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Congregational singing in works written for Holy Week

The tradition of congregational singing in the Church stretches back centuries, and is still an integral part of any church service. However, congregations have historically been limited to only singing hymns and worship songs during a service, with any supplementary music performed by the choir.

Settings of music intended to be sung during Holy Week – the ‘Passions’, are no different; it is fairly unlikely that the famous Bach ‘Chorales’ were sung by the congregation. In light of this, it is interesting to consider and compare three works written for Holy Week – Alan Bullard’s Wondrous Cross, Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion, and Matthew Owens’ St Matthew Passion. Each of these works, to varying degrees, specifically make a point of including the congregation as part of the performance whether in a church service or a concert hall.

It is evident that although the approach of these three composers to composition and structure is individual, there are many similarities to their settings, perhaps influenced by the centuries of tradition preceding them. In particular, they all use well-known hymns and texts in the English Church tradition, including ‘There is a green hill far away’ and ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’.

Bullard’s Wondrous Cross is ‘A meditation on the traditional ‘Seven Last Words’ of Jesus Christ’, and uses words from the gospels of John, Luke, and Matthew, settings of ‘Ave verum corpus’ and William Leighton’s ‘In the departure of the Lord’, as well as including arrangements of well-known hymns for the congregation to sing when performed liturgically. Bullard also includes an arrangement of the American folk hymn ‘Were you there?’ where the congregation joins in the first and final verses (from a seated position):

‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble,
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’

The overall reflective character of this hymn arrangement allows the simplicity of the melody to shine through, especially as in the first verse all voices are in unison with only the organ providing harmony. The final verse also has voices in unison, but with a sympathetic descant line sung by the sopranos at first declaring ‘O were you there?’ after each line and then onwards from ‘it causes me to tremble’ harmonises with the rest of the voices.

Bob Chilcott also intersperses congregational singing throughout his St John Passion. The hymns are all settings of well-known Passiontide hymn texts: ‘It is a thing most wonderful’, ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’, Jesu, grant me this I pray’, ‘There is a green hill far away’, and ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’.

The texts and melodies of these hymns are intended to be included in services or programme notes for audience/congregational participation, which is especially helpful as Chilcott has composed elegant new melodies for each one.

The contemplative ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ (Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650)) continues the imagery of crying from the previous movement ‘Meditation: Miserere, my Maker’ in which the choir sings:

‘And strengthen me now
In this, my ceaseless crying
Miserere, I am dying.’

‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ fittingly ends Part 1 of Chilcott’s St John Passion. During this hymn, the congregation sing the melody throughout but the choir accompaniment differs. In the last verse, instead of the usual descant in the sopranos, Chilcott uses a melody by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) to create an ‘inverted descant’ in the basses. With the congregation, upper voices, and tenors singing the hymn melody, this creates a more subtle (but very effective) change in the music.

‘Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet,
Which brought from heav’n
The news and Prince of Peace.
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercies to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let his eye
See sin, but through my tears.’

Matthew Owens’ St Matthew Passion is the shortest of the three works, and contains just one congregational hymn, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ (Isaac Watts (1674-1748)). However, Owens splits the hymn across the piece: the first two verses are sung after the Evangelist sings:

‘Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.’

The other three verses (including the usually omitted verse ‘His dying crimson like a robe…’) are sung at the end, building in voices with each verse:

  • Verse 3: Unaccompanied choir
  • Verse 4: Congregation, choir, and organ
  • Verse 5: Congregation and unison, with descant, and organ

Each time the congregation is required to sing, Owens attentively ensures the choir sing a verse before the congregation join in, allowing those not familiar, or unsure, of the tune to hear it first.

‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.’

In fact, all three composers use ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ as the finale to their works, all including participation by the congregation, although Bullard and Chilcott both use the more widely-used four-stanza version.

This hymn text contains many personal pronouns, creating that individual connection whilst singing within a large group. The choice to end with this hymn, often heard on Good Friday, and inviting the congregation to join in with for the finale of the works allows a deeper connection between the words, the music, and even with the people in that space (be it a church or a concert hall), creating a shared experience you could not have on your own.

It is not surprising all these works use their settings of words and combined with the music, and all voices, in the final verses reach a triumphant and celebratory end of their telling of the Passion story.

Featured image credit: ‘Cross’. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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