Just Because You Know the Tune…

…doesn’t mean you know the song.

Part of what I like about old, traditional hymns is that you can sing the melody without needing to be a professional musician. Usually, these hymns are in a limited, and comfortable range for most voices, and don’t hop any difficult intervals. They’re usually pretty simple rhythmically, and follow a pretty easy pattern. In short, really easy to use and you can fit lots of different lyrics to them. And people most certainly have. Many hymnals have an index of tune names and an index of first lines of the hymn. In these cases, there are fewer tunes than hymns, so you know that some hymns use the same tune. You also have cases where the same hymn can use different tunes, which gets to be fun, exciting, and can be confusing if you move between different regions of the country or world.

Our parish is pretty traditional. OK, really traditional—two masses in Latin a week, plus one on the first Sunday of the month, hours and hours of confession, many of the English masses said ad Orientem, and so on. The music it very traditional as well: hymns are only used for the processional (prior to the chanted introit) and recessional (not in the middle parts of the mass-the schola chants the propers, and will sometimes sing a piece of polyphony during communion) and there’s lots and lots of time for sacred silence. Needless to say, the hymns that we do sing are of the traditional variety, and use the traditional tunes.

Last week, the organ began the recessional and I hadn’t gotten to the page in the hymnal when the first verse began. I recognized the tune, Slane, and started singing (softly, since there are reasons I play the bagpipes), but realized about half-way through the verse that I wasn’t singing the same hymn. Of course, the schola was singing “Be Thou My Vision,” and I had started “Make Us True Servants.” Oops. I almost made a similar mistake this week, with the processional. The organ started Dix and I started thinking “As with gladness men of old…” but knew that probably wasn’t right since we’re out of Christmas/Epiphany. Sure enough, it was a different hymn, but with a tune like Dix you know you need to be careful. Worse is Old One Hundredth—there have to be at least a hundred hymns associated with that one.

So, lesson learned—always check the hymnal before you begin singing, even if you know the tune.

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