A Question for Jeremy or D. Fletcher, or anyone

Last night I played in a really fun concert–the Cambridge Institute Choir put together a pickup orchestra, borrowed itself a space with no rugs on the floor or burlap on the walls and a REAL organ and put on a concert of Mack Wilberg’s hymn arrangements. The choir was very good, as were most of the musicians (there was that one 2nd violin who sounded like she hadn’t really practiced since her first child was born 7 years ago :)). Anyway, it occurred to me that orchestral settings of hymns as a concert is a very strange sort of musical escapade, and possibly unique to Mormons. There are plenty of hymn tunes that show up in symphonies, lots of hymn anthems written for organ, choir, and some smallish group of instrumentalists and performed as part of a church service, and of course there are masses one would hardly hear in church (Verdi’s Requiem, say). But I can’t think of any setting other than BYU concert halls or the Tabernacle (Music & the Spoken Word) where one would hear hymns with full orchestra as a concert program.

Or am I entirely ignorant of a whole genre somewhere? (Isn’t blogging great? One can actually *broadcast* one’s ignorance to thousands of people…)


  1. Also, I was going to mention: Charles Ives did lots of orchestral arrangements of hymns, it’s just that he uses all of them, all at the same time (they’re stacked 4 or 5 deep in the Symphony No. 4).

    I just now remembered: John Adams himself has a very nice orchestral arrangement of a hymn. The second movement of his _American Standard_ is a very very slow rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” This movement is often heard separate from the others, and played simultaneously with a very moving spliced tape recording of an evangelical sermon, under the title “Christian Zeal and Activity.”

    A litte far afield from the kind of hymn arrangements you’re talking about, but…

  2. Kristine says:

    D., that said, I should confess that part of my motivation was to see if anyone knows of alternatives I could suggest to the conductor, in hopes that he might branch out a bit–it was fun playing, but I think I might have been a little bored as an audience member.

  3. Kristine says:

    D.–The Kyrie from the Durufle is what got me hooked on choral music. I was at a summer music camp doing orchestra and heard about 5 measures’ worth of the choir rehearsal and that was *it.* Violin would probably have been a better bet, because I have a lousy voice, but I never ever wanted to do anything but sing after that.

    I love the Thompson Alleluia, too, but it is wicked hard to keep in tune. Fortunately, it doesn’t sound too, too awful as long as the whole choir goes flat together. Even good choirs usually do.

    I haven’t heard the Barber that way, but I did recently hear one of the Enigma variations turned into Lux Eterna; it was great!

  4. I know nothing of the details or even the big points, but I once picked up a piece of trivia to the effect that John Philip Sousa did a large number of hymn settings for orchestra as part of his effort to expand his repertoire beyond marching band music while still keeping in a broadly popular vein. I understand that Sousa is now regarded as having been quite underrated and that these arrangements are rather good.

    Also, Vaughan Williams orchestrated a number of his hymn settings. For example, the “Old 100th Psalm” can knock your socks off — that’s how to use brass in a hymn.


  5. D. Fletcher says:

    It’s somewhat unique to Mormons, but I think the orchestrations exist because of the Tab Choir.

    The Tab Choir is the most famous choir in the world for a couple of reasons: the Sunday broadcasts, and the very popular recordings, often done with orchestra. Because of this cross-breeding of artists — Columbia Records also had The Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance — the Tab Choir made hymns in arranged form quite famous and popular.

    Mac Wilberg quit his job at BYU to write for the Tab Choir, and since that time has become the most popular, performed, composer for choir on the earth — Oxford Music’s #1.

    By the way, I myself can’t imagine an evening of Mack’s hymn arrangements as being very good — they are all exactly the same. Each contains a number of key changes, and then at least one a capella verse, followed by another key change and a climax with kettledrums and cymbals.

    I heard the Tab Choir sing a group of these at their New York concert last year, and I was shocked to realize how similar they were.

    To each his own, I suppose.

  6. Kristine says:

    Ives is great with hymns. I especially love “Little Town of Bethlehem,” where he writes in the effect of bad congregational singing–the organ moving a little ahead of the voices, sixteenth notes turning into sloppy triplets, etc.

  7. D. Fletcher says:

    Just like any concert, a concert of sacred music should be programmed for variety.

    My sacred concert program at Carnegie Hall:

    Sanctus, from Requiem, by Duruflé
    Domine Fili, from Gloria, by Vivaldi
    Alleluia, Randall Thompson
    The Lord’s Prayer, Leroy Robertson
    Agnus Dei, Samuel Barber (the Adagio for Strings, rearranged for voices)

    and then the Fauré Requiem, sung in English, the Rutter version (but I redid some of his translations)

    The Spirit of God, my own arrangement

  8. Kristine: The analogy between Wilberg and Rutter is very apt…

  9. Kristine says:

    ok–noone called me on it, but I think it’s actually “Little Star of Bethlehem,” for the record

  10. Kristine says:

    Some of his earlier ones are less formulaic, but now the poor guy is cranking out a few arrangements a week–he does remarkably well, considering. (Then again, I could be reasonably happy singing through Vaughan Williams’ English Hymnal (maybe alternating with The Sacred Harp or Southern Harmony) every other week till I die; too stupid to properly value novelty, I guess!)

    Something like the same thing happened to John Rutter–at least Wilberg isn’t writing “The Donkey Carol” over and over!!

  11. Sorry guys, I’m going to have to drop my stodgy academic facade and admit that I’m a total sucker for Mack Wilburg stuff (along with Rutter, et. al). This, of course, is a secret indulgence–by day I analyze twangy, creepy, contemporary boom-squeak music and out-of-tune-sounding microtonal stuff (oddly, much of it by _lapsed_ mormons…), so when I hear _pretty_ stuff it’s like ear candy. (I especially like Wilburg’s arrangements of Christmas hymns.)

    Not to assume prestigious company in this regard, but it reminds me of a story told by John Adams. As a young composer he moved in very artsy fartsy experimental circles in the San Francisco area in the 60s. He recalls participating in “happenings,” or very edgy, out-there concerts of conceptual John Cage stuff or experimental electronic music, then going home afterwards “and listening to Beethoven string quartets, like a closet tippler.”

  12. D. Fletcher says:

    The secret to keeping the Thompson in tune is the altos. If one can keep them from going flat, you’re home free.

    We sang it perfectly in tune, if I do say so myself. Ask anybody.

    I do love, love the Duruflé, but the Fauré is sweeter — better for a Mormon audience.

    By the way, we filled 2,700 out of 2,800 seats at Carnegie, a pretty good figure I’d say.

  13. This is amazingly technical talk. I am going to memorize some of this thread and repeat it at cocktail parties.

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