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Forth in Praise

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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

May 30, 2014

About time

evelyn @ 5:13 pm

‘SIX crotchet beats in a 4/4 bar? That’s not like you, Evelyn.’

No, it wasn’t a memory from my student days. This was an archdiocesan training day, and the speaker was leading the singing. I blushed and apologised for the typo, muttering something about dashing it off in a hurry. In fact, I had unintentionally written what I normally played, not what was set out in the hymn book. The inserted beats gave the people a chance to breathe. In practice, most organists slow down in some way at that point in that piece of music, which maybe I’d better not identify. The composer had obviously felt constrained to stick rigidly to the 4/4 metre, come what may, or maybe he just didn’t know that a single 3/2 bar would have solved the breathing problem while keeping the rhythm steady.

There are other tempo deviations which are not so understandable, some of them peculiar to a parish or locality. The Church of Scotland organist who stood in for me at two Easter Vigils had to be told about the significant pauses for dramatic breath-gathering when the parish sang Webbe’s Regina Caeli, especially before phrases with high notes such as the second ‘resurrexit’, which they enjoy absolutely belting.  The markings on a nineteenth-century volume discovered in the church strongly suggest that this tradition has prevailed for over a hundred years. I have never even tried to change such a hallowed custom. The C of S organist, a very precise person, shook his head in puzzlement.

As he did on another occasion over Sweet sacrament divine, in each verse of which there twice appears a bar written like this:


and sung like this:


Then there’s Hail, Queen of heaven with its huge pause on the unimportant word ‘for’ in the phrase ‘pray for the sinner’.


The pause even appears in some of the published hymn books.

Perhaps the fact that these two hymns go way, way back has some significance.

But then there are the modern hymns with extra beats halting the action every so often, presumably to allow for guitar strum build-ups. A visiting organist will ask as a matter of course ‘Do you play the extra bar in Here I am, Lord?’ (This is the empty bar right in the middle of each verse. Most organists simply miss it out.)


Or he/she might ask, ‘How do you stop them coming in too soon in I watch the sunrise?’ Not a request for advice, this, simply an enquiry as to which of several possible methods is customary in the parish for coping with the blank patches between the phrases. The people can’t be expected to count beats when nothing is happening.


Coping methods include: (1) prolonging the previous melody note until the words resume, ignoring the resulting harmonic clashes, (2) making up a little tune to fill the gaps and (3) just shrugging and coming in early if the people do – recommended for funerals.

And finally, have you ever played for a funeral in another parish and just known that on Sundays they sing with a digital hymnal or CDs? Their timing is too perfect, almost metronomic, with none of the ebb and flow of real congregation and real organist responding to each other. The lack of organists is such a sadness.

Time to stop now.

1 Comment


    Comment by Elvira — May 31, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

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