Last night I tried singing through all of Luther’s psalm settings that I’ve put up here so far, using the audio player that I’ve embedded in the hymn text pages, and I noticed something interesting: “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” was the only one with a singable tempo.
With most of the audio files I’ve put up here, I’ve followed the convention of representing sixteenth-century semibreves with modern half notes. Assuming that each semibreve/half note corresponds to one resting heartbeat, I have given each hymn in cut time, “alla breve,” which is the time signature actually used in the sixteenth-century hymnals (a “C” with a vertical line through it), and I have assigned each half note the value of 90 BPM—a decidedly unhealthy resting heart rate. When played with a healthier heart rate of more like 60 BPM, these hymns really drag. So I’ve already been pushing the tempo, probably well beyond what would have been used in the sixteenth century, if I’ve understood it correctly.
But what last night’s experiment showed me was that there must be a flaw in my understanding of sixteenth-century tempo. At these tempos, which are already pushing it, I struggled to rest long enough on each syllable. These hymns beg to be sung at a faster tempo, whether in German or English. The reason that “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” was so much more singable is that it just happened to be played at 120 BPM, with semibreves being represented by quarter notes rather than half notes. The reason for that is that in Babst’s 1545 hymnal, the time signature for this hymn includes the numeral 2, which from what I understand meant that the tempo should be somewhere in between the slower 4/4 (C) and the faster 2/2 (C with vertical line). So rather than slow down the hymn even farther, I threw up my hands and gave up, electing to use the 4/4 time with quarter notes for semibreves, as the music is printed in recent sources, and play it at Musescore’s default 120 BPM—totally unscientific, and resulting in a hymn that was faster rather than slower, but the hymn proved very singable at that tempo. That has led me to believe that I should really be playing all the other hymns at that tempo or faster. (By the way, my thinking that the 2 meant “slower” is based on seventeenth-century sources. I recently read that the 2 in the sixteenth century meant the same thing as the slash through the C. So slash-C plus 2 would mean quadruple tempo! That would make sense, since the hymnals add the 2 to hymns that are made up of lots of breves.)
The opening of “These Are the Holy Ten Commands.” The hymn is in cut time. The two rests, semibreve and minim in value, when added to the minim pickup note, come to one breve, which I identify with one measure. The rests are not necessary for performance. I therefore take them as giving the singer a sense of where the pickup note falls in the metrical structure.
So now I’m reconsidering the whole question of tempo. Everything I’ve read has told me that the semibreve in the sixteenth century stands for one at-rest heartbeat, and this has just proved to be impossibly slow in practice. But what if the heartbeat is supposed to correspond, not to the semibreve, but to the breve (which we represent with a whole note)? After all, the breve was the standard measure at the time. Most hymns provide however many rests before the opening pickup note as may be necessary to bring the value up to one breve, even if those rests are not to be observed in practice when the A section is repeated. The hymns are also notated in cut time, “alla breve,” or “to the breve.” It makes sense, therefore, to view the breve as the basic unit of measurement, and for the basic unit of measurement in the notation to correspond to the basic motion of the human heart.
If the breve corresponds to the heartbeat, and if each breve is divided into two semibreves, representing the downbeat and the upbeat, then each semibreve would correspond to either the systolic or the diastolic division of the heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub: God’s free grace and favor. Makes perfect sense. The implication for tempo would be that each measure of two beats would be played at about 60 BPM. Each half note (semibreve) is then played at about 120 BPM, each quarter note at 240 BPM.
(Of course, I may be making this more complicated than it needs to be. It could be that everything that says semibreve = heartbeat is assuming 4/4 (C) time. If 2/2 is twice the tempo, then we’ve arrived at the same conclusion. But why, then, do so many texts dealing with Reformation hymns assign the value of one heartbeat to one semibreve in cut time?)
I propose, therefore, to overhaul most of my hymn audio files, playing each measure at a rate of 60 BPM, with each half note being played at 120 BPM. This goes against everything I’ve read about sixteenth-century tempos. Experts in the field of mensural notation will laugh at my amateurish attempts to deal with this deviously difficult system of notation. But the results will be singable, and that’s what matters.