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O Thou Who Camest From Above


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On Saturday I conducted two choirs who came together for a tenor getting married - it was a splendid affair; Wood in F Mag, My Beloved Spake, Blessed be the God and Father, Set me as a Seal, and I sat down under His shadow, plus some great hymns, including O thou who camest from above.

 

The organist played it in Eb major - his justification was "consider the congregation" which is reasonable as there is a top F in it, if played in the original key. But to me, in the service, the hymn seemed so dull and colourless.

 

What would you have done (assuming there was a choir of 40+ singers and a congregation of 100 or so)?

 

Other hymns that spring to mind set originally in high keys are Lord enthroned (St Helen), All Glory Laud and honour (St Theodulph), Breath on me (Carlisle) and Praise the Lord ye heavens adore him (Austria).

 

For me, I'd go for the original higher key!

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Guest Barry Williams

It is irritating that so many hymns are printed in needlessly low keys and even worse, with simplified harmonies. The various editions of Hymns Old and New are the worst in this respect, though Ancient and Modern New Standard has people growling in their boots.

 

For all the hymns quoted I would play them in the original key unless I was on an organ that was already sharp in pitch, in which case a semitone's transposition downwards would be reasonable. St Helen in B flat would make an exciting tune extremely dull.

 

Barry Williams

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What would you have done (assuming there was a choir of 40+ singers and a congregation of 100 or so)?

 

On the basis that the choir is there for the benefit of the congregation, and not for their own enjoyment, then I'd ideally look for a pitch which doesn't go above Eb where possible and E at a push. Someone has to watch the wedding video back in the future, and my view would be that if some musicians (myself included) find lower pitches less exciting then that's a small price to pay to avoid screeching and straining from the congregation or (worse still) one or two people singing down an octave. Years ago I used to have someone in a congregation who did everything an octave lower than everyone else and it drove me to distraction, to the point where I once gave middle C for the ferial responses to force the bugger to fall in with everyone else. The altos didn't like me very much that day.

 

I rather like Hereford in Eb, actually - especially in a scrunchy tuning - congregational accuracy and control on the descending quavers at the start of the second half is massively improved too. The really difficult ones are ones such as St Albinus (think that's its name - Jesus lives! thy terrors now) which go all over the shop. Someone playing for me once put Bow Brickhill into Bb and that DID kill it stone dead - you didn't get that lovely bottom pedal note in the third quarter.

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Yes, St Helen in B flat sounds awful. It becomes a real grovel for everyone except the sopranos.

 

For "O thou who camest" I assume we're talking about Hereford. I cannot get too exercised about this one. In F major I'd be less worried about the solitary soprano F than the awful, strangulated noises likely to be emanating at this point from the baritones pressganged into singing tenor (if you have real tenors, count your blessings). The tessitura of this hymn is quite high for everyone and it can be transposed down a tone without inconveniencing anyone, not even the basses. In E flat The tune may sound less bright but it gains in richness. I certainly don't think it sounds dull.

 

Hark the herald angels sing is a strain in G major, even though the top note is only E. It certainly benefits from going down into G flat (but do yourself a psychological favour and play it in F sharp from a copy in F major). I'm inclined to think F is a bit low.

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I was surprised to discover on a quick inspection that the New English Hymnal generally seems to pitch tunes higher than in the English Hymnal. Although I suspect that RVW was less concerned with the aesthetics of robed choirs singing hymns than the editors of the NEH.

 

My personal experience is that most untrained members of congregations have great difficulty getting above a D, particularly at 9:30 on a Sunday morning and many, including a significant number of clergy would prefer tunes not to go above C. I don't think I've ever come across anyone who couldn't sing down to B flat so I usually try to set things in the ninth between C and D, sometimes going lower if the range requires. What is strange is that the most popular hymn in my congregations is I Cannot Tell, with its range of a twelfth.

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Guest Psalm 78 v.67

I get complaints from the congregation if I go above D

 

Incidentally, has anyone heard the story about David Willcocks, the congregation at Worcester, and "Jesus Christ is risen today" ?

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My congregation complain about D and above. I have found that they quite hapily go to Eb provided they know the tune well and no one tells them they are singing an Eb. They sing Billing happily in Eb with most of them getting there because it is a very bold major arpegio leading to it. On the other hand, give them a "Praise and Worship" they don't know or like and they foul up on c.

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I generally prefer hymn tunes in their original higher keys. I strongly dislike Hereford in E flat, it does seem to me to be too low for the basses in this key. "All glory laud and honour" is strenuous in C because of the sheer number of higher notes called for, but is does sound dull in B flat. Austria I find OK in E flat.

