In this series on revisiting old treasures you may find this old hymn is not as stodgy as you have been led to believe. Look at some of our oldest hymns through new eyes and they often take on new life.
If you check out the form of this hymn you'll notice a few interesting things straight away. In most hymnals the last two lines of each stanza text are indented, and contain the same text each time. This is of course because this hymn is a setting a psalm 136, and these two lines are a refrain, or chorus as such.
What this may suggest is that the last two lines of each stanza be sung by the whole gathering, and that the first two lines be treated differently each time. This will give the hymn a natural momentum that is harder to attain if everyone sings every single bit of the song. But it may also heighten the significance of the text as people will tuned into to the text they are not singing themselves.
Some ways to achieve this may be as follows:
1. Various solosists sing the first two lines and the athered people sing the refrain.
2. Left side sings the first two lines and right side the second (or alternate)
3. Female voices and males voices
4. Adults and children
5. First two lines of each verse sing first by women, second verse by men, third verse by kids, fourth by a soloist and so on.
Putting the Hymn into Context
Knowledge about composer is usually very illuminating and informs the treatment of songs. John Milton's paraphrase of Psalm 136, was set to music by John Antes, a American born composer of Moravian descent, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1740, and died in England in 1811. He was a violin maker, watchmaker, inventor, missionary, theoretician, businessman and composer.
Reflecting the Character of the Text Musically
"Let us with a gladsome mind, praise the Lord for He is kind"
In the past I have most often sung this hymn in a slow four, with the emphasis on each beat. I'm not sure this was particularly successful in promoting a gladsome mind, as the result was more grandiose and even pompous in manner. Remember that in the late 1700's it is likely this hymn was sung a cappella, and that John Antes's four parts were intended for vocalists, not instrumental accompaniment.
You may notice several things if you wander around the house singing the melody alone:
- The melody is more likely 2 minim beats in a bar, not 4.
- It has a lovely lilting melody. Lets face it, there are way too many mono-rhythmic hymns but this one has quavers! (cheer loudly and with enthusiasm)
- The vocal range is quite broad, with a range over an octave.
- It has a light, dance-like quality which is in danger of being weighed down by hyper-harmonisation.
This hymn is one of those which is more decisive when sung in unison and acappella (unaccompanied) than accompanied with an instrument. Consider that it's composer was a violin maker and utilise a violist in your midst if you have one, to play a counter melody. Ditching the vocal harmonies and accompanying with a single drum playing a simple rhythm works a treat.
As I have suggested previously, tempo should be governed by the intrinsic nature of a song, and not the capacity of the resident accompanist. Harmonisation, such as is prescribed in many hymnbooks, invariably slows the pace, and impedes the joy and lilting quality of this song.
In the Uniting Church's hymnal, Together in Song, the suggested speed is MM116-132. Quite a broad spectrum! You will adopt your own pace. Remember those in smaller gathering will find it easier to adopt a more sprightly pace. Having said that, a large gathering, when well led by a songleader, should have no trouble singing at MM 132 (crotcher) or MM 66 (minim).
Don't Have a Metronome?
A metronome is an essential tool for musicians. They are available for purchase at music stores, but you would do just as well to download one onto whatever media tool you use. If you're buying a metronome, make sure it has a sound-free option. This means you can check the speed via a flashing light - very important in the midst of worship, or during a perfromance. A free metronome app is available for iphones, ipads, ipods, for PC users, blackberries etc.