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Serving the Hymn: Some thoughts on hymn introductions

Jan Overduin, professor of music at Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, is skilled in organ improvisation. He has performed throughout North America and is frequently heard on CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) radio. He is pictured on this page at the Reil organ at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario, where he accompanied three choirs in a recording of psalms entitled Sing a Psalm of Joy (available from CRC Publications for $8.95; $11.20 CDN). On the following pages, he explains some of his thinking on leading congregational singing and provides examples of some of the improvisations he played for that recording.

Why use an organ prelude to introduce a hymn?

The prelude establishes a mood or paints a picture for the congregation. Picking a key, establishing a tempo, stating the tune—all these are secondary and could be handled as well by a song leader. But organists miss the opportunity to encourage, uplift, and liberate if they fail to see the prelude as a gentle but persuasive invitation for the congregation to "lift up their hearts to the Lord."

The prelude is the only chance members of the congregation have to "warm up," an absolutely essential opportunity to redirect thoughts away from self and circumstances and toward the text they are about to pray while singing. Organists are like waiters: they can perfunctorily present the meal (hymn) in a correct but cold and detached manner, or they can choose to add elements of warmth and grace (play the introduction to the hymn with imagination).

There is something contagious about the dull predictability of a merely correct play-through of a hymn, as well as about the sense of adventure of an improvisation bearing the organist's own stamp. If the organist communicates a willingness to take some risks and be vulnerable, chances are that the more reticent and shy persons in the congregation will also be more willing to open up and "join in the dance."

Often an introduction is most effective if it is simpler than the four-voice hymn setting in the hymnal. Many of the modal Genevan tunes, for example, are most beautiful if unadorned by harmonies. A nineteenth-century harmonic accompaniment easily adds a ponderousness that gets in the way of the melodic flow. Playing the first line or two as melody only, and then adding one other voice as printed in the book, will make for a better preparation than using a thicker texture throughout. If the tune is pen-tatonic (using only five rather than all seven tones of the scale), why not make the harmonies pentatonic too? (See prelude for Psalm 13, "How Long Will You Forget Me Lord?", p. ??.)

An unadorned approach to preludes allows the organist to set a singable mood that, even with harmony, remains simple and childlike. If the congregation is sure of the tune, the organist may abandon the tune and hymnbook harmony, improvising freely on the five notes of the scale (while keeping in mind the text, of course). Or if the choir will be singing a new hymn—perhaps one that the congregation will learn and sing later—the organ introduction can establish the mood and purpose for the theme of the hymn without stating the melody.

Before making any musical decisions about a hymn introduction, ask yourself these questions: (1) What is the theme of the hymn or psalm (peace, faith, loneliness, etc.)? (2) What is the central image (tower, rock, bird, water, desert, etc.)?

(3) What is the mood (sadness, joy, fear, etc.)? No organ introduction is helpful to a congregation if the organist has not at least considered these questions.

The following examples arose out of a recording session of psalms from the Psalter Hymnal. In this case the choirs had learned the melodies, so the introductions and alternative harmonizations explored the meaning of the texts. These introductions and alternative harmonizations in no way claim to be more than "prepared improvisations"—examples of what one organist might do on a given occasion. The joy of being an organist lies in having the freedom and ability to make decisions and choices that help make congregational singing more meaningful and alive.

Some Genevan tunes carry such profund associations and memories that using them skillfully (subtly) in an introduction to psalms sung to non-Genevan tunes may enliven or "fertilize" them. The last verse of Psalm 48 in Dutch, "Want deze God " ("For this God "), can almost be called the Dutch Calvinists "National Anthem": it is a powerful and moving doxology. The square and march-like character of DIADEMATA (Psalm 48, "Great is the Lord Our God") takes on a more appropriate seriousness and thoughtfulness, a deeper joy, when the Genevan tune of Psalm 48 hovers around it.