A Festival of Hymns: the writers tell their stories
by Hal Hopson
Alfred Music Publishing (Warner Bros. Publications), 2000
Introducing hymn writers and celebrating faith in music
Here is a carefully thought through way of celebrating the power, development and variety of our hymn singing traditions. Drawing together eleven hymns written over the centuries, Hal Hopson, a skilled and imaginative church musician based in Dallas, Texas, has not only created a unified “festival of hymns” but also provided a template for others to compile their own.
A Festival of Hymns: the writers tell their stories uses scripted monologues for hymn writers, from Bishop Ambrose to Sydney Carter, to introduce themselves and their hymns. While some of the writing is a little stilted (and the suggestion that the actor playing Fanny Crosby “might wear sunglasses, walk with a white cane, and be assisted to the lectern” verging on the corny), nevertheless we get an opportunity to hear a little of the “why” behind the writing of hymns as well as some unpacking of the words themselves.
Eight out of the eleven hymns here are to be found in Singing the Faith, with the addition of two hymns from American traditions (Robert Lowry’s “Shall we gather at the river” in an attractive a cappella arrangement for SATB choir) and the jaunty “Clap your hands!”, representing John Calvin’s insistence on congregational singing that was drawn only from Scripture.
One of the collection’s real strengths is the quality of Hal Hopson’s arrangements. Nearly all of the hymns include congregational involvement, though most also require some well-rehearsed choir or solo leadership and all will benefit from a more than competent organist or pianist. Other instrumental options are available, including the use of hand bells – still a prevalent element of church worship in the US.
In other words, this is a resource that can be adapted to the ambitions and skills of those involved. It will give pleasure, from the powerful majesty of O God, our help in ages past to the Latin backing that Hopson employs for When we are living and the splendidly toe-tapping arrangement of Lord of the dance. It will also leave worshippers of today deeply conscious of their Christian heritage expressed in music and, hopefully, anxious to explore it further.
A Festival of Hymns is published by Alfred Music Publishing and is available from a number of online outlets.