Since I am at a conference with my fellow Christian art music composers, I had an opportunity the other night to attend a wonderful choral concert. All the music at this particular concert was sacred, and interspersed throughout the program were some congregational hymns the audience sang together while the choral groups rearranged themselves on stage. The concert was held in a large sanctuary with a wonderful pipe organ, on which a talented young man accompanied our hymns (as well as some of the choral pieces.)
My husband pastors a tiny, 50-person-if-everyone-shows-up church, and I lead the music every week. It is a blessing to me to have the opportunity to sing hymns with a larger group of people and sing my actual part. I am an alto, so singing the melody every week at church often puts me at the top of my range, and that doesn’t always sound good. So, at the concert I happily sang the alto part in the four-part chorale style hymns.
That was until the last verse. In every hymn, the organist, true to being an organist, got creative. He re-harmonized the hymns, even using chords outside the key. I liked the new harmonies, but they ruined my part. I could no longer sing along as an alto and was forced to sing the melody. The same was true for any tenor or bass that was trying to sing along in their nice, in-their-voice-range part. The new harmonies only work if everyone stays on the melody. That defeats the purpose of having something written as a four-part hymn.
I have heard many people complain that churches don’t sing hymns in four parts anymore. Whenever I have the opportunity, I always choose to sing the alto part. But my experience the other night showed me that the organist didn’t expect anyone to sing anything but the melody.
I appreciated the organist’s new harmonies. He was adding a new element, a new approach to the hymn that seemed to reveal something about it. Unfortunately, I could not process that while trying to read the words and feeling slightly disgruntled about being sent to the soprano stratosphere again. I would suggest that when the congregation is singing that the music support four-part singing. The organist should have a solo verse for exploring different harmonies, during which I can contemplate the words and hear the insight the organist is providing.