This is the second of a series of articles by David Music on contemporary American hymn writers. For more of this series, visit ReformedWorship.org.
Many church musicians are familiar with Hal H. Hopson as a writer of choral anthems, handbell music, hymn enhancements, and works in other genres. But he has also made significant contributions to the repertory of congregational song.
Hopson was born on June 12, 1933, in the central Texas community of White Mound (now simply called “Mound”) in Coryell County. He was educated at Baylor University (B.M., 1954) and at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.S.M., 1956). He served churches in several states, including Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville and Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas. He also taught church music at Westminster Choir College and Scarritt Graduate School.
Hopson has published more than 1,300 pieces, and his work appears in two collections: Hymns for Our Time: The Collected Hymn Tunes of Hal H. Hopson (2009) and Metrical Psalms for the Church Year (2010), both issued by Hope Publishing Company. His tunes have also appeared as settings for texts in one-author volumes by other writers, as well as in a variety of hymnals. In the discussion that follows, numbers in parentheses refer to the items in Hymns for Our Time, and the hymn texts named are the ones to which the tunes are set in this volume.
Hopson has a knack for writing tunes that are “congregation-friendly.” Many of them are composed to be sung in unison over a keyboard accompaniment. The melodies tend to be active, with few repeated notes and occasional large leaps, but these typically fit comfortably into the harmonic background and make logical sense in the context of the line. There is also much stepwise motion, making the tunes natural and easy for amateurs to sing.
One feature of Hopson’s tunes that makes them great for congregations is their use of repeating phrases. Many of the pieces are in rounded bar form (AABA or AA’BA’); examples include JOYFUL SINGING (4, “Come and Hear the Joyful Singing”) and GIFT OF MUSIC (18, “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!”). These tunes demonstrate another distinctive feature of Hopson’s congregational song style: the use of sequence, especially in the B section of the melody. Sequential writing sometimes appears in other sections of a tune as well, such as in the first two phrases of MEAL OF LOVE (27, “We Meet as Friends at Table”); in this particular instance, the second half of the tune also repeats the first half, providing an additional point of familiarity for the congregation.
Some of Hopson’s tunes are written in a folk-like idiom, making use of modal melodies and harmonizations. The tune BAYLOR (15, “Restore in Us, O God”) is in F Aeolian (F natural minor) and contains not a single accidental in either melody or harmony. In the second measure, the bass part of the keyboard accompaniment briefly imitates the opening of the melody, and at the end of the third phrase the harmonization features open and parallel fifths, both of which are characteristic of traditional folk-hymn settings (ex. 1). A similar approach is taken in REX CARROLL(23, “A King on High Is Reigning”), which, like BAYLOR, uses an Aeolian melody (in G), but in this case a single F# is used in the harmonization of the sixth phrase.
Several of Hopson’s tunes demonstrate distinctive approaches to congregational song, generally based on some aspect of the text. carol stream (3, “If I Could Visit Bethlehem”) is child-like in its simplicity, reflecting the guileless nature of Brian Wren’s hymn. Intentional or not, the tune name carries a double meaning: CAROL STREAM (Illinois) is the location of Hope Publishing Company, but this hymn is also a “carol.”
HYMN CHANT (28, “Hear My Prayer, O God”), as its name implies, is suggestive of a Taizé song; it has the same sort of simple melody, and the second half of the tune is identical to the first half except that it ends on the tonic instead of the dominant. Of course, the wordier text (by Carl P. Daw, Jr., four stanzas of 126.96.36.199.D) sets it apart from a typical Taizé piece.
FAITHFUL FOREBEARS (43, “O God Who Gives Us Life and Breath”), also linked with a text by Daw, is given an ancient, Middle-Eastern flavor through its F minor key and its threefold employment of an augmented second in the melody (E-natural, D-flat, C-natural; ex. 2); this character particularly reflects the last stanza, which includes Old Testament references to “covenant and law,” and “cloud and flame.”
The most imaginative tune by Hopson is almost certainly GIFTS, to a text by Shirley Erena Murray (31, “Take My Gifts”; ex. 3). The tune begins in F major, but starting in the second measure the harmony passes through B♭ minor (with minor seventh), E♭, A♭ (with major seventh), F minor, B♭ minor (with minor seventh) again, finally settling on C major in preparation for a repetition of the music in the next phrase (but with a modified ending on an A♭ chord). The adventuresome nature of the harmony is matched by the melody, which uses the pitch A natural in only three measures of the entire tune; on the other hand, A♭ appears in eight measures of the melody, which also makes considerable use of D♭ and E♭. There are a few sharp dissonances (one chord contains the notes C, B♭, E-natural, A♭, and D♭), but the most unusual feature of the piece is undoubtedly the fact that it ends in the key of A♭. For all its chromaticism, modulation, and dissonance, however, the melody fits nicely into the harmonic background and is not at all difficult to sing; even the movement from the closing A♭ chord back to F major for the next stanza seems perfectly natural.
Two of Hopson’s tunes in particular have seen significant use in recent hymnals: GIFT OF LOVE and MERLE'S TUNE. GIFT OF LOVE (37b) is a unison-with-accompaniment setting of the folk tune o WALY, WALY in quadruple meter (the original was in triple time). The arrangement was made to accompany Hopson’s own paraphrase of the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13, “Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire,” together with an original third stanza, but it has subsequently been used with other texts.
MERLE'S TUNE (29), named after Hopson’s sister (and first piano teacher), is often linked with Arlo D. Duba’s “How Lovely, Lord, How Lovely” and Michael Perry’s “Blessed Be the God of Israel,” but can also be found with a variety of other lyrics. Written (like GIFT OF LOVE and many of Hopson’s other tunes) to be sung in unison with keyboard accompaniment, it is a sturdy, energetic piece in AA’BA’ form. Despite a few wide leaps, the melody flows naturally and is eminently singable. (One place to watch is in the sixth phrase, where the congregation sometimes sings an A instead of the written G in the melody [when the tune is in G major]. This happens because the first part of the phrase is similar to the previous one (which does have an A at that point) and also because there is an A in the “tenor” of the harmonization.)
Hal Hopson’s contributions to congregational song have been incalculable, both in terms of the material he has provided for enhancing hymns written by others and because of the music he has written to clothe texts by some of today’s most significant religious lyricists. His is indeed a “gift of love.”