The needler in the haystack.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What's Blaenwern got to do with it?


Prince William and Kate Middleton sang Blaenwern at their wedding in Westminster Abbey.
While digging for material to write about Saturday's concert at Plainfield's Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church, I came across a list of tunes to which the hymn 'Love divine, all loves excelling' is sung (see here).

American congregations are most accustomed to singing this fine hymn to the Welsh tune 'Hyfrydol', but I noticed that many hymnals also include another Welsh tune, 'Blaenwern', and that got bells ringing.

Those who watched the broadcast of the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey last April may recall this hymn was sung after the couple solemnized their vows (see video below).







But the tune took me back in time to the spring of 1957, where a farm boy was finishing his first year at Albright College in Reading, PA. It was the first time I had lived in what I considered a 'big' city (its population, which has since declined, was about 120,000 then).

One of the treats of such a large town for students for the ministry was the large number of different kinds of churches, which we were encouraged to visit and draw lessons from.

And one of the churches several of us were drawn to was Holy Cross Methodist Church, whose minister, Charles Yrigoyen, was known for his dynamic preaching. The congregation was also known for its excellent music program, having had a boychoir for many years that echoed the Anglican tradition. (The church building is of the same vintage as Plainfield's Seventh-Day Baptist Church on Central Avenue, with some of the same exuberance which came from wealthy members returning from Europe with ideas about things to add luster to their new church buildings -- in Holy Cross' case a huge but decorative fireplace on one wall of the 800-seat octagonal sanctuary).

It was fortuitous, then, that Holy Cross' strong music program and Yrigoyen's intense musicality and Welsh heritage resulted in the congregation's hosting of a Gymanfa Ganu, a traditional Welsh hymn-singing festival. For someone like myself, who loved to sing hymns and found Welsh tunes mesmerizing, this afternoon-long festival was like sitting down to an entire wedding cake of one's own.

Between congregation members and Welsh cultural enthusiasts, the sanctuary was packed. We sat in huge blocks according to the part we sang and the whole assembly was led by a director. Much of the singing was a capella, with only a pitch pipe to get us started, but rousing it was.

And one of the tunes we sang that memorable afternoon was 'Blaenwern', sturdy and foursquare, yet made dramatic by the shift in the second half of the verse, which lends opportunities for contrast. The tune is the only one for which its composer, William Penfro Rowlands, is today remembered. (For an example of a Cymanfa-type performance by a thousand-man chorus, see the video below from London's Albert Hall.)







But my introduction to Welsh hymnody had another lesson to teach me, and that was the Anglican tradition of embellishing the final verse of a hymn with a free accompaniment which transformed the harmonies of the hymn (of which the congregation was singing the melody only) -- sometimes beyond recognition.

Though I was enamored of the technique, and studied it years later under my organ teacher Duncan Phyfe, I was never really proficient at it. In fact, my apogee as an organist was to be summer fill-in at Grace Church, while the choir was on hiatus and the morning service was somewhat simplified. (Grace's then organist, Andrew Moore, now at Christ Church, Short Hills, was an absolute master of free accompaniment. A sample of the technique can be heard in the final verse in the video below, recorded by the parish organist at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Hanwell, London.)






And it is in those free accompaniments of last verses that one can glimpse the meaning of Charles Wesley's phrase 'lost in wonder, love and praise', which is what worship at its finest is about.




-- Dan Damon [follow]

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2 comments:

olddoc said...

enjoyable

Anonymous said...

Dan- I have always loved free accompaniment, but didn't know it had a name till today. Thank you. Donna