Hymn of the Week: What Wondrous Love Is This (WONDROUS LOVE)

Hymn Title: What Wondrous Love Is This


Meter: 12 9 12 12 9

Now this here is what Sacrosanctum Concilium is talking about when it states in Article 37:

"Anything in these peoples' way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit."

That is to say, that when Vatican II said we could bring in the authentic sacred music tradition of American Culture, this did not mean we could have rock bands in church, it meant we could import those actual sacred music traditions which harmonize with the true and authentic spirit of the liturgy.

Old Southern shape note hymns are just that. The music system was simplified to aid completely untutored, illiterate country people in learning and singing together. They would meet in a hall with the chairs arranged in a square (one section on each side) facing the center, where one person would stand and lead them all singing right into each other's faces, as loud as they could. Using essentially only knowledge of two intervals - the half step and the whole step - and a rudimentary understanding of the scale, they could make fantastic music. They would do this all day, and then have a huge potluck. This was their worship, and boy was it something.

This particular song is in the Dorian Mode, which is the scale you get if you play eight white keys in a row from D to D. It mostly sounds like a minor key, but with a subtle, noble shading. Note that the melody is in the tenor part - to get the full, proper sound, both tenors and altos should sing it, in their respective ranges. There's no keyboard accompaniment here - such a thing can be done successfully, but usually you lose the Dorian mode in the process, and the simplicity of the song. Much better to sing it a cappella.

My favourite way to perform this piece is as follows: first verse, the whole choir sings only the melody, tenors and basses where it is written, altos and sopranos an octave higher. Second, let the ladies take the melody in their range, and have all the men sing the bass part. Finally, as written, sopranos on the descant line, altos and tenors on melody in their respective ranges, basses on the bass line. You'll bring the roof down, especially if you keep your choir singing at a rate of about one half note per heartbeat.

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