Rematching Tunes and Texts

Picture of hymn in hymnal

Denominational hymnals contain many wonderful texts that we do not sing on a regular basis—texts that might amplify and enrich the appointed scriptures, giving worshippers fresh insights into the nature of God and God’s work among us.

A variety of reasons account for oversight of these texts: 1) they are paired with tunes we don’t know; 2) when good, new texts are paired with worthy, new tunes, then taking the time to teach the congregation a new tune is well worthwhile; sometimes, however, a desirable text is yoked with a tune that doesn’t seem worth the time necessary to learn it; 3) in other cases, the tune is worthy, but we judge it to be beyond the capability of the congregation without extensive practice, an opportunity that might not be available at the time; 4) the tune with which the text is paired has distracting or painful associations for members of the congregation, placing the tune off limits for that reason. (I once had a choir member whose heritage was Jewish, and he burst into tears when we sang the tune Austria due to its association with the Third Reich.)

Although we might assume that texts and tunes are inextricably linked, in fact most of the pairing is done by the editorial committee of a hymnal. In many cases, the tune was not written for this particular text but was added later. This suggests the possibility that many other tune choices are available for any given text.

By using the metrical index provided in nearly every hymnal, we can mix and match texts and tunes in a way that makes a large number of texts available for worship. (In the Hymnal 1982, the metrical index is found in the Accompaniment Edition, Hymns volume, page 1039.) When we identify a text’s meter (not the time signature, but the number of poetic feet per line), we can look at the metrical index to find other possible tunes.

For example, Hymnal 1982, no. 647, “I know not where the road will lead,” has a marvelous text that addresses the subject of following Christ, a theme appropriate to many days of the liturgical year. The tune Laramie, however, is unknown to lots of congregations. Looking for the meter of this hymn, we discover “CMD,” Common Meter Double (common meter, 86.86., doubled, or On page 1039 are named thirteen different tunes with this meter.

Many congregations will know The Third Tune by the famous composer Thomas Tallis. (We often sing “I heard the voice of Jesus say” to this tune.) Because the meter is CMD, it can be easily married to the text we wish to use. St. Louis also fits, but it is so closely associated with the text “O little town of Bethlehem” that we might want to avoid pairing them for fear that the congregation feel the tug of the Christmas theme. Another tune, however, sometimes associated with Christmas, Forest Green, (the English tune to “O little town of Bethlehem”) might work just fine with “I know not where the road may lead,” because there are three texts in the Hymnal 1982 paired with Forest Green, dispersing the association of text and tune.

When creating new marriages of texts and tunes, we should always try singing them before sharing them with the congregation, because in some cases, the strong syllables of the text don’t match the strong counts of the time signature of the tune. This leads to phrases that are awkward to sing.

In the majority of cases, however, rematching text and tune works superbly, allowing the congregation to sing a fresh text to a fine tune they already know.

If your parish has the software that will allow it, and a person with the skill to do so, typesetting the new pairing of text and tune renders an easy hymn for the congregation. In fact, they might not even notice your handiwork, simply worshipping with the “new” hymn without remarking on it—an ideal situation.

If you do not have the tools and skills to recast the hymn for the bulletin, it’s a least a good idea to list the hymn title, followed by a note in parentheses that indicates a different tune: “I know not where the road may lead” (sung to The Third Tune) Hymn 647. This alerts the organist that she or he needs to find the tune in a place in the hymnal that is different from where the text is found. It also lets music-readers in the congregation know that, no, the organist is not playing the wrong tune, and you have not turned to the wrong number. We are singing the text of 647 to the tune of 692.

Some poets who write new hymn-texts (for example, Carl P. Daw, Jr., the preeminent living American writer of hymns) have a standard hymn tune in mind when they compose a new text. So instead of simply finding disused texts in the hymnal, you might find a brand new text in one of Daw’s collection from Hope Publishing, pair it with a familiar tune, and offer a completely new text to the congregation. (Hope is the largest publisher of hymn texts, and a number of fine hymnists have collections in Hope’s catalog.)

Congregations aren’t usually disturbed by new texts as much as by new tunes. This is because most parishioners can read the text, even if completely new, whereas only about ten percent of Americans read music. This means that new music needs to be taught, but new texts are easily read.

The Hymnal 1982 (and many other hymnals) contains a vast treasure of beautiful poetry, much of which goes unsung. By rematching texts and tunes, we quickly create a large repertoire of new congregational hymnody that is easily sung. Worship is enriched, our spiritual journey is illuminated.

The Rev. Dr. William Bradley Roberts is Professor of Church Music at Virginia Theological Seminary and the Center for Liturgy and Music’s Faculty Consultant for Music.