By Amanda Husberg
Probably the vast majority of the hymns in the Lutheran Service Book were a pairing of texts written at different times from the tunes. Notable exceptions to this practice are hymns such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Once in Royal David’s City.” The job of any hymnal committee is to first choose the texts according to the doctrines of the denomination and then to choose which tunes will be used with those texts. Should we keep the most recognizable tunes that have been used with the text or may new ones pair better with the text? It was such a decision that paired my tune, “SARAH-ELIZABETH,” with the well-known text, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.”
Common practice today, however, with newer hymns, is for the author to write the text and then for a composer to write a tune for that text. An exception to this practice is Stephen Starke who prefers to write a text to an existing tune. He has the uncanny ability to get inside the music and craft a text that uses the nuances of the music to enhance his text.
So how does a composer begin to work with a text? The first consideration is the tone of the text, which will determine the tone of the music, joyful, a lament, etc. Then one notes the meter of the text, how many syllables are in a line of text and question whether the important words in a text always fall in the same places in each stanza. For myself, I then read the text over and over until I feel the rhythms in the accents. If the author is consistent, the hymn can flow more lyrically and will be easier to sing. My feeling is that the tune should fit the text like a glove around a hand. The tune must not detract from the text, but should wrap itself around the text, weaving melodies over and under the rhythms of the text. The tune is always the handmaiden of the text. When the text and music complement each other, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.
Good music can make a text more memorable and easier to sing. The notes cannot be too high or too low for congregational use. And, this range is getting smaller as people generally have become more listeners to music and not active participants.
Which are your favorite hymns? Generally they will be a combination of a meaningful text and a tune that sticks in your mind. But, it is also important to learn new tunes to go with all those great new texts that are being written. Any tune can become a favorite with some practice, and continued use, if the tune does its job, enhances the text and has a sing-able melody.
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