DISTILLING THE HYMN -
Creating miniature hymn-based interludes
There are occasions when it is appropriate to insert an improvised or pre-composed organ interlude, lasting even just a few seconds; for example as a fanfare, hymn extension or to cover some part of the liturgy.
A hymn tune is a logical starting point for such an interlude as not only can it provide a link with what has just being sung, but also as a source of thematic material and a general template; creativity doesn’t necessarily involve re-inventing the wheel! Unlike a much longer prelude, there is not the same level of challenge in terms of sustaining and developing a coherent musical discourse and listener interest. In fact, the process is rather more one of telescoping material in concentrated form in a very short space of time, which is a discipline in itself. Part of the art lies in identifying appropriate thematic material from a given hymn. Using the whole melody, for example in decorated form, as in a chorale prelude, is not an option for a very short prelude. One therefore needs to choose salient melodic and rhythmic elements, which would normally be at, or very close to the start of the hymn tune. For example, in this fanfare on St Fulbert, (Ex. 1) the whole fanfare is built on just one part of the opening phrase and modified through rhythmic diminution (via the faster tempo) and augmentation. The invention here is at a very unsophisticated level but is perhaps a useful starting point for basic manipulation of existing material.
Using an existing hymn means that we also can have the harmony provided, the variation on the original being in terms of the texture and again diminution and augmentation of the rhythm. For example, in Prelude on Ellacombe (Ex. 2).
Similarly with St George's Windsor (Ex. 3), this time incorporating the use of echo.
Melody can also appear in transposed and slightly modified form as in the prelude on All for Jesus (Ex. 4). The harmony is rather more developed than in the previous two examples but demonstrates the possibility of using a fixed bass line; this creates a very useful anchor and orientation point, but also a genuine artistic device as it creates an agreeable degree of harmonic tension which is propelled forward towards a point of resolution. Also evident is the use of thirds and sixths between the moving parts. Not only does this create a warm texture but goes a long way to smoothing harsh dissonances that could otherwise occur between moving parts and a fixed bass. This hymn tune is built virtually entirely on crotchet movement and has not the obvious rhythmic motivic material found in many other hymn melodies. Yet, the four-square and rather insistent character of that opening bar creates its own opportunities through appropriate treatment. (In the original hymn, Stainer does this by the use of rich harmonies and overall harmonic structure.)
One of the most enduring and effective forms of thematic development is the fugue and its ancestors such as the polyphonic ricercar. Taken at its stripped down level it can function as a three-stage imitative opening moving to a cadence, for example in Southwell (Ex. 5a). Fugal openings starting from the bass upwards are the easiest to devise as one is effectively harmonising melody rather than bass or inner parts. Voice entries do not necessarily have to be identical and in the case of this subject, a literal repetition of the third subject entry (albeit starting on a different note) might verge on the over-predictable and over-insistent. Choose short subjects as these are far easier to memorise and manage than longer subjects.
This material could be further extended by an echo of the main subject; note the use of decoration and rhythmic variation, which adds interest and variety and allows us to meaningfully extend the material whilst essentially recycling what has already been stated. Southwell - extended (Ex.5b).
So far we have utilised harmony derived from the original hymn. However, it is useful to replace this with one’s own harmony, or be alert to melodic phrases where the melodic shape lends itself to alternative harmonisations, or indeed just by a single chord or bass note. In the latter case, there is less cerebral bandwidth taken up with managing harmonic changes, releasing more that can be devoted to developing motivic and textural elements. One such example is that of Woodlands (Ex. 6) where individual motifs and sub-motifs can be redeployed in the variation, albeit in different parts of the texture and with some rhythmic alteration.
So do explore the many possibilities of the miniature hymn-based prelude. Not only can this provide much appropriate material within the liturgy, and without having to start with a totally blank canvas; it is also an excellent way of honing skills in the development of material and overall concision of expression.
© John Riley 2022