Giving a Hymn a Lift: When should the organist change keys?

"Using an interlude to raise the pitch for the last stanza is unmusical and theatrical."
[Harold Gleason, McHiod of Organ Playing, 6th ed, 1979, p. 221]

"On special occasions, vigorous congregational singing can be promoted by transposing a hymn to a higher key for the last verse."
[George Ritchie and George Stauffer, Organ Technique, Modem and Early, 1992, p. 362]

Classically trained organists used to look down their noses at the practice of changing keys on hymn stanzas, a practice often used to excess in evangelical circles. But in the last few years the attitude toward modulating interludes has started to change. Probably one of the greatest contributing factors to that change is the recently-discovered proof that J. S. Bach was "guilty" of modulating during hymn singing.

Bach played the choral setting of the Nicene Creed ("We All Believe in One True God" [Wir glauben all' an einen Gott],) in D minor But for the second verse he lifted the congregation into E-flat minor and for the third verse, he took those present even higher, to E minor

[Ritchie and Stauffer, p. 362]

Admittedly Bach used these key changes in a service of installation, celebrating a new organ whose well-tempered tuning may have tempted the composer to improvisational excess. But it cannot be denied that there is a tradition of changing keys during a hymn, and that its proponents have included some of the best musicians.

Why Change Keys?

Those who argue in favor of modulating point to its usefulness in enhancing congregational singing.

Many longer hymns take up to five minutes to sing. Transposing breaks the monotony brought about by the feeling of being locked into one key. Interestingly, Bach's modulations, mentioned above, were by half steps, not whole tones. The effect of modulating up one half step is more liberating than that of moving up a whole tone, because the keys are more distant. A higher "lift" is experienced when going up a semitone than when going up a tone. Wir glauben all' an einen Gott is a lengthy hymn that takes a long time to sing. The key change "spices up" the singing, giving the congregation new energy.

Other good candidates for key change are hymns that are so well-known that people may sing them without thinking about what they are singing (this is especially true of hymns sung every week). Through interludes, modulations, and perhaps changed harmonies, the organist can keep such hymns fresh and meaningful.

Certainly key changes are not appropriate for every hymn and every situation. If the interlude is not in the character of the hymn and does not express a similar sentiment, musically as well as thematically, it can detract from the hymn, arid even destroy it.

It is always the text that should guide and inspire the organist's playing. Bach's 371 chorales are a wonderful example and proof of how different harmonizations and keys can "quicken" a hymn, lifting the words off the page and into our hearts.

A Matter of Tradition

Sometimes the number of interludes and key changes a congregation uses is more a matter of denominational tradition than a desire for musical variety. I grew up in a church where interludes were commonly used after every stanza of a hymn. In fact, the psalm book used by our church organist had a short interlude between every line of every verse. This tradition seems to be still alive and well in some churches in the Netherlands today.

Again, there are examples of this frequent use of interlude among significant composers such as Bach, although only in solo organ pieces.(In dulci jubilo BWV 729, Von Himmel hoch BWV 738a, Lobt Gott ihr Christen BWV 732, Herr Jesu Christ dich zu wis wend BMV 726, Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BWV 722, Allein Gott in der Hoh BWV 715). The rationale for these interludes between every line, quite regardless of punctuation, was the opportunity they offered for reflection, for "sighing," an expression of penitence.

Helping the Congregation Sing

No organist today is likely to advocate an interlude after each line or stanza. Most of us have no time for that sort of elongated hymn-singing. There may still be some conservative Reformed and Mennonite churches where slow singing is equated with thoughtful, "spiritual" worship, but they are the exception.

But we certainly shouldn't go to the other extreme either. How can we expect to get anything but the most superficial impression of a great hymn if we rip through it at an "upbeat" tempo in a desperate attempt to make it appear lively?

Organists play interludes and modulate between stanzas because it is the organist's way of offering praise to God and of energizing congregational singing. If the singing is already quite robust, then it may not need energizing. But most congregations could use a considerable dose of vigor, especially in their singing.

The great hymns ought never to become stale and dull; through sensitive interludes they can be "dusted off" and made to shine as if new. The last stanza especially can often be given appropriate emphasis when introduced by an interlude which, if done well, can transpose and transport the mind and the soul to a higher realm.

Interludes must always be planned and used thoughtfully, with the goal of enhancing worship. Unless all that organists do is inspired by a genuine desire to help congregations sing better— sometimes by adding interludes, sometimes by modulating and transposing, sometimes by stepping back and not playing at all, and always by being willing to deny themselves and sacrifice their brilliant technique—they are not fit for the high calling of a worship leader in the church.


Send Out Your Light

The modulating interlude for "Send Out Your Light" [PsH 165] changes the key from C to D (see page 36). The concepts of climbing and ascending are strongly suggested by the central theme in the hymn of the "holy hill." Since the hymn has only two stanzas, it is better to modulate to a not too distant key, (C to D, as opposed to C to D-flat) since we have not yet had too much of the original key. Actually though, the key of C was not a good choice for this hymn, since it is too low and will make the music sound heavy and laborious.

At the Name of Jesus

A good guideline to follow in planning an interlude for a hymn such as 'At the Name of Jesus" [PsH 46? PH148, RL 336, TH163] is to make sure it's no longer than the hymn itself. In this case I have written two interludes which together are about the same length as the hymn (see page 37). This is a very triumphant and exultant hymn, often associated with the Ascension of Christ. Any hymn on the theme of Ascension will immediately invite an upward modulation, especially if it's a rather long hymn such as Ralph Vaughan Williams' KING'S WESTON.

The lifting up of the name of Jesus, as suggested by enthroning him in our hearts (st. 5) and by his glorious return as King of kings (st. 6) are really comments on what was said in the first four stanzas. If the poem were a plant, then the first four stanzas would be the roots, the fifth stanza the plant, arid the last stanza the flower. A short interlude to mark the transitions in thought, to allow a short "breathing space," and to hint at the heightened insights, will help singers appropriate the wonderful truths in this t hymn.

Jan Overduin ( professor of music emeritus, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. In 2006 he retired as director of music at First United Church, Waterloo, where he supervised the installation of a 44-stop Gabriel Kney mechanical action organ. Also in 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Awards Foundation.