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Screwing up the last verse.


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I think it would be a shame if the art of reharmonising last verses were to die out, as I think a good one can certainly lift the finale of hymn. Do congregations get put off? I don't think so generally, unless the harmony is particularly extreme.

 

The question of what a 'good' reharmonisation is remains trickier to answer. Personally, I find that I have a 'stock' of progressions and indeed in some cases full reharmonisations, mostly etched in my memory now. Many have developed over time from hearing other versions or through my own explorations, so the version of a hymn played two years ago might have sounded slightly dodgy in places, but was in fact part of a progression towards something more coherent which I play now. There are still some written-down versions that I use (for instance, Diademata, which we had this morning, for which I always use Paul Walton's excellent version which he has on his website and which he promoted on here some while back). I'm sure no-one would argue with the very fine Willcocks arrangement of the last verse of O come, all ye faithful.

 

I probably do too many of these, but its part of the way I express myself when I play now, for better or for worse. I only started because I heard someone else doing it and liked it!

 

Key changes are another matter. These are an occasional indulgence, and usually reserved for something post-1950!

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It is different in Germany where the chorale books are in unison and every verse is given a different harmonisation by the organist. That is a rather different thing and I have never heard it done less than well. I imagine this works precisely because it is the norm and the congregations are used to it and expect it.

So, you must have been lucky with your choice of locations!

 

There are many books around with accompaniments for the hymns, 3-part, 4-part, piano compatible, lower for "older" generations and funerals (???), but the problem is, that weak players are heavily struggling with them in cases when the hymns have been scheduled very lately (at catholics often minutes before service starts - the dreadful electric displays for the hymn numbers make it possible...), so they decide not to practice or slow down too much and do freestyle harmonization. Even at players with church music diploma, you can hear many things pressing one to express "Keep the printed settings, please!"

Another problem is aesthetics: Many players who are aware of harmonic tricks use hymn harmonization as a showcase for their skills. The first verse of a hymn is often enriched so much that it should be reserved for last verses on special occasions. Very frequently you can find printed outcomes like this, when such players are asked to contribute to hymn collections. The weak players using such collections thus have to repeat those "special effect settings" for many verses...

 

On the other hand, organists who combine taste and capabilities, can really lift up the emotions of a singing congregation. Talking about names, I would take Peter Planyavsky first. Wolfgang Seifen is extremely talented, especially in romantic stuff, but once he is at the console, he is like a boy in a toys store and has difficulties to restrict himself from doing everything what he is able to..... (which makes his improvisation concerts often tiring on highest level)

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I'm sure no-one would argue with the very fine Willcocks arrangement of the last verse of O come, all ye faithful.

 

 

Indeed. It is incomparable and a model of its type.

 

So, you must have been lucky with your choice of locations!

 

This is quite possible! I should have admitted that my experience is limited. I am sure you are right about the degrees of harmonic enrichment. I suppose that, ideally, one would aim at making the harmonisations of successive verses fit the words on the one hand, while increasing in overall complexity towards a climax on the other. Achieving such a compelling structure might be not be so easy, however. Certainly I could not improvise something so well structured - but I have never been very adept at improvisation.

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The modern worship song "My Jesus my saviour" (which I should add I play on keyboard not organ) rather lends itself to a minor third uplift halfway through the final chorus - in other words from the home key of Bb major to Db major. The chord at the end of the fourth line is F major second inversion -> F major root -> tonic first inversion, which lends itself to being changed to F major second inversion -> (F major root -> Ab major dominant seventh) modulating into the new key of D flat first inversion. Just make sure you practice with the other singers first if you ever try that trick!

 

We have done exactly that same progression in MJMS several times at Ordinations - usually with a good parochial worship band plus one of the cathedral choirs and organ, and sometimes with an ex-military brass 4tet thrown in for good measure. (And a G flat 6 on the penultimate chord.) To say that the roof almost lifts off might be an understatement. The dropped jaw and huge smile when it caught our new Bishop unawares was priceless. -:)
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Recently I was given a book, with a title which sounds like a post-mortem report, "The Organs of J S Bach", and I learn that in Altenburg he started a hymn in D minor, raised it to E flat minor on the second verse and finished with the third verse in E minor. A witness at the time said "only a Bach could do this and only the organ in Altenburg. Not all of us are or have that."

 

As an aside, wouldn't it be interesting to hear how he achieved this? I find it difficult to imagine that he did anything so corny as merely plonking down a dominant seventh in the new key.

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The good Mrs Humana bought a particularly fine dollop of Stilton at Sainsbury's this week.

 

Cheesy? Guilty as charged, M'Lud.

But if it sends a few hundred people home happy, why not? :)

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As an aside, wouldn't it be interesting to hear how he achieved this? I find it difficult to imagine that he did anything so corny as merely plonking down a dominant seventh in the new key.

Don't forget the interludes after everly line of the hymn - we do not exactly know, what happened when where, but there are so many examples of interludes all over protestant Germany. I even have some 19th century examples in our own church records here, providing two different versions at each line's end, so you could pretend (at least two verses long) you have the required improvisational skills.

If you have a look at Bach's preserved Arnstadt Chorales and the interludes there (and you are aware that he was charged of irritating the congregation! It is even said in the records of his Arnstadt case, that he was called to KEEP a strange tone/note and not to turn to another one immediately), then one could imagine, that, by some more exotic changes in those flourisihing lines, he could have managed it in a way that we would be able to understand at least a little bit...

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The modern worship song "My Jesus my saviour" (which I should add I play on keyboard not organ) rather lends itself to a minor third uplift halfway through the final chorus - in other words from the home key of Bb major to Db major. The chord at the end of the fourth line is F major second inversion -> F major root -> tonic first inversion, which lends itself to being changed to F major second inversion -> (F major root -> Ab major dominant seventh) modulating into the new key of D flat first inversion. Just make sure you practice with the other singers first if you ever try that trick!

 

Curiously, the last time I played 'I am a new creation' (again, piano, not organ), I did exactly the same - up from C major halfway through the chorus to Eb major, though returning to C major for the final note. My rationale is that this is pretty much what 'Birdhouse in my Soul' does and 'I am a new creation' has always reminded me of that. Though in this case I greatly prefer the pop song to the worship song...

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Curiously, the last time I played 'I am a new creation' (again, piano, not organ), I did exactly the same - up from C major halfway through the chorus to Eb major, though returning to C major for the final note. My rationale is that this is pretty much what 'Birdhouse in my Soul' does and 'I am a new creation' has always reminded me of that. Though in this case I greatly prefer the pop song to the worship song...

 

I was just mentally humming through how I might do this and accidentally went from C major to A flat major a sixth higher instead of E flat! Last verse key changes do have to be managed with care, especially if there's a risk of the harmonic progression accidentally taking you to something so much higher than the original!

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