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Hymn Accompaniment

Hector C. Parr

hymn book


The art of leading the hymn singing in church presents an organist with difficulties which are often under-estimated. This essay looks at some of the problems, and offers a few suggestions.



"Of course I'm not really an organist; I can only play hymns." One hears this remark frequently, and it always amuses me. Either the speaker is very modest, and really is a capable organist, or the hymn playing will leave much to be desired. For hymn accompaniment is one of the organist's most demanding tasks. Not only does it require an easy mastery of clear part-playing, but at the same time the organist must combine a number of other conflicting virtues. Controlling a large body of untrained singers often requires playing of considerable forcefulness, but at the same time the playing should be sufficiently tactful to let the congregation believe they themselves are in charge. The organist must maintain high musical standards of accuracy and time-keeping, but should adapt these standards sensitively to the needs of the moment when a congregation fails to respond to his suggestions. And at the end of a church service he must listen patiently to all the conflicting advice the uninitiated will offer. It has been said that an organist is the only musician whose playing can be, at the same time, too fast and too slow, too loud and too quiet.

The good organist approaches hymn playing in much the same way as the good teacher approaches a class of pupils. There must be no doubt about who is in charge, and yet his resolve should be combined with sympathy and understanding of the difficulties and the points of view of the class or the congregation. The words and music of the hymn take the place of the knowledge or skill the teacher aims to instill, and the organist's task is to inspire his singers to sing to the best of their ability, and at the same time to understand and reflect upon the words they sing.


Playing a hymn tune, with or without pedals, demands as much from the organist's technique as many a four-part Bach fugue. And by the same token, every verse one plays, if it is well done, provides excellent practice in the art of part-playing. This fact can cheer the organist on those cold Sunday mornings when the church is almost empty, and the few who have braved the elements are too full of bronchitis to sing! He might feel that he is making little contribution to the salvation of souls, but he knows his organ playing is improving.

The secret of part-playing is independence. The four parts should each be musical in its own right, and this often demands that each be independently articulated. Here is the first phrase of the tune Oriel ("To the name of our salvation"). Try playing the right hand. The first three notes in the treble must be detached, for otherwise the tune is lost, but the corresponding notes in the alto should be legato.


Likewise, in the second bar the two alto D's should be separated, but not the treble notes above them. Is this the way you play it? If so, you are already a very competent organist. If not, your hymn playing still needs more practice, but you can rejoice that this practice may not involve sacrifice of your valuable free time; if you take care over the articulation of every verse you play during services your playing will rapidly improve.

These problems do not arise, of course, when playing hymns on the piano. The pianist will probably regard the music not as an exercise in four-part counterpoint but as a succession of chords. The fingers can then detach each chord from the next one, but continuity is achieved by means of "legato pedalling", the pedal being changed for each chord, or at least for each change of harmony.

The question of repeated notes on the organ needs further consideration, for in some hymns not every pair needs to be detached. In the lower parts it is often advisable to tie some parts, particularly in a non-resonant building. The first phrases of Nun Danket ("Now thank we all our God") and St. Gertrude ("Onward Christian soldiers") provide illustrations; the treble must be detached, but one or more of the lower parts should be tied to maintain continuity.

If you are playing the above tune (Oriel) without pedals, there is an additional problem, for the B in the tenor part must be taken by the right hand, complicating its task still further. And some hymns are less easy than this to adapt to our human limitation of having only ten fingers. Look at the last line of Savannah ("Love's redeeming work").


One solution here would be to transfer the bass part up an octave, as at (b), but it is better to leave the bass alone and transfer the tenor up an octave, as at (c). Indeed, organists who are competent at keyboard harmony frequently break free from the confines of playing in four parts, and can rearrange the chords effortlessly, but without, of course, changing the harmonic structure.

Many of these difficulties disappear when you play the bass line with the pedals. If you have any fluency on the pedal board, you should find that many hymns are far easier to play with pedals than without. It is customary to "play over" the tune before a hymn on manuals only, but I must admit that some hymns are so difficult to play cleanly this way that I often use the pedals throughout to relieve the burden. Some of our well-known hymn tunes, played without pedals, involve part-playing of considerable difficulty.

The correct way to play four part music using the pedals is to take the treble and alto with the right hand, the bass on the pedals, and let the left hand play the tenor part alone. But an insidious danger awaits the young organist who is allowed, or persuaded, to play hymns too early in his musical career. He is probably already a capable pianist, and finds it much simpler to play both the tenor and bass parts with the left hand, as he would on the piano, and to duplicate the bass part with the pedals. If, as is likely, the pedals are coupled to the manual, this will have no effect on the sounds produced, but will seriously prejudice his future career as an organist. The greatest difficulty in organ playing is to persuade the left hand and feet to move independently, as they do in all good organ music. If, at an early stage, they find themselves often moving together, a habit will form which will take years to break, or which may even handicap him as an organist for the rest of his life.


