Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Intonations vs. Preludes: Introducing Hymns

This post is not just for the organist - but for the pastors and worship committees who work together with them in planning the Divine Service.   As you may have noticed, we're moving toward more bite-sized "helpful hints" posts here at Fine Tuning.  We hope the ideas we are sharing will be "solutions" for you in your parish.

The title gets right to the issue: Do we want to introduce a hymn with a hymn prelude or intone the hymn with a simple introduction?  This question often comes up with worship planners, especially when length of service is discussed.  Too often the service suffers because the decision is made to go either one way or the other.   In other words, some organists are told to play simple, short intonations for all hymns so that worship length can be cut down or organists are given free reign and then many of us musicians decide that every hymn needs 3-4 minutes of our music to set it up - potentially adding about 10 minutes to a service.

While each liturgy needs to be considered in its own context, there are some simple guidelines we'd like to offer that will help you incorporate meaningful organ repertoire into the hymnody of the service while avoiding adding tedious delays to the liturgy:

1 -  If the people are standing, it is usually best to play an intonation.  If the congregation is getting ready for a procession after announcements or Confession/Absolution, a short prelude or longer intonation can work very well, as the people will need more time to get their hymnal & bulletin prepared and are in a preparatory mood themselves, but the general rule prevails.   Folks don't want to stand for 3 minutes before they get a chance to sing.

2 -  If the people are participating in a communal or ritual action, such as receiving the Lord's Supper, then an organ prelude doesn't add time to the service.   However, care must be taken not to play repertoire too far afield from the tempo and tone of the tune being introduced, lest the assembly not understand that the next hymn is being introduced.   More varied repertoire can be used in place of a hymn stanza if so noted in the bulletin.  This maintains clarity and also can add special meaning, as a "hymn prelude" is employed to "paint the text" of a particular stanza by matching the composition with the most appropriate words.  This practice also aids worshippers in finding their place in the hymn upon returning from the Lord's Supper.   (i.e.  if the organ is playing "stanza 4", then one knows stanza 5 is next.  This can be particularly helpful to people coming back to their pews in parishes where the singing during communion is not strong enough for one to readily ascertain which stanza is being sung.)

3 - The Hymn of the Day is the chief hymn of each Divine Service and thus deserves the highest level of musical attention.   This hymn amplifies the readings for the day and is directly connected to the sermon.  The people are seated for this hymn - a position for meditation - and so are prepared for listening.   Along with the practice of assigning stanzas to choirs or soloists, using instrumentalists or handbells to accent or adorn various stanzas, the organ has its best opportunity here to help the assembly interpret the text.   While certainly a four-minute prelude is not called for each week, this is the best time for the organ to make use of the art of music in service of the Gospel.   Preservice music is heard by some, but people are gathering and often talking.   Voluntaries are appreciated by more, but the plate is being passed and folks are often distracted by their kids during this "break in the action" between the Service of the Word and the Liturgy of the Lord's Supper.   And though we love our toccatas, only a handful stick around to hear the postlude.   So the Hymn of the Day remains as the organist's best opportunity to inspire and encourage the congregation.  

Finally, keep in mind the purpose of the introduction.  The hymn introduction - whether a prelude or intonation - should clearly announce the tune, establish the key, set the tempo, and be in the character of the text to be sung. There are many compositions of wonderful hymn-based music than can and should be played in the service but are not the best choices for hymn introductions.   They can better be used as preservice music, text-painting stanzas for solo organ, voluntaries (music during the receiving of tithes and offerings), or postludes.   What is played before the congregation sings, however, should above all else always prepare them to sing.

And the more your congregation sings the hymns, the more they will appreciate the organ playing based upon these hymns throughout the service!  ;)


artaxerxes99 said...

Hi Phil, Good advice. As with many things musical, variety is important. In general though, I believe we perform a disservice when we factor in the "length of the service" in our planning. Many congregations seem to have a hang-up about letting a service go longer than 60 minutes. As a result there are even prominent congregations (to use a term), whose services you can hear weekly on the internet, where the whole pace of the service feels forced along, and thus, artificial. When hymns are played too fast, the sermon is spoken quickly, and moments of silence are missing, the service leaves people with an anxious and uneasy feeling. What happens here is that the speed of the service becomes a distraction from the Gospel. I believe we must deliberately slow down the pace of the Divine Service, especially in our hectic day and age, to help draw attention to the holy things that are happening there. The musician's art, properly practiced, can both calm and energize, depending on which is needed at any given time.

Phillip said...

Excellent point, Michael, about rushing things. Often pastors rush through, for example, the Prayer of the Church when they see a lot of petitions ahead. They think they have to hurry and get through them - but that not only goes against the spirit of prayer, but also actually makes the prayers seem LONGER. As you say, avoid the "anxious and uneasy feeling". Enjoy the service. Yes, ENJOY it, and your people will as well.

Regarding podcast services from various congregations, sometimes those who put up the broadcast edit out silence. I don't think they necessarily should (except maybe something like 2 minutes of silent communion distribution), but they are schooled in avoiding "dead air". I know the folks who upload Bethany's services do that; I'm sure others do as well.

Anyway, thank you for reminding us to pace ourselves reverently in order to draw attention to holy things. Well said!

artaxerxes99 said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for the note. I agree with your point that we musicians should enjoy the service. Along the same lines, we should mentally and physically *participate* in the service as well. It's a challenge for organists to juggle books and stops and what's coming next, but having musicians visibly participate even when they are not playing or singing is an important witness (the lack of participation perhaps being a more noticeable negative witness).

BTW, I wasn't referring to Bethany's services with my comment, but I admit I hadn't considered post-editing as a possibility to explain the lack of silence is some recordings. That could indeed be the case in some services I have listened to online. But it doesn't explain the too-fast hymn playing. :) That said, I know there is room for friendly disagreement about pace of hymnody.