Hymnal peeves

Longtime reader Buick has some complaints about hymnal publishing:

Why would ANY publisher put out a hymnal without an author-index? It can’t be that big a deal to compile it, it would only occupy a few pages and it is SUCH a tremendous tool. I especially appreciate those that include the full name of the author or composer, date of birth and date of death (where appropriate).

And by the way, why don’t most hymnals have ANY dynamic markings in the hymns? The instrumentalists come in on the downbeat and play it the same speed, the same volume and the same expression from the first measure to the last. But it is hard to fault them when the publishers save ink and effort by omitting all dynamics from the musical notation. So, having vented, I ask again: WHY?

My guess for both questions: money, sloppiness, and the market doesn’t care (present company excluded, of course). That, and … as far as dynamic markings are concerned, the rapidly decreasing rate of music literacy in the demographics that most hymnals aim for means that dynamic markings and other aids to accompaniment would look like so many hieroglyphics to most church musicians. What’re all these spots on my music? And who you callin’ ritardando?

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  1. Wes Burke wrote:

    I agree with the general musical ignorance of church congregations. Stylistic considerations aside, this is another consequence of the let’s-project-the-words-on-the-screen movement. Using hymnals to sing from every service helped to give those who cared to follow along some basic understanding of written music. As this practice has continued, the musical knowledge of the average Joe (or Jane) in the church pew has declined alongside. It’s not the only factor, but it is a major contributor.

  2. CVH wrote:

    I doubt most hymn writers included dynamic markings in their original texts. And usually tempo changes, dynamics and other interpretive expressions are the domain of the ’song/worship leader’ or lead musician. I wonder if in the past a greater degree of musicianship was assumed by publishers?

    I’ve played in churches for over 30 years and sometimes it’s great (when you’re working with skilled players) and other times it’s been worse than a root canal. One church I played in years ago used a piano/organ format. The organist was about 110 years old and always put the pedal to the metal. It was horrendous until our sound guy went in and lowered the maximum volume on the pedal. She complained for a couple of weeks but eventually decided her hearing was starting to go. She still put it to the floor but it no longer ruined the music. Well, not as much.

    I’ve always looked at hymnal (or songbook) music as a starting point anyway, like a ’serving suggestion’ on a Stouffer’s package.

    Of course, so much of today’s church music is written and presented in bland fashion…it’s either slow and monotonous or driving and robotic…dynamics seem to be lost on most people, including those leading the music. It you use a term like andante people think you’re talking about how well done you like your pasta.

  3. Leebob wrote:

    Oh my gosh!!!!! There are still hymnals out there??????!!!!! (tongue in cheek of course)

  4. cdguy wrote:

    As for composer indexes, most evangelical hymnals since the mid-70’s have included them. Prior to that, most people didn’t seem to care.

    As for dynamic markings, it probably is just a matter of tradition, and what CVH said in his opening paragraph.

    These days, as we know, medium-to-larger churches are using overhead projection for their congregations, and music-other-than-hymnals for the musicians (most of the time, anyway). Those other sources do generally include dynamic markings, along with real piano accompaniment arrangements, rather than old-school hymnal 4-part only. The other 80% of the churches in America are probably content to have the hymnal look like it’s always looked.

    “What’re all these spots on my music? And who you callin’ ritardando?” Indeed!

  5. cynical one wrote:

    CVH’s comments about the 110 year old organist remind me of Ralph Carmichael telling years ago about the organist who only played by note, and pianist who only played by ear. It made for some interesting rehearsals and performances.

    And Fred Bock (some of you old timers will know these names, but you youngsters will be clueless– try to keep up) said it seemed the pianist and organist thought it was a race, to see who could finish the offertory first. Usually the organist would win, ’cause she could play louder.

    Ah, those were the days!

  6. Dexter wrote:

    I know I’ve lost many hours of sleep pondering this same subject….

  7. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    I’m not always a fan of printed music that is too specific about the performance. As a general rule, hymnals offer as much information as is needed for a reasonably talented music leader to take the song in the direction they want it to go.

    I don’t need markings, for example, to know that the second verse of “Tell Me The Story Of Jesus” should be sung slower than the other verses. The text of the song is indication enough.

    Would it help an amateur to include more performance instructions? If they can’t acknowledge a rest which is crucial to the rhythm, they sure aren’t going to pay attention to a crescendo or a sforzando.

  8. Leebob wrote:

    I thought all songs in all hymnals were supposed to get slower with each verse. In the Baptist Hymnal, in order to save ink you should only print the 1st, 2nd, and last verse because that is all we are going to sing anyway. :o)

  9. Janet wrote:

    As a wet-behind-the-ears church pianist oh those many years ago, I appreciated the fact that the organ was loud - it covered my many mistakes! (Martha Lu would chide me, “Play louder!”)
    In those days, all we used was a hymnal; Martha Lu put her special touch on many a hymn, which I looked forward to hearing (”Sunshine In My Soul” was a favorite). As someone who can only play what is on the page in front of me, it took me a long time to develop my own “licks.” Don’t really remember many dynamics markings; I think the hymns were sung the way we were accustomed to singing them! (Visiting a different church was a culture shock at times!)
    Oh, & I agree about the need for an author index. That was fascinating reading during long sermons! :)

  10. Ben wrote:

    I can appreciate the desire for dynamics or other musical markings to be given in a hymnal. But I tend to think that the director should give instructions that will fit the service and venue at hand. How many times when I was going through my music degree did a conductor tell us to change a part and do it a different way! Not having markings just gives the director more liberty. Besides, sometimes they are totally ignored by players anyway!

    On the other hand, if you are a purist, you should try to do it as much as possible to the composer’s wishes. I suspect many of the hymn writers did not use dynamic markings, but in more modern hymns of the past 100 years, it would not be uncomon to see them.

    Bottom line for me is, the director needs to have a knowledge of the hymns and give clear instructions on how he’d like it played.

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    There are a few hymns that have ritards and tempo changes written in, but not too many. As a music director / pianist, sometimes I have been known to ignore these (or save them until the last verse only.) Other times I have added some in. Sometimes even in choral pieces I have added things in like bending or swelling certain notes. Often the style of music dictates these whether they are written in or not. It is fun to interpret music and take liberties of your own instead of always doing it precisely as written. I think they call that director’s prerogative. :)

    [i]”What’re all these spots on my music? And who you callin’ ritardando?”[/i]

    Well, if you have to ask. ;)

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