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Hymns and Descants

Double descants for hymns are a novelty. They open up exciting possibilities compared with single descants, yielding richer textures and brighter, more resonant sonorities. The descants on this recording - heard both singly and in combination - are challenging and adventurous to sing. Highly imitative, they match closely the musical style and character of the Hymn-tune they embellish. The hymns selected are themselves well known, embracing many seasons and festivals of the church's year.

(c) Richard Marlow

Sing a new Song to the Lord

Hymns have been around in one form or another as long as people have come together in worship. Songs and hymns of praise that employ words or ideas from Biblical sources date back at least three millennia to the ancient Hebrews. In the Old Testament, David organised the singers and musicians in the temple to 'sing and play joyful music.' Whilst in the New Testament we are told by St Mark that Jesus Christ and his disciples sang a hymn at the last supper before going out into the night. Since these early times, the music composed for hymns has ranged from simple church chant (plainsong) through chorales to gospel music and the rock-based sound of much contemporary Christian worship. The thread which binds these disparate musics and texts together is the involvement of not only the church choir and musicians, but of everybody present. Congregational singing is, in purely human terms, the most important part of any service of worship, as it is at such moments that we are all as one.

Richard Marlow's programme of 24 hymns and descants focuses on one of the most enduring and most recognisable traditions of congregational music - the British Hymn tradition. The selection presents a living, breathing practice built upon by successive generations in their own style and taste. The tunes and harmonisations range from settings found in sources dating from the time of Elizabeth I through some 400 years to the present century*. Many of the major festivals and seasons of the church year are represented: Advent (hymns 3-6), Lent (8), Easter (10-13), Ascensiontide (15), Whitsuntide (17), and Trinity (19), hymns for Saints' days (21) and Dedication festivals (23). These are interspersed by a number of hymns for general use.

The hymn-tunes themselves can be old folk songs adopted for church use, utilizing new texts to suit their new purpose or popular melodies from, for example, oratorios or they may be composed anew. These tunes in turn can be arranged and harmonised in (normally) four parts by anybody from the local choirmaster to the very greatest of composers. On top of the hymn tune is placed the descant. These are the spine-tingling high soprano parts that soar above the repeated hymn tune. This is where the professionals really come into their own. The descant might be thought of as flavouring the hymn with further musical interest and helps to create tensions that drive the hymns to a satisfying, and often thrilling, close. Each descant aims to reflect the musical style of its hymn-tune and setting, employing the musical style from the period during which the original version was composed, using melodic motifs and phrases from the hymn-tune itself or from its accompaniment.

Richard Marlow and The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge present these hymns in sophisticated performances which make high art of even the simplest tune. Each hymn in this collection ends with a splendid double descant: two high melodic strands complimenting and commenting upon the unison tune, now accompanied by a rich organ harmonization. Naturally, there is no congregation present in these performances, except, of course, for those of you singing along with the CD.

*See individual hymn texts for sources, writers, composers and hymn-tune names.

(c)Martin Ross


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