young people.

As an aside I would like to note that, within the Church of England, canon law is quite explicit on the matter. I don’t have the specific reference to hand, but the final responsibility for choice of music lies with the incumbent, not with the organist. Any organist who point-blank refuses to comply with the wishes of the incumbent in this might do well to consider whether the position is right for them. In practice, this can get difficult: the liturgy, the “work of the people”, is collaborative and no one person can easily be held responsible if it just doesn’t work… but that is another discussion. My point is that simply blaming the organist for the overall feel of the liturgy is a cop-out.

That said, organists (and other church musicians) do have a huge impact and  responsibility in worship. Problems with the perception of liturgy as drab or outdated are, in my opinion, usually systemic, but an organist may have more
influence within that system than others.

What does all this have to do with the lovely West Gallery music I was conducting at the weekend? More than you might think. Some of the metrical psalms and non-conformist hymns we were singing are direct precursors to what most people would recognise as “traditional” hymnody. Regular metrical texts with fairly simple (even if lively) rhythms are easy for people to sing together, and that is crucially important for congregational music. The more florid and complex styles which arose out of the West Gallery tradition, while glorious and great fun, weren’t so easily learned or understood by congregations and I think this is a large part of why the Victorians slammed on the brakes. The tension in liturgy between rich complexity and accessibility is not limited to this period, or even to music. But metrical hymns are a very good and versatile compromise.

I believe many of the complaints launched against “traditional” hymns are groundless when those hymns are played and sung appropriately. Understanding their roots in folk melodies and dances (yes, I said dances) is important. The organ is perhaps not the instrument best suited to conveying the rhythmic vitality of this music, but it is not an impossible tool for the job. It is possible to be creative with articulation to imitate a strong pulse without distorting the timing; even doing this for one or two hymns per service would help to counter the impression of a wall of noise with no real beat.

Also important is remembering that congregations do not have an unlimited lung capacity. One December I was somewhat taken aback by the extremely slow speed at which I heard “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” sung, and then even more discouraged when I looked around on YouTube to find a version at a more lively tempo and found dozens which, like the live version I had encountered, were painfully slow. I am not certain whether the habit of playing most things too slowly in parish churches is from trying to imitate cathedral hymnody, where the acoustics often demand a slow tempo, whether it is because so many organists are like me — pianists who have taken up the organ later in life and simply cannot play the pedals that fast — or whether it is simply musical laziness, following the congregation (who are following the organ) so that things get slower and slower. All of these are, in my opinion, bad reasons to play everything slowly. Cathedrals are wonderful but they are not the same as parish churches, and imitating cathedral-style hymnody while disregarding local circumstances is foolish. Pedals are wonderful too but if you can’t play them nimbly, I suggest that discretion may be the better part of valour. Congregations are wonderful but left to their own devices will tend to sing too slowly.

None of this is meant to suggest that no hymns should ever be played slowly; there is some music which works better at a slower pace. My point is merely that if someone thinks all traditional hymns are boring drudgery, the problem might be more to do with how they have heard hymns played and sung than with the century in which the hymns were written.

Big Hymn Sing 2011

This Saturday there will be a Big Hymn Sing at 1pm at St Andrew’s Leytonstone. The congregation have sponsored about 30 hymns and I will add some more that I think are worth singing, for a total of about 48.

The more people turn up the more fun we’ll have! We’ll sing for about twenty minutes at a time and then have a ten minute break; Café Refresh will be open, and I hope people will feel free to pop in and out. Donations raised will go toward organ repairs.

This week, I will be mostly practising…

Adventures in hymn selection

In the Common Worship lectionary there are two options for Eastertide. One uses an Old Testament reading, a reading from Acts, and a Gospel reading each week. The other uses an epistle instead of the Old Testament. The point is that Acts is required.

Somehow, I thought we were using the Old Testament readings, and chose hymns accordingly. So this morning we had a lovely reading from Acts, then a letter to Peter or someone, then a gradual hymn which was very much related to the Old Testament reading we hadn’t just heard.

Mix-ups do happen. I planned that we would sing “Allelyua, sing to Jesus” as the Communion hymn on Easter Sunday — what can I say? I like to get as much of that A-word in as I can now we’re allowed to say it again. When I had a closer look at it the night before, I realised that the words to verse two are very much more appropriate for Ascension, particularly “Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er”. Oops! Thankfully I caught that one in time to change it.

I usually choose hymns in advance, about a month at a time, sending the list to the vicar for approval (canon law means the incumbent does have the final say). Occasionally we end up caught in the guessing game of trying to figure out which hymns the choir and congregation will already know, and then find out that no, it’s just us who think of some hymn tune as very well-known. I would have expected them to know NUN DANKET ALL for “Jesus, these eyes have never seen”, for example, but at rehearsal on Thursday that turned out not to be the case. We used another Common Meter tune instead, there are enough of them about that it wasn’t a problem!

The other thing that has happened sometimes is that I’ve chosen carefully, the vicar has given a thumbs-up to the choices, and then on Sunday morning we both wonder what on earth we were thinking! Sometimes I can follow the thread of my thoughts backward, sometimes not.

In the great congregation I will praise…

Though my diocesan cathedral in Chelmsford is a bit of a trek for me, I’m privileged in London to be within easy travel distance of both St Paul’s Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral.
Yesterday, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to attend a service that I couldn’t mess up by playing the organ in the wrong place, I attended the Chrism Mass (actually called “The Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Blessing of the Oils” on the order of service) at Southwark Cathedral. In the Church of England, this is the service at which Chrism oils are blessed and at which clergy renew their ordination vows. It was a good service, and I’m glad that I went. The Mass setting by Langlais was perhaps a tad inaccessible, but if you can’t sing Latin and some crunchy harmonies when you’ve got several hundred clergy who all know what the words mean, when can you sing them? Certainly there were bowed heads when the Sanctus came around, so I’m sure the vast majority knew what was going on.

