Welcome, New Companion: Bert Polman talks about the new <em>Psalter Hymnal Handbook</em>

After ten years of research and writing, the Psalter Hymnal Handbook is finally available. Though many people contributed to this large volume (900+pages!), Bert Polman did by far the lion's share of the research and writing. Professor of music at Redeemer College in Ancaster, Ontario, Polman worked on the handbook every summer and countless evenings and weekends for the past ten years. Here Bert provides some basic information about handbooks and about the new Psalter Hymnal Handbook.


RW: Just what is a hymnal handbook?

Polman: When I bought a Honda Civic some years ago, the salesperson demonstrated a number of the car's features to me, but then also put a copy of The Handbook to Your Civic on the front seat when I came to pick up the car. A hymnal handbook is something like that user's manual. It contains information about hymns, authors, and composers, so it is usually thought of as a reference book. But it can also contain all kinds of suggestions for performance. It can even be a devotional commentary.

Do all hymnals have handbooks?

Historically the most important hymnals have had handbooks, especially for communities where hymnody is valued. For example, handbooks are available for hymnals in the Anglican or Episcopal tradition, both in England and in North America. Similarly, handbooks are available for hymnals in the Lutheran and Methodist traditions, and to some extent also in the Presbyterian and Mennonite traditions. And we have one composite handbook to date for certain older Roman Catholic books.

The best hymnbooks come with companion volumes, forming a set. In fact, in our library at Redeemer College, contrary to the usual library classifications, we actually catalog the hymnal andits companion to be adjacent on the shelf, even though the hymnal would technically be in the "M" section and the handbook would be in the "ML" section.

Who uses hymnal handbooks?

Broadly speaking, two kinds of people. The first group are those who use the handbook as a resource in planning or conducting worship. That includes pastors, who might use a hymnal handbook to help them prepare a hymn introduction or for a hymn illustration in their sermon. It also includes church musicians, who use the handbook in planning services or as a resource when they have to choose hymns by a certain author or composer for a special event. It includes song leaders too—people who need to find introductory material, some background on specific hymns, that kind of thing. That would be one group.

The second group of handbook users are people who simply have an interest in hymnody. Some, like myself, have a professional interest and stake in knowing the history of hymnody. We're always looking for the newer handbooks that keep us up to date with the newer hymns. But there are also many people who simply love singing hymns and enjoy learning about the background of hymns for their own personal or family devotions or for leading hymn sings. They enjoy discovering the answer to questions like "Why did such and such an author write this hymn?" Or they delight in uncovering tidbits of information that are interesting even apart from how hymns function in worship: "I didn't know that praise chorus was inspired in someone's shower..." or whatever.

A handbook has other uses as well. For example, I am giving a lecture next week on William Cowper in an eighteenth-century British literature course. The students have been learning about Cowper as a poet; I know him as a hymn writer ("God Moves in a Mysterious Way," "Oh, for a Closer Walk with God") who was associated with John Newton ("Amazing Grace"), so I will introduce the literature class to his hymns.

What kind of information is included in the Psalter Hymnal Handbook?

For every song we provide four kinds of information: (1) a description or analysis of the text with biblical references as appropriate; (2) a description or analysis of the music with an explanation of tune titles; (3) historical notes on the origin of the text and of the tune or its arrangement; and (4) suggestions for liturgical use and for musical performance.

Is there anything distinctive about the Psalter Hymnal Handbook?

I think we're distinctive in what we provide in each hymn entry. We tried very hard to give more than historical information, to do more than simply identify the author and composer. We did include the standard information about the author and composer, when the hymn was first published and in which hymnbook, and so on. But we went beyond that. For each psalm, Bible song, or hymn we tried to give some textual analysis or description—also citing, in some cases, biblical illusions or quotations.

In addition to literary comments on the text, we include comments on the music itself, on the tune, and, in some cases, its harmonization. If the tune is in Dorian mode, for example, we say that, or if the tune has a very narrow contour—all of it in the range of a perfect fifth, or perhaps a much wider range—we provide that musical description.

We tried to make suggestions for liturgical use in each song entry too. That's a feature not generally found in hymnal handbooks.

