Star Search

Christmas just finally ended yesterday, at least according to the ecclesiastical calendar; today is Epiphany, officially marking the arrival of the Three Wise Men to deliver history’s first Christmas loot. Our choir’s pre-Epiphany anthem last Sunday was, appropriately, “Epiphany,” an 1864 hymn-tune by the great Victorian composer/organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley, setting a venerable old Reginald Heber text. Here’s a score:

“Epiphany” is pretty extravagantly lovely for a hymn; check out those strong-beat double non-harmonic tones in the third bar, like cheese melting onto the sirloin burger of subdominant substitutions. (Do you think Wesley knew his Mendelssohn? Yeah, me too.) Nevertheless, “Epiphany” appears in none of the hymnals I have, mainly because people don’t know how to sing anymore.

Here’s what I mean: in spite of being well within reasonable range for a decent SATB choir, “Epiphany” is simultaneously too high and too low to get into hymnals. The problem is that the soprano line, with its frequent ascension to high F, is too high for unison singing—the altos and basses in the congregation can’t comfortably get up that high, which would be OK if congregations read parts, but they don’t. You could take the whole thing down, but then the written alto and bass lines get too low. So if you want to get it in the hymnal, you’d have to rearrange it—or you could just use James Harding’s comparatively bland “Morning Star,” which is what most hymnals do.

Hymnals have, in fact, been getting progressively lower. In the 1955 Presbyterian Hymnbook, most soprano lines top out around E-flat or E, with a few occasionally getting up to F. In its 1990 replacement, The Presbyterian Hymnal, the tunes top out around D, with about one in five getting up to E. Only one goes to F: James Ellor’s seemingly endless “Diadem,” which probably needs a Mormon Tabernacle-sized choir to really work anyway. Several tunes that appear in both editions have been transposed down for 1990, “Sicilian Mariners” and “Lasst uns erfreuen” being two particularly familiar examples.

Leaving aside the whole lack of part-reading-sufficient musical literacy, it’s interesting to note that the upper range of the newer hymnal coincidentally corresponds to the ceiling of pop-style belting rather than higher classical/choral-style singing. If you’re not doing a whole lot of unamplified choral singing as a matter of childhood educational course, it’s that much harder, later on, to get your breath and muscle memory working in such a way to really get a substantial head voice. Those high F’s would probably cause a flip-and-crack transition in more young female voices than, say, forty years ago—even fairly accomplished teenaged singers I’ve worked with have often, under the influence of pop and contemporary R&B, only ever spent time in their middle and belt ranges. (Even musical theatre songs, traditionally lower than classical repertoire, have probably, on average, dropped at least a step or two since the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

So, thanks in part to the steady deterioration of arts education to its currently lousy state, Wesley’s little gem, which, in a universe with better breath control, would be a standard, is now a rarity. A few more generations of this, and your Sunday morning singing might well be a chanted drone. I can’t help thinking of all those great soul singers who started out as kids in church choirs—is it too late to ask the Wise Men to throw in Aretha’s gospel album?


  1. I have noticed this non-part singing trend as well and, as an alto, it is rather disheartening. Because no one else joins me, I just end up sounding the like a prat trying to show off her mad harmony skillz.When I started going to a Mennonite Church in university, I was stunned by their ability to sing in parts. Even the men. There is no separate choir but rather a leader who conducts the congregation. It was brilliant.Then, on to High Anglican, which was also fantastic because it was full of old people who were in choirs as children. Even more amazing considering the hymnal was text only.In 20 years time, when [if] my peer group returns to church, it will be the same situation as you are describing.

  2. In a few more generations, all churches will have converted to praise bands, and no one will know what part-singing is anymore except those who get together to sing Beethoven 9 every now and then.

  3. I have to say, with my theory teacher hat on, that I immediately noticed the tenth between the soprano and alto in the first bar, which by ordinary voice leading rules, should be wrong. What to you think justifies it? Most rules, I think, have over-rides. I don’t see what it is in this case.

  4. Rodney: I think it’s the best solution given the doubled fifth on the first chord, which also skirts tradition, but is no doubt trying to give the phrase some forward momentum with an unstable opening sonority. Interesting poll: do disjunct-motion rules trump spacing rules?

  5. To add to Matthew’s comment, Rodney, I also think it’s a nod towards the attention-grabbing nature of that opening soprano lick, a way of delineating the other three parts as harmonic support, and the soprano as star of the show, off in her own personal stratosphere.

  6. Well, certainly the point of the spacing rules is to get a uniform sound, so both the doubling in the first chord and the spacing in the second tend towards making it a matter of soprano with accompaniment, so I guess that’s it. As to Matt’s question, I’d go for spacing first of all, but I suppose it’s a matter of context…. (As with so many things in life.)

  7. Tim: Wow, which hymnal is it in? I checked the old and new Presbyterian, the ’82 Episcopal, the current Methodist hymnal, and three or four non-denominational ones I have lying around. Good for Lexington.Rodney: And I myself would probably opt for smooth voice-leading first. At least it’s a nice datum for when students want to know at what historical point the “rules” started to break down.

  8. I love this hymn: we used to sing it at school to a totally different tune by (I think) Bishop Ken. It’s in the English Hymnal. I especially liked the image in one verse where ‘cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining’.

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