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A Hymn for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving-BrownscombeAs we in the United States of America join in our National Day of Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn to those early European settlers in the New World, who gave humble and hearty thanks after the extreme sufferings of a harsh winter and a devastating famine. In the midst of our plenty, we tend to be less thankful to our God in Christ than were those poor souls who had lost so much.

I am also put in mind of the hymn with which my congregation concluded this year’s Thanksgiving Eve celebration: Martin Rinckart’s “Now Thank We All Our God” (“Nun danket alle Gott“). Rinckart himself may seem not to have had much for which to be thankful. Like those Plymouth Pilgrims, he had suffered profoundly. Serving as pastor (archdeacon) of Eilenburg during the worst of the Thirty Years’ War, which brought with it not only wanton destruction but also the horrors of plague, Rinckart buried literally thousands of his parishioners, including, in 1637, his own wife. And yet this embattled clergyman produced one of the most jubilant hymns of thanksgiving ever penned.

Martin Rinckart

Martin Rinckart (1586–1649)

Rinckart patterned his thanksgiving hymn, originally intended as a table prayer, after a selection of verses from the Apocrypha, which, while not received as inspired Scripture among the Lutherans, continued to be read and held in esteem among them for centuries. The verses in question are Sirach 50:22–24, “Now therefore bless ye the God of all, which only doeth wondrous things every where, which exalteth our days from the womb, and dealeth with us according to his mercy. He grant us joyfulness of heart, and that peace may be in our days in Israel for ever: That he would confirm his mercy with us, and deliver us at his time!” In fact, this passage served as the text from which the chaplains preached in thanksgiving at the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It may be in connection with this joyous occasion that Rinckart wrote his hymn.

May Rinckart’s words, and Johann Crüger’s glorious melody, truly embody our spirit of thankfulness toward our gracious God in Christ.

Tempo Revisited

Since my last post on the tempos of the Reformation-era chorales, my thinking on tempo has developed yet further. In my previous post, I wrote that a tempo of about 120 BPM seemed about right for most of the early chorales. I then overhauled many of the audio files accordingly. The response from users was that the audio files were now too fast, and upon further reflection, I have to agree. This has driven me to further research and experimentation, which has led to the following conclusions: 1. I was correct in thinking earlier that the tactus in the early chorales corresponds to the breve. 2. I was wrong to think that the tactus as employed for the early chorales was as fast as 60 BPM. 3. The true tempo is best found by considering the speed at which the polyphonic arrangements are best sung. 4. A tactus of about 50 BPM yields a workable tempo for melodies in both 4/4 and 3/4, and allows Walter’s polyphonic arrangements to be sung with the semiminim (the shortest note value he uses in his 1524/5 collection) at a satisfying speed for the frequent mordents.

The music of the sixteenth century was driven by the tactus, a motion of the hand consisting of a downward stroke for the downbeat, followed by an upward stroke for the upbeat. Continue reading

Introducing the Free Lutheran Chorale-Blog

Since starting this site at over a year ago, and since transitioning to a self-hosted site earlier this year, my thinking about the structure of the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book has developed dramatically. The goal has remained constant: To provide unlimited free access to high-quality resources devoted to the singing of the great Lutheran chorales in English. How to achieve that goal is another question altogether.

Due largely to the nature of, the site started out pretty much as a blog. Each post was really supposed to function as a permanent page, serving as a gateway to all of the resources associated with a particular hymn, including English and German texts, audio files, and printable PDFs. Post categories served to organize hymns according to the church year and various topics. This design, or lack thereof, proved hopelessly confusing. A casual visit to the site left visitors with no clear idea of what the site was for or how to access materials.

This necessitated a major redesign. A new homepage now served as a launchpad for access to hymn text pages with looped audio to promote singing of all the stanzas. In this way the site began to function more as an online hymnal, particularly when accessed from a mobile device. Other elements were then changed in keeping with the new philosophy. The older blog posts were reimagined as “Hymn Info” pages, with links provided at the bottom of the text pages. Eventually, it became clear that there would have to be distinct pages for tunes. These can now be accessed both through a link under the audio player on the hymn text pages and via the tune indexes in the main menu.

Unfortunately, conceiving of the site as chiefly an online hymnal left the printable resources difficult to find: They were hidden away at the bottom of their hymn text pages. This has been addressed by moving the links to printable materials above the audio player. It had been feared that this would be too obtrusive, particularly when using a mobile device to sing the hymns from their text pages. In practice, however, the printable resources at the top of the page take up very little space. The site still functions nicely as a mobile online hymnal.

That still leaves us with a number of blog posts which remain as nothing but leftovers from an obsolete vision of what the site should be. Eventually the research found in the posts will be transferred to distinct “Text Info” pages, parallel to the existing “Tune Info” pages. This opens up the possibility of using the posting functionality for an actual blog.

Hence the Free Lutheran Chorale-Blog. I plan to publish posts regularly, and I hope for them to function as posts, not as substitute pages. These posts will serve to publicize news related to the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book, draw attention to notable additions to the site, serve as a venue for discussion of problems and philosophies involved in development, and whatever else doesn’t seem to fit in the Chorale-Book proper. Hopefully regular posting will also be a visible testimony to the fact that development on the site is constant and ongoing.

Check back regularly for new posts, and if you’ve been using and benefiting from the Free Lutheran Chorale-Book, thank you!

A Question of Tempo

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.

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.