By Phil Gehring, author of the Service-Playing Resource Book

Musicians are accustomed to finding a time signature at the beginning of any piece of music, right after the key signature. However, many hymnals published over the last few decades do not use any time signatures. In many instances the meter of a hymn tune is obvious without the signature; a glance will show that it’s in 4/4 or 3/4 or 6/8. The principle is that giving each note its proportional value (eighth, quarter, half, etc.) will take care of the meter. To an extent, yes. But each meter has its musical personality: 4/4 tunes march, 3/4 and 6/8 tunes dance. Musical rhythm is linked to physical motion. Even if the singer is neither marching nor dancing, the motion is felt internally. And often the motion may be much more subtle than merely walking or waltzing.

A problem arises with tunes that do not keep to a single meter or which seem to have no meter at all. This includes many of the Reformation-era chorales, plainsong [chant-like] melodies and a few modern tunes. These tunes, especially the more ancient ones, were composed to be sung unaccompanied, but today most Lutheran congregations prefer that the organ, piano or keyboard lead and accompany their singing (though an occasional unaccompanied stanza can be very effective). How can the organist give the singers a fitting sense of movement? Consider the following:

First, the general principles of good hymn playing, whatever the style of the hymn, apply: Give out the melody clearly, whether your introduction is merely a play-through of the hymn or a chorale prelude. Don’t get so elaborate with the prelude that the people don’t recognize the tune. Your intro should give them a secure sense of the key and the tempo.

Use a registration that supports but doesn’t overwhelm the singing.

Choose your tempo carefully and stick to it.

Remember that singers have to breathe, so without taking extra time, lift hands and feet off the keys very briefly at the end of each phrase; this will help the singers to keep up with you. Also, don’t rush from one stanza to the next.

Be sensitive to the text. Don’t play “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” with the same registration or in the same style.

Now consider the rhythmic issues mentioned above. The Lutheran Service Book (LSB) includes many tunes that come from the 16th century, some composed for their texts and some borrowed from an existing melody, often secular and/or of folk origin. Some of these tunes were formed in a style known as musique mesurée, in which the melody followed the strong and weak syllables of the text, without regard for meter. Two examples will show how this can result in a pattern of alternating measures, 6/4 and 3/2, which would look like this if notated with time signatures:

Example 1: Freu dich sehr, LSB 347 and 692.


Another tune with alternating meters:

Example 2. Herzlich tut mich verlangen, LSB 450.


Other tunes have a fairly constant meter but make use of syncopation in order to accentuate certain text syllables. Our beloved “A Mighty Fortress” proceeds in duple meter (2/2) with prominent syncopations, until its mid-section, where half-notes march resolutely on, frustrating any attempt to find a metrical pattern. The final phrase returns to 2/2-with-syncopations.

Example 3. Ein feste Burg, LSB 656.


In the LSB version of the tune, that string of half-notes marches right through two phrase endings (in stanza 1, “foe” and “woe”). This notation is accurate according to some older sources, but offers no place for singers to breathe. Many organists and congregations follow their instinct and take an extra beat on those two concluding words. Though normally I would be reluctant to recommend departing from the rhythm as notated, in this case it would be permissible, as long as you are consistent.

Example 4.

Another tune, the noble “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” (LSB 395), poses similar problems. Like “A Mighty Fortress” this tune is in bar form (A-A-B), and makes use of syncopation. The text of the A section ends on a weak syllable (“MER-cy”); here, inserting a longer note or a rest would tend to emphasize unduly the weak syllable (“mer-CY”) so it’s better to touch the note gently and move right on without taking extra time. The same holds for the octave leap going into the final phrase (“Rich in blessing! RULE…”); best to gulp some air and jump the octave without taking extra time. The effect is thrilling.

Ex. 5. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, LSB 395

There are at least twelve other tunes in LSB dating from the 16th century or the early 17th. From these examples, one can see that text setting in this music relies more on note length than on the note’s position in the measure — strong beat, weak beat — for emphasizing important syllables. Like all great music, these little melodic gems fare best when played and sung as accurately as possible, according to the style of their period. But one must in a few cases adapt to present-day circumstances. In Luther’s day, I’m sure the congregations did plenty of adapting, especially since the organ usually introduced the tune but didn’t accompany the singing. The important thing is not to let the unusual rhythm discourage the use of these chorales. The organist or choir director who knows the style must be trusted to make adaptations in the interest of hearty congregational singing.

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