Although hymn playing might seem as uniform area of organ art, it requires at least several different approaches. In other words, hymns from different historical period should be played differently. Gregorian chant, metric hymns from the Reformation time, 19th century hymns, 20th century spiritual songs all have their individual playing techniques that work best for that particular style. In this article, I would like to show you how to play 16th-18th century hymns on the organ. These are well-known Lutheran chorales, Calvinist psalms, English psalms, Methodist hymns, and several other hymn types.
Articulate Legato for 16th-18th Century Hymns
Because the general traditional touch for keyboard music composed up until the 19th century was the so called Ordinary Touch, it should also be applied for hymn playing of that period as well. Look at the century when the particular hymn tune (melody) was created. I do not mean the date of harmonization, or the date of text creation or translation. Any of these dates might be a product of later times. Only the composition of the hymn tune is important here. If your hymn tune was created in the Reformation time, the Baroque, or the Classical period, then you should play it using the ordinary touch.
The ordinary touch in today’s terms might be referred as articulate legato. It is neither legato, nor non legato. The notes should be neither connected smoothly nor too detached. One good way to describe it is this: you should try playing the melody legato using one finger only. For example, play your hymn tune with your middle finger but try to connect the notes as much as possible in order to achieve the singing tone (cantabile) which many Baroque authors adhered to. After playing it with one finger, now try to imitate the touch using normal fingering.
Feel the Alternation of Strong and Weak Beats
However, achieving the articulate legato in such hymns is not enough. Since one of the most important characteristics of performance practice in early music is meter, try to emphasize the meter. Any meter has a beat which is stronger than the others. It is called the downbeat.
In 2/4 meter, the first beat is the downbeat (stronger) and the second is the upbeat (weaker). In ¾ meter, the first beat is stronger, and the other two are weaker. However, some theorists (Kirnberger) claim that beat 3 in such meter might also be relatively strong. It depends on what kind of chord is on this beat. If there is a new chord on this beat, it might be relatively strong. If there is just the repetition of the previous chord or this chord is in different position or inversion, then this beat is a weak one. In 4/4 meter, beats 2 and 4 are the weak ones. Beat 1 is the strongest and beat 3 is relatively strong.
In hymn playing, try to make the stronger beats more accented. The other beats are weaker and don’t need to be accented. So this alternation of strong and weak beats is very important in correct performance of 16th-18th century style hymns.
Shorten the Weak Beats
Since the organ mechanics does not allow making dynamics with the strength or the softness of your touch, the most common way to achieve metric accents and feel the alternation of strong and weak beats is by shortening the weaker beats and prolonging the down beats a little. In other words, if your hymn tune moves in quarter notes, make rests on the weak beats. These rests depend on the acoustics of the room – the longer the reverberation – the shorter the weak beats might be and the greater the articulation.
However, do not make them shorter than a half of their full duration (an eight note). Usually it is enough to make a sixteenth note rest. Do not lift your fingers off the keyboard and feel the contact with it at all times. That way it will be easier for you to control note releases.
If you would like to know more about hymn playing, I highly recommend studying Organ Technique: Modern and Early by George Ritchie and George Stauffer. This method book has separate chapter on hymn playing with many important exercises.
Another great resource is Art of Hymn Playing by Charles E. Callahan. It has 250 Introductions, Preludes, Free Accompaniments, and Alternate Harmonizations. The pieces range from 2 part voicing to more complex. It is meant as a graded guide to hymn playing.
By the way, do you want to learn to play the King of Instruments - the pipe organ? If so, download my FREE video guide: "How to Master Any Organ Composition" in which I will show you my EXACT steps, techniques, and methods that I use to practice, learn and master any piece of organ music.
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