Few subjects invite controversy in organ circles like the topic of hymn playing. I’d almost rather discuss tonal philosophy with someone who came of age in the midst of the Orgelbewegung. Almost. Nonetheless, I will forge ahead and hope I don’t regret it later, since, in my dotage, I don’t have much energy for arguing about insoluble matters of taste.
I often wonder what would happen if organists were coached not in “hymn playing” but in “song playing” or “music playing”. Use any term except hymn playing. It lulls the mind into thinking in a very tightly circumscribed box and promotes obsession with the accidents rather than the substance of style. “How do you register hymns?” and “What’s a good hymn tempo?” are two questions that are symptoms of this mindset. Contingent matters---the tonal design of the organ, the acoustics of the room, the harmonic tempo of the piece, the texture, the words (hello!), etc.---are often not given their due influence. Accordingly, what I recommend below needs to be applied carefully only to situations in which it’s appropriate.
About ten years ago, an experienced organist told me to think of the pedal as the bass drum. One might also compare the pedal to the tympani. He didn’t put any parameters on this, though it seems this technique is best used in pieces with a lively tempo and a broad harmonic rhythm; it is not an approach to be used in Brightest and Best (Morning Star), for instance.
In order to do this right, it’s important to know what not to play. Take, for example, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (Hymn to Joy). This is a hymn that requires vivaciousness, lest it wither on the vine and become Sorrowful, Sorrowful, We Implore Thee. This bass line is ripe for the drum treatment. Generally, I only play every other note, so that the bass line, for most of each phrase, is in a quarter note, quarter rest pattern. Toward the ends of phrases, I add more notes, which is where the tympani effect comes into play. It’s often tempting to try to lend life to a piece, or even maintain the tempo against the lugubrious assaults of the congregation, by playing detached or even choppy, but with this bass technique, one can combine the determination of the pedal with a calmer, more reasonable articulation in the upper voices.
An exercise like this can be a starting point for further experimentation. Every hymn deserves to be taken on its own terms and not suffer from a uniform treatment advocated in one technique book or another. Hymns should be given all the love and consideration of a Chopin Nocturne or a Schubert song. In short, each is a piece of music, and a tasteful interpretation comes out of the music itself, and therefore serves it. I hope this suggestion will be one valuable musical tool out of many.