 

We use Common Praise, which I think is a great hymn book, but there are an annoying number of tunes in silly keys. I think "Praise to the Lord the almightly" is in F, which seems completely unnecessary. I can't remember what key "Now thank we all our God" is in, certainly its in E flat in some recent hymn books and I hate it in this key.

 

Not being good at transposing, there are many occasions when I reach for my AMR to restore the hymn in question to its more familiar key.

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On the subject of pitching hymns in gnereal, if you look at Bach's Chorales (Oxford? Edited by Terry?) you will notice that the soprano/treble line frequently hovers around the G/F mark, often starting at that register. I wonder if this is an indication that in Bach's time the human voice was naturally higher and has lowered in pitch over the years and that composers write to accomodate this?

 

Peter

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On the subject of pitching hymns in gnereal, if you look at Bach's Chorales (Oxford? Edited by Terry?) you will notice that the soprano/treble line frequently hovers around the G/F mark, often starting at that register. I wonder if this is an indication that in Bach's time the human voice was naturally higher and has lowered in pitch over the years and that composers write to accomodate this?

There's a fine can of worms you've opened, Peter :)

 

going into random thought mode

 

I remember getting interested in the great Tudor pitch wars of the 1970-80s between Wulstan and Parrott and finding a quote in Le Huray's book saying that the most common adult male voice was the tenor. This seemed to me to prove the case for the lower pitch of Parrott. Anyway, without some wide-ranging research on the natural pitch of the human voice (which would probably need to involve diet, dress, culture), we can only guess how congregations have coped with high notes in the past. Like an earlier poster I have strong memories of a male congregant who sang everything an octave lower, most noticeably and to rather profound effect in the unaccompanied creed. It has just struck me that we find no problem with men always singing one octave lower than the real pitch of a hymn tune despite what it does to the harmony. And I read recently of a London performance of a Bach passion when the audience were more than encouraged to join in all the chorales at whatever pitch was comfortable, this being what the conductor believed was standard practice in the Lutheran church of Bach's time.

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There's a fine can of worms you've opened, Peter :)

 

going into random thought mode

And I read recently of a London performance of a Bach passion when the audience were more than encouraged to join in all the chorales at whatever pitch was comfortable, this being what the conductor believed was standard practice in the Lutheran church of Bach's time.

 

 

I agree this could welll have been standard practice in JSB's time. If you listen to Paul McCreesh's marvellous recreations of the Praetorius Christmas Mass at Roskilde and of Bach's Epiphany Mass at Freiberg, the congregation can clearly be heard singing the chorales at 3 octave pitches, ie. women as notated and the men singing both one and two octaves below. A fine sound, especially in the unaccompanied verses.

 

JS

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Although I am no expert on pitch, I have always assumed that pitch at the time of S S Wesley was lower than today. I don't know by how much, but probably by as much as a tone lower. Therefore, he may have written Hereford in F major, but it was actually heard in what we would regard as E flat major. This is a much more comfortable key to perform this hymn.

 

However, as I say, I am no expert. But I believe that in Handel's time, A was tuned to about 420Hz, 20Hz lower than today.

 

Ian Crabbe

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Guest Barry Williams

Certain notes are more difficult to reach than others. The problem is not the pitch but the vowel. Some high notes are easy on particular vowels and lower notes difficult on other vowels. That is the issue of singing and choir training. It has far more effect than the mere pitch. Choirmasters who do not understand these things produce unmusical sounds from their choirs, most especially on the high notes.

 

Barry Williams

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From all, to anything within a third.

 

Yes, but in practice, organists are usually required to transpose hymns and psalm chants, and I haven't seen too many of these in more than three or four sharps or flats.

 

 

Ian Crabbe

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Yes, but in practice, organists are usually required to transpose hymns and psalm chants, and I haven't seen too many of these in more than three or four sharps or flats.

 

 

Ian Crabbe

 

I know several previous New College organ scholars, and all of them have been required by Dr Higginbottom to transpose motets, anthems, setting, the works - at sight and at three seconds notice, often into punishing keys.

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I generally prefer hymn tunes in their original higher keys. I strongly dislike Hereford in E flat, it does seem to me to be too low for the basses in this key. "All glory laud and honour" is strenuous in C because of the sheer number of higher notes called for, but is does sound dull in B flat. Austria I find OK in E flat.

 

We use Common Praise, which I think is a great hymn book, but there are an annoying number of tunes in silly keys. I think "Praise to the Lord the almightly" is in F, which seems completely unnecessary. I can't remember what key "Now thank we all our God" is in, certainly its in E flat in some recent hymn books and I hate it in this key.

 

Not being good at transposing, there are many occasions when I reach for my AMR to restore the hymn in question to its more familiar key.

 

Don't you have a transposer on your Toaster?

