2015-09-13 Notes from the Bench

“An Introduction to Christian Hymnody”

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Over the past three years, the “Notes from the Bench” series has focused on either choral works sung during our worship, or the organ voluntaries. This year, I would like to present a series of articles on the various hymns that we sing during our services. Christian hymnody has a long, rich history; numerous authors and composers have contributed liturgical texts and music for Christian worship, and continue to do so through the present day.

The word “hymn” is derived from the Greek word “hymnos” which refers to a song of praise. Hymns are religious, poetic texts that are usually sung, and are prayers or expressions of praise and adoration. Hymns are not unique to the Christian tradition; many religions have their own repertoire of hymns. Christian hymnody can trace its origins to the Psalms and poetic passages of Scripture referred to as canticles. Over the centuries, numerous texts have been written that praise God or express religious themes.

If you open to almost any hymn in our hymnal, you may notice beneath the printed music and text an abundance of information about the author of the text, the translator if the original text was written in a different language, the composer of the melody, and arranger of the harmony or accompaniment. Frequently these components were written by different people, and not necessarily at the same time or in the same place. Each hymn tune is given a name that helps identify the particular melody. Hymn tune names frequently have a connection with the composer, are names of saints, are names of places, or the texts most frequently associated with a melody. At the bottom right of each hymn, you may notice some numbers such as “87. 87” or “10 10. 10 10.” These markings represent the meter of both the text and the melody, indicating the number of syllables for the lines of each stanza of the hymn. Letters abbreviations indicate frequently encountered meters: CM or Common Meter (86. 86.), LM or Long Meter (88. 88), and CMD or Common Meter Doubled (86. 86. 86. 86.) are just some of the abbreviations used. Congregations often sing hymn texts to whatever melodies they know that have the appropriate meter. Therefore a text may be sung using various melodies. The present pairing of hymn texts with melodies is the work of many editors publishing their recommendations, a practice that dates back to the 1600s.

The Hymnal 1982 contains a “rich repertoire which constitutes the singing tradition of the people of God.” (Preface, Hymnal 1982) I hope that over the course of this year, we all gain a better understanding and appreciation of the contents found in this treasure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: