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! ;)