Hymn tunes

Posted by & filed under Grace Notes.

By Katherine Will
Director of Music and Worship

Kathy Will_StaffPageYou may have noticed for the past month or so, some additional information in your bulletin: a name in parentheses after each hymn title. This is the tune “name,” or a way to identify a particular melody.   From the 17th century on, as hymn singing by the congregation became a regular practice, hymn texts were often written to accompany already existing melodies – the congregation already knew a particular song, they just learned new words. Many times hymnals were printed with just the words and the tune name. People knew the melodies so they didn’t need the music printed.

Many of us know Nicea as Holy, Holy, Holy and Ein Feste Burg as A Mighty Fortress is our God. But our Hymnal 1982 is full of examples of hymn tunes having several sets of lyrics. Hymn # 365 (Moscow) is most commonly recognized as Come, Thou Almighty King. It shows up a few pages later as # 371 Thou Whose Almighty Word and again as #537 Christ for the World We Sing!. That’s a lot of mileage for one simple hymn tune!

The Boston Musical Education Society's collection of church music - consisting of original psalm and hymn tunes, select pieces, chants, etc including compositions adapted to the service of the (14754340066)

Compilers of hymnals and sometimes the composers themselves named the tunes. Many are place names or have a special connection with the composer. And contemporary composers such as Marty Haugen and Richard Shepherd continue to name their hymn tunes for identification. I sang a new hymn this summer at Sewanee that was named in honor of a priest and friend of the composer – and this priest just happened to be our chaplain for the week. What an incredible way to honor a friend!

For musicians, knowing the hymn tune and understanding the meter allows us to continue pairing new or less familiar texts with familiar melodies. We experimented a bit with this last summer as we paired psalm paraphrases with hymn tunes. Knowing the name of the tune also helps us track down some of the history and inspiration behind the musical setting.

The next time you are sitting with a hymnal, look for your favorite hymn and check out the name of its tune. Are there more sets of lyrics that go with that particular melody? How does the melody enhance each set of words?

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