We also tried to make musical performance suggestions in a number of cases. Rather than simply singing every hymn in three or four stanzas with the same registration, we suggest other approaches where appropriate—sometimes based on the text or on the musical tradition of a given hymn tune. If it is a round, for example, we offer ideas about how to sing it as a round. We even offer ideas for using pen-tatonic tunes as rounds—songs like "Amazing Grace," for example, which are not identified as rounds in the hymnal. In other cases, we suggest alternating singing between men and women or using a soloist in responsorial singing. Sometimes we include suggestions for organ registration and tempo recommendations with metronome markings.

These are some of the things that really make our handbook stand out. It's not that other handbooks never do these things, but we tried to be fairly consistent in providing those different kinds of helps.

How much in the handbook is brand-new material not found in other handbooks?

Some of the newer material in the hymnal handbook, of course, is from authors and composers who were published for the first time in the Psalter Hymnal. But we also tracked down some information on newer songs. For example, we wondered about the origin of "Alabare"—did it come from Mexico or from Central or South America? After some sleuthing, we discovered it was written in Spain.

Unfortunately, sometimes stories of why certain hymns were written are lost in the obscurity of history. Understanding the context out of which a hymn was written can help our own use and experience of the hymn. If we or someone in our church community is going through circumstances similar to those the hymn writer endured, we may find strength and comfort from the hymn.

There's also another sense in which this material is different from that published in any other handbook. One of the questions I faced as a writer of a hymnal handbook is, "Whose voice should I use?" Should I adopt the facts-only approach, as many handbooks do, or should I be witty on occasion, or possibly even critical? One reason why Carlton Young's Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal and the numerous books by Erik Routley are such good "reads" is that they are far from dry accounts of who did what, when, and how in the world of hymns. Instead you'll find some humor, and in the case of Routley, many critical judgments. Even if I don't always agree with those criticisms, they are certainly provocative!

The greatest range of critical opinion will likely occur on the topic of the "wedding" of text and tune. Hymnal experience has shown that some texts and tunes "cohabit" for a short period of time. Others, such as many forged in the nineteenth-century editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern, appear to be enduring. And some combinations of text and tune are abject failures!

Let me illustrate with one example from the Psalter Hymnal: the setting of the Song of Mary to the tune PENTECOST at PsH 212. The textual paraphrase is a good one: it is close to the biblical text in which Mary exalts the awesome power of our covenant-keeping God. As most composers after the days of chant have demonstrated, the Magnificat text requires equally great music. The tune PENTECOST is a melody whose tones cluster together in a small range. Carl Daw, Jr., the current Executive Director of the Hymn Society, once quipped that this tune was called PENTECOST because "they were all gathered in one place"! The tune is not great but is certainly serviceable— probably most fitting for a lament as relatively minor as a head cold. What is inappropriate— even offensive or heretical—is the combination of this great text and this "wimpy" tune. The expressive power of Mary's Magnificat is just too great for this little tune to bear, in spite of the several editions of the Psalter Hymnal in which this text and tune are wedded. But may I express such critical opinions in the Handbook? And if so, how frequently or thoroughly? You'll have to read it to find out!

What made you so interested in this huge project?

When I took my doctoral program in musicology and specialized in hymnology, I had no idea what that might lead to. I assumed that I'd probably spend the rest of my life doing musicological research and teaching theory, history, and various literatures of music. And in fact, I've done that now for more than twenty years at the undergraduate level. However, God provided some other marvelous opportunities for me to use my hymnological training. I've had occasion to contribute to the making of four hymnals to date: the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, Hope's The Worshiping Church, the Hymn Society/John Knox Westminster's Amazing Grace, and CRC Publications's Songs for LIFE. In addition I wrote about a quarter of the hymn annotations in the Worship Leader's edition of The Worshiping Church and now a good portion of the Psalter Hymnal Handbook. What a rich blessing that activity has been for my own life! The Lord has opened wonderful avenues for me to use my gifts in this way.

Now we stand at the brink of a joint hymnal project for the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. As I said in the Preface to the Psalter Hymnal Handbook, the fact that I cannot sing due to my vocal paralysis has given me all the more impetus to try hard to get other people to sing more or to sing better.

Bert Polman was a hymnologist, professor and chair of the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He passed away in July 2013. 

Reformed Worship 47 © March 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.