‘A voice to sing God’s praise’.
1 Corinthians 12:12-26
NEH 437 ‘Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore him’ (tune 271 (Hyfrydol)
I want you to think of the hymn we sang earlier in the service, Hyfrydol. It was written in about 1831 by a chap from North Wales, called Rowland Huw Pritchard – the name of the tune apparently means ‘good cheer’. It is one of the great Welsh hymn tunes, and it’s fun to sing, in any of the various harmonisations that the modern hymn books offer. There’re just a few things about Hyfrydol that I want to reflect on.
The first is that it’s full of suspensions. A suspension only works because one note in the chord stays the same, while all the other notes change. And this means that the note that’s stayed the same doesn’t really belong in the new chord, and sounds, well, a bit out of place, a bit dissonant, and needs to be ‘resolved’. Let’s listen to the first 7 beats of the hymn.
The chord we stopped on is the one with the suspension, and the suspension is in the bass. The basses are singing the same note as they did in the chord before, but it sounds completely different.
And we can’t stop there, we have to let the basses resolve their suspension. So let’s hear the first three bars with all four parts, complete with preparation, suspension and resolution.
Actually you’ve all sung a suspension this evening already, because there’s several in the tune. Let’s sing again the one in the sixth line – that’s on the word ‘voice’ in the first verse. Do it once just with the tune:
There’s nothing special about those notes – we start the word voice on the same note as we’ve just sung. But now let’s put the harmony in so that all of you singing the tune or the alto line can enjoy that suspension and resolution on the word ‘voice.’
The second thing that it’s worth noticing is that although the top line has the tune all the way through, that’s not always the interesting bit. In the very first bar, who has the most interesting line? It’s the basses, with their lovely rising arpeggio. And in the next bar, the tune is more interesting with its rising dotted rhythm. But listen to who’s singing it with them: it’s the tenors. We’ve talked about the third bar – that’s the one with the suspension in the bass. And the altos also get their fun – for instance they get a lovely juicy suspension at the end of the sixth line, that we just sang.
There’s more interesting bits than this, of course, and just as an experiment, I want the choir to sing the first verse of the hymn again, in harmony, but this time, only sing when you think you have an interesting bit – if you have a bar that’s quite boring, don’t bother singing it, just come in again when you’ve got something worth hearing. We’ll do it unaccompanied so we can all hear what happens:
[whole thing – a capella]
It’s actually not very good without the boring bits, is it? We need them to help the interesting bits stand out – we all have to contribute in the right way; we can’t blast our way through our line taking no notice of when we’re supposed to come to the fore and when we’re supposed to be in the background, neither can we absent ourselves if we don’t think our bit is going to stand out enough. If I may paraphrase briefly, there is a time for suspensions and a time for resolutions, a time for dissonance, and a time for cadence, a time for running quavers and a time for dotted minims, and so on, you get the idea.
And a part doesn’t have to be full of suspension in order to be good to sing. Take the altos in the second half of the hymn, for instance. They have a lovely sequence, which is just as tuneful as the melody,
[ altos ] –
And in that same passage there are patterns in all four parts. Each line has its own integrity and ‘melody’, and that’s what makes this hymn fun to sing. Each of them is the kind of melody that’s right for them. The bassline kind of melody tends to have more leaps and a bigger range than the others, and the tenor and alto lines tend to have a smaller range than the tune. But they’re all melodic – they’re never just filling in harmony to serve the tune.
I hope you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing again:
The choir does not consist of one voice, but many. If the altos or basses would say, because I am not a tenor or a soprano, I do not belong to the choir, that would not make them any less a part of the choir. If the whole choir sang tenor or soprano, where would be bassline and alto line be? The sopranos and basses cannot say to the altos and tenors, ‘I have no need of you’. On the contrary, the voices in the choir that seem to be weaker are indispensable. If one voice suffers, the whole choir suffers with it. If one voice is honoured, the whole choir rejoices with it.
The four voices are not just doing their own thing. Everything that each line does is intimately related to what the other voices are doing. This is what we hear with the suspensions: you can sing exactly the same note twice, but because of what everyone else is doing, it sounds completely different. And it’s what we hear in the way that the vocal lines listen to each other and copy each other in those sequences and patterns.
But that’s quite enough harmony and counterpoint for one evening. Let’s recap on what we’ve learned: a note is not just a note – it is a note within a chord, and a note within a melodic line, within a whole network of melodic lines, all within a piece of music that somebody wrote for us to sing.
Now for the theology. I suggest that God has called us – all of us – to be his choir, to sing the hymn of his creation, and he has given us each a line to sing: what an honour and a blessing. Some of us seem to have been given the tune a lot of the time – what we do and say seems to make a big difference to how God’s music is heard. Some of us may feel we’re called to support, providing a strong bassline. Some of us may feel that we go through life singing alto – nobody really hears us, and maybe it wouldn’t matter if we weren’t there at all.
But of course it does matter. Each one of us matters immensely, because each one of us was made by God to take part in his music, and if the altos of the world feel they’re never heard, maybe the sopranos, tenors and basses of the world need to sing a little more quietly from time to time...
We’ve looked at hymns this evening, which are only in four voices, but the hymn of God’s creation is like an infinitely complex piece of music in which everyone has an individual line related to every other line – a sort of global spem in alium, if you like.
If we are the voices that God has invited to perform this hymn of his creation, then we need to consider the composer. When a composer writes a piece of music, they have to trust the other performers to sing it right. God, as composer, takes a risk in giving us voices to sing his music. And we don’t always get it right. Some people seem to use the voice they’ve been given to drown out the other lines. Some people never get heard. Singing in harmony is about give and take, and there are times when we are called to live in such a way that our voice is heard, and times when we must leave the limelight to others. Only in this way will we be true to our own integrity, and allow the integrity of others to shine through.
So knowing who we are – what note we are singing, what voice part we are singing – is also about knowing who we are in relation to others, and to the composer.
You may or may not know this, but today is Vocations Sunday - the day that the Church sets aside for thinking about what our calling is before God. There’s a popular myth that vocation is only for priests and missionaries, perhaps also doctors and teachers – but for particular life-long ‘worthy’ jobs.
These callings are real, and you may find some day that one of them is yours. But actually God calls everyone.
Fundamentally, God’s calling to each of us is to live out our unique potential, to become the people we’re meant to be – and this isn’t our job, it is our life. Expressing our unique calling will not only bring us the most profound fulfilment: because God created us not to be alone, but in St Paul’s words, to be part of a body, or in my words, to be voices in a choir, following our calling will also be for the liberation and enrichment of others.
My prayer today is that each of us may discover our calling to become who we are, that we may learn to sing that musical line which God has entrusted to us alone, taking our part in the hymn of God’s creation.