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That the World May Know You

The Hymns of Alfred V. Fedak

Alfred V. Fedak was born on July 4, 1953, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He earned his bachelor’s degrees in organ performance and music history from Hope College in 1975, and a master’s degree in organ performance from Montclair State University. He has done additional study at Westminster Choir College; the Eastman School of Music; the Institute for European Studies in Vienna, Austria; and the Cambridge Choral Studies Seminar, Clare College, Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the American Guild of Organists, holds the AGO Choirmaster Certificate, and has been a member of the national Board of Examiners since 1986; he also served as director of the Guild’s Professional Certification Committee (1996-2000).

Fedak has been minister of music and arts at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Capitol Hill, Albany, New York, since 1990. He also served as organist/choir director of Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany between 1991 and 2001, and was reappointed to this position in 2014.

Fedak is a prolific composer of choral and organ pieces, as well as hymn tunes and other music. Four collections of his hymn settings have appeared to date, all issued by Selah Publishing Company: The Alfred V. Fedak Hymnary (1990; “Hymnary”), Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song (2001; “Threadbare”), God of the Future (2009; “Future”), and Stones Unthrown (2014; “Stones”).

The composer shows a decided preference for texts by recent authors. Of the 137 pieces in the four collections listed above, the words of only twelve were written by persons born before the twentieth century (modern scriptural paraphrases and contemporary translations of earlier texts are not included in the latter figure). Particularly prominent are the hymns of Carl P. Daw, Jr., which are used more than thirty times.

Some of Fedak’s tunes exhibit what might be called “traditional hymn style”: a largely diatonic melody with a relatively plain harmonization and metrical regularity. LAUGHING LIGHT (Stones, 7) is just such a piece and is exceptional for its total lack of accidentals. Another example, CHANNELS OF GRACE (Future, 5), despite including numerous Dbs in the key of Eb, shows many of the same traits. Other works are carol-like in their approach; the 6/8 meter, conservative harmony, and exuberant melody of SIXTH NIGHT (Hymnary, 31) provides a suitably festive vehicle for greeting “the swiftly changing year.”

A special category among the tunes in this traditional style consists of pieces that are reminiscent of early psalm tunes and chorales. These similarities sometimes include melodic, sometimes harmonic, and sometimes rhythmic elements—or, on occasion, all three in varied proportions. COSTLY GIFTS (Threadbare, 8) sets a lyric that is in the same (rather unusual) hymnic meter as Johannes Olearius’s “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,” and it is not surprising that Fedak’s tune is evocative of the Genevan psalm tune (FREU DICH SEHR/GENEVAN 42) that usually sets the latter text (Lift Up Your Hearts, 59). The name of KANCIONAL NEW—though derived from its setting of a sixteenth-century Czech kancional text paraphrased by Gracia Grindal—is nevertheless appropriate to describe the style of the tune, which sounds as though it could have been written by the Renaissance composers Melchior Vulpius or Hans Leo Hassler. Perhaps the most intriguing among these chorale- and psalm-tune style pieces is MORNING GLORY (Hymnary, 7), whose first, second, and fourth phrases closely resemble the early eighteenth-century chorale GOTT SEI DANK. These examples demonstrate the understanding and kinship that this contemporary composer has with these classic traditions of congregational song. For other pieces that show the influence of these heritages, see CENACLE and SHOUT THE PRAISE in Threadbare (7, 39); LIFE’S REFRAIN and WISDOM in Future (13, 26); and COMPASSION in Stones (2).

A contrast to the regularity of these tunes is found in some items that are chant-like in orientation. Pieces such as SIN’S RELEASE (Hymnary, 26), WHEATFIELDS (Future, 25), and LOGOS (Stones, 9) feature flowing unison melodies and rely heavily upon a single rhythmic value (usually the quarter note) with diatonic keyboard harmonizations and irregular phrasing.

While the harmonies of many of Fedak’s tunes are diatonic and/or consonant, from time to time he explores more chromatic and dissonant territory. Only five of the thirty-odd chords in DAY OF HARVEST (Threadbare, 11) are traditional consonances (and one of these is a unison), while NATIONAL CHURCH from the same collection (32)—though in the key of Eb—contains major chords as far afield as G♭, C♭, E, D, and A. The C# minor setting of Carl P. Daw, Jr’s., “How Shallow Former Shadows Seem,” GOLGOTHA (Future, 9), similarly moves through a variety of distant chords, including E♭ minor, and ends on a D♭ minor chord (which, of course, is enharmonically the same as the tonic key); particularly striking is the cadence chord used to illustrate the word “veil” in stanza 1, as well as “cross,” “iron, blood, and wood” in subsequent stanzas (ex. 1). STONES UNTHROWN, from the collection of the same name (24), principally uses consonant chords but begins in G major and passes through B♭ major before ending in D major; the final melody note (D) is the same as the first one, providing an effective link between the stanzas.

A large number of Fedak’s tunes are modal rather than tonal. Some, such as CHURCH UNITED (Hymnary, 2), are in Aeolian mode, while others, like EMPTY (Threadbare, 15), use an Aeolian key signature but alter the mode to Dorian by raising the sixth degree of the scale with accidentals (ex. 2). Mixolydian mode makes an appearance in Fedak’s BENJAMIN and INNER SIGHT, both from Hymnary (21, 25).

Two other features of Fedak’s tunes that deserve comment are his frequent use of sequential writing and of harmonic suspensions. NAME OF ALL MAJESTY (Hymnary, 5) provides a good example of sequence in the composer’s melodies (ex. 3); this technique is usually found in the middle of tunes, as is the case with NAME OF ALL MAJESTY (see CHURCH UNITED for another example). Suspensions are employed primarily at cadence points to keep the rhythm of the music flowing; these figures sometimes occur at the end of stanzas to provide a seamless transition from one to the next (MYRRH-BEARING MARY, Hymnary, 18).

While the composer is principally concerned with matching his tune to the text “in form, meter, rhythm, spirit, and inflection” (Future, introduction), he sometimes uses musical devices to illustrate the meaning of specific words or ideas, as noted above in the discussion of GOLGOTHA. A particularly striking example of this is his tune ENDLESS FEAST, a setting of “Take Us As We Are, O God” by Carl P. Daw, Jr. (Threadbare, 16). Fedak’s setting is in F major but concludes with a half-cadence on C, effectively highlighting the prayer in the last line that we be called to the “unending feast”: just as the feast will continue forever, the tune seems not to finish but to remain hanging in the air. However, more than just the last line of the hymn is involved, for the unfinished-feeling ending also picks up on suggestions from earlier stanzas that there is service for Christians to do, ministry that still awaits completion.

The artistry and practicality of Al Fedak’s hymns have led to their widespread use in recent hymnals. Lift Up Your Hearts includes four of his original tunes—SIXTH NIGHT (400), CHURCH UNITED (662), ENDLESS FEAST (862), and COSTLY GIFTS (872)—in addition to a number of arrangements and psalm antiphons. These and other tunes, such as the tender CALLAHAN (ex. 4; Threadbare, 4), are well worth exploring so “that the world may know” Christ.

(The musical examples in this article are used by permission of Selah Publishing Co.).