Getting a congregation started at the beginning of each verse presents a problem, despite the refusal of some organists to accept the fact. The human brain has a minimum "reaction time", as every car driver should know; when you encounter an emergency there is an inevitable delay before you move your foot towards the brake pedal, and according to the chart on the back cover of the British Highway Code this delay is well over half a second. There is nothing one can do to eliminate this, and a similar situation confronts a singer at the start of a verse. After the organ has played the first chord, almost one beat must elapse before a congregation can start singing. Either they will rush the first phrase in order to catch up, or more likely they will omit the first syllable. A large number of different techniques have been tried to overcome this problem. A book published in 1911 by a respected British organist (Dr. H. W. Richards) describes some of the tricks prevalent at the time, and they make amusing reading today. He shows at (a) the technique of playing a bass note one beat before the other parts enter, or at (b) the same practice applied to the treble. Even more bizarre, at (c) we see an appoggiatura one semitone below the treble note, and finally at (d) the whole chord is slowly arpeggiated. Needless to say, none of these methods would be countenanced today.


But we must consider seriously the playing of a "gathering note", whereby the organist prolongs the first chord by one beat, with the intention that the singers begin exactly one beat after the organ. Congregations which have long adopted this practice are often unaware that they are doing so, and each verse does begin cleanly, with an effect that is not unmusical. And organists too may not realise that they have done this for many years past; before throwing up your hands in horror and declaring, "I never do that!", wait until you have played your next service, and examine your method carefully. There is a danger that congregations, who are less skilled at counting beats than the organist, may just take it that there is some delay before they are expected to start singing, and what is intended to be one beat's delay, may over the years become two or more, as organist and singers wait for each other. It is essential, therefore, for the organist to time carefully the duration of this gathering note, and not allow the commencement of verses to become casual.

The only acceptable alternative is to be totally consistent in the length of silence between the "play over" and the start of the first verse, and between verses. If one can always count exactly two beats between lifting the preceding chord and the beginning of the next verse, an alert congregation will eventually learn what to expect, particularly if they are led by a well-trained choir, and will begin verses smartly at the same moment as the organ.

Listening to hymn singing broadcast on the radio can give a false impression of the ease with which this scheme can be adopted, for here a third alternative is often implemented. A conductor is employed to stand in a prominent position where congregation and organist can see him or her and, by a commanding presence and extravagant gestures, ensure that verses begin together. But it is to be deplored if this practice is adopted during normal worship. In recent years the intrusive presence of a conductor has become more common in cathedral choirs, even when singing simple responses or Amens; let us hope this practice does not percolate down to our churches and chapels.

My own view is that, in small churches with little or no choir, the playing of a gathering note is not to be condemned. Where this has become habitual it is difficult to break the habit without risk of damaging the happy relationship that should exist between organist and congregation. At one time our cathedrals and college chapels all adopted this practice. Not until the 1960's did most realise that, with a trained choir and good time keeping on the part of the organist, the gathering note was unnecessary. Many of our local churches, where conditions are very different, continue to use the gathering note, without any sense of ugliness.


If a congregation is to sing confidently the organist must maintain a firm and inflexible tempo, and the "play over" should be at the same speed as that of the hymn. But how is the organist to establish this speed in his own mind before starting? Quite simply by imagining himself to be among the singers, and by singing a verse of the hymn in his imagination before its number is announced. There is usually plenty of time for this exercise, particularly if the hymn follows immediately after the sermon. Having said this, one must admit that a large congregation may often fail to pick up the correct speed, and if the first verse begins a shade slower than the organist intended, it is a mistake to press on angrily and leave them behind. But what must never be tolerated is for each verse to be slower than the previous one. Nothing is more likely to generate half-hearted and dull singing. It is for this reason that no trace of rallentando can be allowed at the end of any verse except the last one, for the following verse is then likely to start at the speed the previous one ended.

The correct speed depends on many factors; the character of the words and of the tune must be considered, but so must the size of the building and of the congregation. A large gathering in a lofty building will demand a slower tempo than a few friends in a village chapel. But for any given hymn in a given situation there usually is quite a narrow range of speed within which the hymn can be described neither as "dragged" nor as "rushed". The organist's challenge is to start off comfortably within this range.

When a dragging congregation really must be brought to heel, the organist has a number of weapons. He can, of course, pile on more volume, but it is usually more effective and less offensive to signal his wishes by subtle articulation, detaching slightly the notes of the treble part, or the treble and alto parts. The ultimate sanction is to play all four parts staccato, but this is bad manners and should never be necessary.

Although he must not allow the tempo to flag, the organist can show his sympathy with the congregation in other ways. At the end of each line he should acknowledge the necessity for singers to breath by allowing the organ to breath also, detaching the treble part, and one or more other parts too if the building will allow it. Usually these breathing points are observed without any sacrifice of the steady pulse of the music, but there are many places where this rule can be relaxed, and the beginning of the next line can indeed be delayed for a fraction of a beat. The effect is not unmusical, and there is no better way for the organist to show the singers that he is "on their side". This flexibility of beat is essential in many Common Metre tunes, such as Bristol ("Hark the glad sound!"), where the second and fourth lines must begin late to allow for breathing. The same applies before the fourth line of Short Metre tunes such as Franconia ("Blest are the pure in heart"). For Long Metre tunes, such as Melcombe ("New every morning") it is customary to take this policy further, and introduce one extra beat at the end of the second line. In churches where this is the custom it would be a mistake to try to destroy it.

