Hymn of the Week: July 10, 2022
by David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music
St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Ladue
Hymn 604: "When Christ was lifted from the earth"
I'll never forget the first time I sang the hymn tune San Rocco. It was at a Choral Evensong sung by the choir of Hereford Cathedral in October 2002 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio.
There was a lot to remember about this service: the singing was fabulous, the Psalm was beautifully chanted, the liturgy was seamlessly conducted and very dignified.
But the thing I remember the most clearly was the final hymn. As I sang, I was swept up in the drama of the music, which paired so well with the words we were singing: "When Christ was lifted from the earth."
And part and parcel of the drama I was experiencing was this viscerally propulsive two-bar interlude that comes out of one stanza and leads seamlessly back into the next.
Embellishing the space around the break in the stanzas is a modern hymn tune trope that began with the pedal thumpery of Charles Villiers Stanford's Engelberg (see Hymn 296: "We know that Christ is raised"). It's a quest to eliminate the amorphous pause between stanzas (the organist's perpetual necessity and dilemma) and offer a musical unification of the poetry that is (mostly) whole. Ralph Vaughan Williams copied the pedal thump with his famous tune Sine nomine (Hymn 287: "For all the saints").
Herbert Howells tried another version of the same technique in his marvelous hymn tune Sancta Civitas (Hymn 582: "O Holy City seen of John"), though sadly his two-note interlude was omitted by the editors of the Hymnal 1982.
But let's return to reason for a longer interlude in San Rocco, the "richly textured, thoroughly modern tune," with its sweeping ascents and audacious range. It defies gravity a bit, this tune. And maybe that's what that interlude is about. The hymn tune itself is so bold that it needs something else a bit more weighty to bind it to earth before it goes soaring through the air once again like an exuberant albatross. It's touching base, perhaps.
I've learned that The Hymnal 1982 can slightly sanitize some of the more pioneering elements in modern hymnody. I wonder if the hymnal's "optional" designation for this interlude is a good idea. Because, at least for me for me, this interlude is part of the whole experience.
Interludes are relatively rare in our hymn tunes — but should they be? Hymns are poems, and the ideas from one stanza are often carried over into the next. Having the music continue between the stanzas can heighten our appreciation for poetic unity within the hymns we sing.
Whichever hymns we sing this Sunday, and however we sing them, I hope we can appreciate the gifts of poets and composers who enable us to share these great pieces of sacred music.
And who knows! Someone just might have an experience they will never forget.