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Elucidating 19th-Century Hymns

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Several times during the Covid lockdown I précised some parts of my unpublished book “Melody and Musical Texture,” seizing on some elementary aspects of harmony and small form and assembling short explanations with examples drawn from well-known hymns. If you want to review some of these, they go back to HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. After further thought, I lately decided to pile on some more, starting with the “familiar style” of 19th-century New England Congregationalists, before retrospectively examining the contrapuntal style of the 17th-century Lutheran chorale.

Olivet, composed by Boston’s own Lowell Mason, has been a popular hymn for nearly two centuries. The plain but well-shaped tune enjoys a harmonization that is likewise simple but perfectly suited to the text — easy to sing and to play. The melody, organized within the span of an octave, includes a recurrent rhythm (in the even more popular “Nearer, my God, to thee,” also by Mason, you will recognize some of the same rhythm). The first two phrases are roughly symmetrical: I-V-I is answered by V-I-V, following the text. (“Roughly” because there is more V in the first phrase than there is I in the second, but that doesn’t upset the harmony. It’s not the same as question-and-answer, either, nor call-and-response, but more like After-you-Sir, Yes-Sir.) The third phrase says: something-different after what’s-next.

The melodic curve begins and ends on the tonic D, settling on A to hover there, then reaching up once to a single peak in order to descend stepwise to its point of origin. The harmony supporting this is mostly tonic or dominant, the two-bar phrases emphasizing the one or the other, and approaching the midpoint with a cadence (“divine”) that can be considered either a half cadence in D major, or an authentic cadence in A major — an ambiguity that enhances the tonal strength of the whole. Subdominant harmony (IV) begins to appear in the second half, and the climactic D (m. 11) is colored by a submediant harmony (vi), not heard before. Note the progress of the bass line from beginning to end, including the climactic scalewise descent from m. 11. In the final cadence (“–ly thine”) octaves are formed by contrary motion of soprano and bass — a contrapuntal relationship that is normally avoided but sometimes found in cadences when a particular melodic stress is wanted, as here. What about the antepenultimate chord (“whol-”)? Is it a G major triad with one added slightly-dissonant note (E), or a minor triad (ii) in first inversion, into which the D has been tied over from the chord before it? This is a quibble that harmony teachers prefer not to take a stand on — hence the weird-looking roman-numeral analysis: IV(ii)65.

What other questions might you ask here? There’s not a lot of counterpoint in this hymn, other than that the bass line carefully supports the soprano line; as any choral singer will tell you, the altos and tenors don’t have as much to do, but they are still necessary. And the melody is a good tune that everyone will remember.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. I have often wondered who wrote the interior parts on these hymnals both “ancient” and modern as in the red book in the Congregational churches today. Did Mason himself write the lower parts–and did he also create melody-in-the-tenor versions? There are several Lowell Mason hymns in The Old Sacred Harp; I love OSV’s version of Mason’s “Boylston” despite Mason’s being the sworn enemy of the OSV style of music. Boylston has astonishing “moving internal parts” (meaning an actual stand-alone line) not usual in hymnals with sometimes dull tenor lines and idiotic “fill in the chord” alto parts. Yes, my former girlfriend did pick up a late-19th century hymnal that had some of the Read and Billings etc. part-writing as alternative notes so it must have been Known About Then; once I came across an Old Home Week program for South Weymouth (Mass.) in 1902 wherein the So. Weymouth Congregational Church Choir did “Northfield”, “New Jerusalem”, “Lenox” and a few other gems of that tradition–so someone was aware. Thanks, Prof. DeVoto–I will go look up your writings and eagerly await your conclusions. Still–who does do the composition of the other parts for today’s hymnals–those people need a good grounding in music theory? Worse, who does the choosing of so many 19th and 20th century dull English hymn “tunes” that comprise much of the Ignored Territory in the “Red Hymnal”?

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — November 14, 2021 at 11:02 am

  2. I have just read Mark DeVoto’s other articles. This brought memories of Prof. John Goodman’s Music Theory class in 1971-2 at BU with I a history major from the College of Liberal Arts getting placed in the honors section–which I didn’t realize until several came to me and said “what are YOU doing here?”. (Answer: BU had just changed its humanities fulfillment requirements to allow “technical” courses in music for that purpose instead of the usual Music Depreciation I knew cold!) What I knew of Harmony was learned, heard, and observed from hymnals and musical scores; as a non-performer I had not so much awareness of line versus harmony. Goodman pointed out that keyboard students often missed “lines” while non-keyboard students weren’t so aware of “harmony”–the classic “trees and forests” bit. Your mention of Walter Piston reminded me of his book Harmony–which I read but told the students I had found “simplistic” as in not challenging–most in it I had adsorbed through experience. (Schenkerian analysis which I heard of only a few years ago–now there is a challenge!). No, I didn’t make music a career; as a poor performer it would have been on the history and theory end I would have worked–with a lot of cross-fertilization among disciplines. Thank you for explaining the Episcopalian musical tradition you were raised in; yes, at Emmanuel I have looked in that hymnal too. But regretfully I must say that both the Pilgrim Hymnal and the Episcopal 1940 Hymnal BOTH have a fair amount of dull dreck in them–a matter of taste! But very interesting that other musical cultures were trending on similar lines in as diverse areas as the 19th century American interior, Britain, and Imperial Austria. As you mention–how much cross-fertilization might there have been? 19th century Russian church music was affected my foreign musicians’ coming in. Now to throw something from left field at you: 17. November I was at Guerilla Opera’s performance of two works of Iranian composers. Afterwards I asked them whether there was any Persian/Iranian tradition of theatrical performance similar to Europe (I’ve encountered hints that there is/was such in Ottoman culture in 19th century Istanbul). No, Persia/Iran didn’t have something like that–but then I remembered and mentioned Chinese Opera as in the “Peony Pavilion” from the 18th century I believe–so Chinese Opera has been around for centuries. And to think we have opera only because Galileo’s father got the mistaken idea the ancient Greek dramas HAD BEEN SUNG(!)–so in 1590’s Rome they would try to create new SUNG DRAMA!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — November 19, 2021 at 8:28 pm

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