Similar considerations often apply where commas occur in the middle of lines, particularly in places where the congregation is encouraged not to breath at the end of the line, as in:

Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed_ His tender last farewell,

After the word "Redeemer" the organ should detach one or more parts, and perhaps arrive slightly late at the word "ere". It goes without saying that the organist must read the words of a hymn as carefully as if he were singing them; if necessary he must learn to play the tunes from memory so that his eyes can remain on the text. It is helpful if he does, in fact, sing silently to himself, but it is not advisable to sing aloud, as this can interfere with his listening to the congregation.


To encourage a congregation to sing, and to hold them together when they do sing lustily, a good firm lead from the organ is essential, but this demands a bright tone and clarity rather than power. Loud 8' stops are unnecessary and unhelpful, for they merely duplicate the sounds the singers themselves are making. If you have a large instrument with countless 8' Opens on the Great, the largest of these is seldom used in hymn playing. And if you have only one, it is often better to build up your chorus on the Great Stopped Diapason or Flute rather than on the Diapason. But the Swell Principal and Fifteenth can rarely be dispensed with, and when the occasion demands it, the Fifteenth and Mixtures on the Great also. The Swell reeds provide a welcome contrast for occasional verses when the text is appropriate, and the pedal reeds can contribute to a fine climax in hymns of praise or thanksgiving. But the old-fashioned practice of trying to match every nuance of the words with suitable colouring is totally unnecessary. I once watched an organist play several hymns, changing the stops slightly at almost every line ending, and believing he was word-painting with skill and discernment. But his efforts achieved nothing; not one of the subtle changes of organ tone would be noticed by anyone who was singing.

Many factors determine the optimum dynamic level of the organ accompaniment. The nature of the occasion, the words of the particular hymn or verse, the size of the building and of the congregation, and the heartiness of their singing all must be taken into account. But it is seldom desirable to change one's registration in the middle of a verse, nor need one apologise for accompanying two or more consecutive verses with the same organ. Today we can laugh at the style of singing and playing suggested by the meticulous marking found in the old Standard Edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern:

(f)  Heav'n's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
     In life, (p) in death, O Lord, (cr) abide with me.


The good organist has several tricks up his sleeve to vary the sound of his accompaniment without having to change stops. Most hymns can benefit from a verse or part of a verse played without pedals, thereby lightening the texture and providing welcome relief. The judicious use of passing notes in any of the parts is useful, either to improve the flow of a part which seems rather static, or to fill up the hiatus which halts the movement of many a Short Metre tune twice within each verse. But it is essential not to change the underlying harmony; even when your choir is on holiday it is inexcusable to offend the competent alto, tenor or bass who may lurk unnoticed in the congregation. It is also possible to alter the tessitura of the alto and tenor parts without changing the treble, thereby modifying the effective centre of gravity of the organ tone. But it is much more useful, on occasion, to let the treble break free and soar up towards the top of the keyboard. Here is a possible accompaniment for the last two lines of "Now thank we all our God":


And what about an occasional verse in unison? If you start off with bare octaves, everyone including the part-singers in the congregation will realise your intentions, and the harmonies you can inflict on everyone's ears are limited only by your skill and imagination! There are many books available of alternative harmonisations, but it is good to rely on your own invention if you have the competence. Unless you are mightily experienced, however, do not rely on divine inspiration of the moment to guide your fingers; the deity is wont to lead you into far-away keys, and then leave you to find your own way home with only two more chords to go! So write out the harmonies you intend to use, and play them over in the empty church before service. When done occasionally and skillfully the effect can be uplifting, but I do plead with you to be tasteful and sparing.


Yes, hymn playing is a superb discipline for the aspiring organist, and can improve many aspects of his or her technique. What about transposition? For past generations, church-going used to require some effort and involve some difficulties, but all this has changed in recent years. No longer need congregations understand the difficult language or doctrine of previous centuries, or respect difficult ethical or theological dogma, and so by the same token we must not now ask them to make the effort required for the singing of high notes. Many hymn books now provide tunes in lower keys than formerly, but for some congregations they may not be low enough (or occasionally may be too low). Transposing a hymn at sight is excellent training for the hopeful ARCO candidate, but until you are supremely confident, do not be ashamed of writing it out beforehand in the new key.

The organist's job is not to draw attention to himself. If you are congratulated on your hymn playing at the end of a service, you have failed, but if someone tells you how much they enjoyed the singing, that is success. A congregation singing its heart out in a fine building is too absorbed to notice the organ which is discretely controlling it. And the satisfaction of leading such singing with a fine organ is one of the greatest joys an organist can experience.

(c) Hector C. Parr (1998)


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