 

FF

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Guest Psalm 78 v.67
Yes, but in practice, organists are usually required to transpose hymns and psalm chants, and I haven't seen too many of these in more than three or four sharps or flats.

 

 

Ian Crabbe

 

"Ewing" is in Db in a number of books.

 

Norwich do/used to do a chant in B by Z Buck to Ps 32

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I know several previous New College organ scholars, and all of them have been required by Dr Higginbottom to transpose motets, anthems, setting, the works - at sight and at three seconds notice, often into punishing keys.

 

I would only say that most repertoire which needs transposition will be 16th century repertoire, and this is usually in keys which are not too unfriendly - four flats being possibly the unfriendliest. I don't recall seeing Tomkins' Second Service published in G sharp minor.

 

Ian Crabbe

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On the basis that the choir is there for the benefit of the congregation, and not for their own enjoyment, then I'd ideally look for a pitch which doesn't go above Eb where possible and E at a push. Someone has to watch the wedding video back in the future, and my view would be that if some musicians (myself included) find lower pitches less exciting then that's a small price to pay to avoid screeching and straining from the congregation ...

I rather like Hereford in Eb, actually - especially in a scrunchy tuning - congregational accuracy and control on the descending quavers at the start of the second half is massively improved too. The really difficult ones are ones such as St Albinus (think that's its name - Jesus lives! thy terrors now) which go all over the shop. Someone playing for me once put Bow Brickhill into Bb and that DID kill it stone dead - you didn't get that lovely bottom pedal note in the third quarter.

 

I agree - I prefer Hereford in E-flat. Keys still have their own flavours, as it were (without wishing to encourage people to resume the temperament thread). E-flat major I find to be a rich, satisfying key. However, I am happy to forego the 'scrunchy tuning'.

 

Like David, I also prefer Bow Brickhill in C major.

 

From all, to anything within a third.

 

Within a tone is more normal. Even one of my college professors said that he would write out (in the new key) any transposition greater than a major second.

 

When I told David Briggs the key in which I am required to play the JSB Wachet auf! piece (for our Advent Candlelight Service) he also said that he would have written it out.

 

Whilst I have had occasionally to transpose a piece up a minor third for a school choir, or play canticle settings up a tone, three seconds' notice (and in obscure intervals of transposition) does seem unnecessarily demanding.

 

At the Minster, I usually have to transpose a hymn most services - often up a tone (bloody Hymns Old and New....). Occasionally I am also required to transpose the odd anthem up a tone. I did once transpose the last verse of Amazing Grace up a perfect fourth (I have an intense dislike for every aspect of this hymn). I achieved that which I had desired - this hymn has not been chosen since.

 

:P

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Certain notes are more difficult to reach than others. The problem is not the pitch but the vowel. Some high notes are easy on particular vowels and lower notes difficult on other vowels. That is the issue of singing and choir training. It has far more effect than the mere pitch. Choirmasters who do not understand these things produce unmusical sounds from their choirs, most especially on the high notes.

 

Barry Williams

 

Barry that is very interesting. Is it an individual thing, that is to say would, for example, chorister A find it fairly painless to sing "Praise" on a top G whereas chorister B might find he/she produces an unmusical sound? Does it depend on gender? (I can never forget Robert Tear, I think, on the Barbarolli recording of Elgars Dream singing "TIKE ME AWAY"!)

 

Peter

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Guest Psalm 78 v.67

Does anyone else use "my" transposition method? With a mental note of the new key signature, if applicable, I re-think the clefs. For example, Eb to D, in the treble clef the bottom line becomes D etc....

 

Obviously, things like A to Ab merely require a mental change of k/s and accidentals need rethinking as appropriate, and in the case of something known from memory it is possible to just re-produce the music in a different key.

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Does anyone else use "my" transposition method? With a mental note of the new key signature, if applicable, I re-think the clefs. For example, Eb to D, in the treble clef the bottom line becomes D etc....

 

Obviously, things like A to Ab merely require a mental change of k/s and accidentals need rethinking as appropriate, and in the case of something known from memory it is possible to just re-produce the music in a different key.

 

Never thought of it like that. I actively shift the top and bottom lines in my head, and the inner parts by their relationship to the outer parts. Probably why I've never been very good at it.

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Guest Psalm 78 v.67
Never thought of it like that. I actively shift the top and bottom lines in my head, and the inner parts by their relationship to the outer parts. Probably why I've never been very good at it.

 

Never thought of it like that either, but I can see the point. Whatever works best for the individual. I have to say however that I never willingly go into 5 + sharps or flats by any means!

 

I actually "devised" my method when I was about 9/10 ish, so I could play everything in C! It didn't help my sight-reading at the time, but it's been very useful in the long run!

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