Accessibility was also my concern with the Psalm. The choir sang their verses of Psalm 23 beautifully enough that, at first, I wondered whether my previous disdain for responsorial psalmody might be unjustified. I don’t know whose setting it was; it isn’t the one in the only book of responsorial psalmody I own, and by the time I’ve looked it up anywhere else I’ll probably have forgotten it. It was simple, the text was clear, and when the choir broke into four-part harmony for the last four lines it was simply sublime; I think it was some of the best choral singing I heard during the service.

Why, then, interrupt this with a congregational response? The response itself was interesting enough, but I struggled to remember it correctly after hearing it twice and singing it once. Perhaps I’m just getting too dependent on having dots in front of me! But switching from unmetered chant to a metrical response without some sort of indication of tempo is hard in a small congregation and even harder in a large one. I felt like an unwieldy, oversized ox in a specialist china shop for dolls. I value congregational participation in the psalms, but given the nature of most of the congregation — ordained clergy and the odd “church geek” layperson such as myself — I think that just the chant without any congregational singing might well have been participatory enough. It would have been better had the response had some sort of metrical introduction, but even that might not be heard clearly in an echo-y cathedral with an organ. I was too far away to see the musical director well enough to follow any directions given to the choir.

(The psalm was also labeled as Psalm 133 — a wonderful psalm to use at a Chrism Mass, given the focus on unity and the imagery of oil — but the psalm they sang was definitely Psalm 23. I can only attribute this to a clerical error!)

By contrast, I absolutely loved the hymnody; there is something about singing hymns with several hundred other people singing their hearts out that is just too good for words. I was disappointed we didn’t make it to the end of “Lift high the cross” (which I’ve sung so seldom I didn’t actually remember the tune) and none of the hymns were real favourites of mine, but there was none of the lumbering uncertainty I felt during the psalm. Ordinarily I prefer good metrical hymnody in full parish churches to cathedrals, for some of the same acoustic, aesthetic reasons I didn’t like the psalm response: in a big echo-y space, chances are you’ve got to go slowly enough to spoil the line, and if the place isn’t absolutely rammed (and even sometimes when it is) people tend to sing quietly under their breath so that the general effect is that of an indecisive jellyfish; I usually end up listening carefully for the organ and choir and trying to stick with them while people around me mumble into their hymn books, and I really struggle if there’s a tune I don’t know. But in this instance everyone was singing, the tempo was on the whole right for the space without being too slow to get through a line in one breath, and it was all quite wonderful. I really enjoyed being able to sing without feeling like I had to take the lead for twelve people sitting near me who had no idea what the tune was, and being able to let my voice follow others when I didn’t know the notes. Maybe this is what hymns were like, or could be like, when there was more general enthusiasm about singing. Maybe this is what hymns can still be like if people can be convinced to sing! It was one of the best experiences of congregational singing I’ve had for a long time.

Words, words!

When I write music, I struggle with the words. As a child I was a decent poet, I’m told, but at some point I lost the habit of writing poetry in a notebook in spare moments. I think it may have been around the time I took up playing the horn and got a paper route and somehow seemed to always be out at one rehearsal or another! These days, most of the words I write are typed directly onto a screen and unpoetic at best.

But I do seem to compose better with words than without. So, I try to find others’ words that say what I want to say, words that inspire or words that I think will be right for the context for which I’m writing. Invariably, I run into trouble with this. Anything that’s still under copyright is a massive pain; sometimes it’s possible to contact the author and ask for permission but often attempts to do so are simply ignored, and in some cases it’s hard to find out who to get in touch with in the first place. As I often struggle to find the right words in the first place (it took me several months to choose the words for Christ Has No Body Now on Earth but Ours, and even then I wasn’t sure until I sat down to write; In Commendation of Music was similarly fraught, though for very different reasons), the bother with copyright is a significant hurdle.

Lately I have been enjoying Thomas Thurman’s poetry. Eventually I summoned up the courage to ask, since Thomas seems a churchy type, whether there might be any psalm paraphrases I could use. I was pleased that there are two of them, and possibly more to come! One of those is more Christianized than I’d be happy to use as a psalm in liturgy (more on that in another post), but would definitely stand well as a hymn on its own; perhaps it was that comment which prompted Thomas to point me at this hymn text, which can’t be used with the tune it was written for due to copyright issues (see? it isn’t just me that has trouble with this stuff!)… Thomas also writes software and so is familiar with and happy about Creative Commons and other open licenses.

It’s not exactly a time of year when I ought to be taking on new projects, but the other Friday I had a long-ish train journey to a rehearsal (Zone 5, south of the river, there’s no way to do it without at least two changes and as I wasn’t cycling to London Bridge it was three this time). So, I printed out the words, chucked some manuscript paper in my bag and decided to see what I could make of it. It was a delightful tune to set to music: all the word stresses line up beautifully from verse to verse, and though the meter is somewhat non-standard I do now have a tune I’m reasonably happy with. As, for once, I’m not working to a deadline, I’m leaving it in a drawer for a month before doing some editing, so you don’t get to see it yet. But I’m pleased with it so far, and really happy to have access to some newer words which I’m allowed to put to music!