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Accompanying Hymns: Who's in Charge?

I recently observed while accompanying the congregation's singing of "How Firm a Foundation" (UM Hymnal, no. 529) that the congregation sang a pitch different than is written and different from what I played on the third note from the end of the first and third lines. In the key of Ab, the hymnal calls for a melody of C-Ab-C-Eb (option #1), but the congregation wanted to sing C-Bb-C-Eb (option #2). Why would the people sing it differently than written and played? Perhaps a more insightful and important question: "Should the accompanist play the hymn the way it is written in the hymnal or the way the people obviously wanted to sing it?"

The harmonization in the previous Methodist hymnal (1966) used option 2, but most other hymnals, including the present United Methodist Hymnal (1989), use option 1. What, then, accounts for the congregation preferring option 2? Undoubtedly, for some it is that their experience with this hymn was formed on the older hymnal's pattern and it is natural to sing it, even when the organist plays something different. But we have now had the 1989 hymnal for 15 years, a time that is surely sufficient to change old habits.

I think the main reason the congregation prefers option 2 over option 1 is that it provides melodic variety and interest by substituting the dissonant lower neighbor tone (Bb) for the consonant chord tone (Ab). In the 1966 hymnal's harmonization, option 2's strong beat Bb was a chord tone rather than a dissonance, but when 1989's harmonization of option 1 is changed by the congregation to option 2, the same strong beat Bb becomes a dissonance. The substitution of a dissonance for a consonance for the sake of melodic interest is common to popular musical styles, and it is an unconscious need on the part of the congregation to bring it into the hymns that we sing, even though hymn style calls for consonance over dissonance. The people's spontaneous, improvised creativity is evidence that the performer reserves a role, along with the composer, in the compositional process.

But the really interesting and important question is the second one: Should the accompanist stick to the melody in the hymnal even though the people want to sing something different? Some accompanists would ask which option they personally like better and then play that one. Some would see the question as a conflict and ask who should be in charge? the composer, the organist, or the people? Someone might observe that option 1 is the one in the hymnal, and that's what he or she is going to play, regardless of what the people sing. Some would let the people have their way and adjust the harmony to support it.

At a Hymn Society conference some years ago, a hymn composer was introducing his newly published hymn collection. While accompanying and leading the group in singing a particular hymn for which he had written text and tune, he stopped the singing to make a correction in how the group had sung the melody. He wondered aloud why this group had made that particular error, noting that other singers had done the same. Composer, author, teacher, and musician extraordinaire Austin Lovelace happened to be in the group. He observed that sometimes the people have a better sense of what their music should be than does the composer, and that composers would do well to listen to them more.

So if the people want to sing Bb and the hymnal says Ab, what should the organist do?

The implications for congregational singing, of course, are much wider than just "How Firm a Foundation" and can embrace questions of tempo, volume, key, language, body posture, physical movement, and more. How much of the decision making is done by the leaders, and how much is left to the people? Who's really in charge?