Friday, December 7, 2012

The hymn tune with the funny name (you know, that one!)

The church calendar and I may have gotten off to a rocky start with you all last week when I posted a rather severe piece that had us thinking about the Apocalypse, which is exactly what was called for in the assigned lectionary scripture reading for that week each year and might strike some people as a rather odd way to start off the season of  Christmas (which it isn't, according to the church calendar).

This week we're going to do a 180. I'm not playing anything at the organ; the choir is doing their annual service of song, so I'm going to post what I actually played in church last week; the previous blog contained music I actually played back in 2008 (and recorded in 2011). Last week's rendering was a piece by 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams based on a hymn tune called "Hyfrydol" which I think is supposed to be pronounced with a couple of short y's, but sounds pretty strange either way. Hymn tunes often do--sometime I think I'll hold a contest for the strangest hymn tune you know of. In the meantime you can prepare for it by scouring your hymnbook for suitable candidates: if you are a United Methodist the tune name is in all caps in the lower right hand corner of the page.

The tune Hyfrydol is paired, in our hymnbook, with the text for "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" which is what makes it appropriate for Advent. Here's how it goes.

The catch is that Mr. Vaughan-Williams seems to think you would have a lot of patience. In his piece, the tune proceeds apace.

You might have noticed that it is a bit slower. But at least it is in the upper voice, so it won't be so hard to distinguish for the rest of the texture. And what a texture it is.

I mentioned in the bulletin notes from last week that the composer had a taste for "spicy harmonies." At the risk of kicking over a rather large can of worms in only my second church-related blog post, I've been pondering the relationship between his rather unorthodox harmonies and the way he colored outside the lines in his personal beliefs. You see, although he wrote a good deal of sacred music and even edited some very important hymnals for the Church of England, he was apparently, at least privately, an atheist. That's not really all that unusual. I can think of at least a few prominent composer of English sacred literature (one still living) who didn't exactly buy what the church was selling. Now one of the major themes of the church (particularly in England, where the church has been enmeshed with the state for several centuries) is authority. And on top of that, the church tends to be a very conservative, tradition-bound institution, in which creative, innovative, and otherwise unusual or forward-thinking persons proceed with great difficultly, or leave. Now our good composer has left us a piece that, for all its studied pomp and solemnity, does have moments which suggest its composer was exploring the world of the possible, rather than the tried, when it came to harmony, expanding its vocabulary, finding new things to say, as gifted composers generally do. The piece is in this regard a good marriage between the new and old. Someone said of Vaughan Williams' music, "One is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."  Now suggesting that Vaughan Williams' atheism has anything at all to do with his penchant for out-of-the-box harmonies is a stretch, but then, on the flip side, it's the sort of argument church types have been making for centuries in their writings, many of which, when they mention music at all, are intended to reign in their willful musicians who wrote music that was too complicated, too different, and who liked to experiment. "Devilish discords" and that sort of thing, you know. Of course God only likes dignified, solemn, and above all, tame sorts of music. (Does he live in a harmonically sealed environment?) Unfortunately, some of us organists do enjoy the occasional unlicensed sonic protuberance, if only to relish its resolution all the more.  Whatever Mr. Vaughan Williams' thoughts on all this, beside the "Three "Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes" (of which this is the third; I posted the second a couple of weeks ago) there are only a handful of other organ pieces. Of course, he wasn't an organist. All the same, he doesn't seem to have been very interested in writing for it, either.

In any event, if you like unusual harmonic digressions, there are some places near the end of the piece of particular interest. If you don't, you'll find yourself turning your nose up around 3:31, where there are six chords in a row all of Mr. Vaughan William's special vintage. My favorite, though, occurs at 4:13, right before the final ascent.


Vaughan Williams: Prelude on "Hyfrydol"

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