More than Notes

Reformation and Thanksgiving

A Mighty Fortress (ein feste burg— Martin Luther) arr. Hal H. Hopson; cong., satb, organ, optional brass and timpani, choir sings one st. in original rhythm (Augsburg 11–2219 $.80); sep. brass parts 11–2220)

Hope of the World (donne se–cours—Genevan Psalter) arr. Carl Schalk; cong., satb, organ, brass quartet, timpani, choir sings a setting by Goudimel (1564) (Agape HSA 101 $.80)

New Songs of Celebration Render (rendez a Dieu—Genevan Psalter) (copy included this issue) arr. Dale Gro–tenhuis; cong., satb, organ, brass quartet (CRC Publications 24–1098 $1.00)

Praise to the Lord (lobe den her–ren) arr. Paul Manz; cong., satb, organ, brass quartet Concordia 97–5297 $ .40 (separate instrumental parts)


Savior of the Nations, Come (nun komm) arr. Paul Manz; cong., SAI’B, organ, 2 flutes, oboe (Concordia 97–5441; score $3.75; choir part 98–2379 $.45)

Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding (merton) arr. G. Winston Cassler; cong., satb, organ. No extra instruments; tenor solo or tenor section on one st. (Augsburg 11–1797 $.45)


Good Christian Friends Rejoice (in dulci jubilo) arr. Knut Nystedt; cong., satb, organ, 2 violins (Augsburg 11–9196)

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (picardy) arr. Donald Busarow; cong., organ; no extra instruments called for; may be sung in unison throughout. (Augsburg 11–1844)

O Come, All Ye Faithful (adeste fideles), arr. S. Drummond Wolff; cong., satb, organ, 2 trumpets male voices on st. 2; choir on st. 3 (Concordia 98–2228 $.40)

Robert Powell has arranged six Christmas carols for cong., satb, organ, and string quartet, published by G.I.A. Highly recommended. Each one $.70 for "choral parts and $4.00 for string parts.

Angels We Have Heard on High (G–2521) Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (G–2533) It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (G–2534) O Little Town of Bethlehem (G–2535) Silent Night (G–2522) What Child Is This? (G–2446)

John Ourensma has been playing in church services regularly since he was eleven years old. Even now, after ten years of full–time music ministry in the church, the study of hymns and hymn playing remain his predominant interests. In this article Ourensma walks through the process he follows as he prepares to lead the congregation in "Jesus Shall Reign."

Why is congregational singing such a moving, rich experience in some churches and so feeble and lifeless in others?

Acoustics probably have something to do with it. So does the size of the congregation. And so does the organist.

Many people define the organist’s contribution in terms of carefully selected and well–played preludes, offertories, postludes, and anthems. But while all of these may enrich worship, they do not carry with them the liturgical and theological significance of congregational song. Leading the congregational singing is the organist’s chief responsibility.

Of course, organists alone cannot be praised or blamed for the state of singing in a particular church, but they are in the unique position of being able to do more than any other person to develop or hinder it. Good leadership from the organ will convey to a congregation the overall spirit and content of a hymn. Such leadership, through a musical presentation guided by the meaning of the words, enhances singers’ understanding of a hymn text. Clearly presenting a

hymn’s musical elements also encourages people to sing confidently. At its best, firm but sensitive leadership from the organ helps the congregation to meaningfully worship.

For a practical application of an organist’s general principles, (J) allow me to describe my own hymn preparation process, using the familiar "Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun." I’ve discovered that it’s best to study a hymn by beginning away from the organ with just the hymnal and perhaps a hymnal handbook. I first study the text, then the music, and then spend some time thinking about how I might lead the congregation.

Step 1: The Text

Because a pastor often chooses the hymn texts, many organists learn, play, and identify hymns only by their music. This familiarity with music is not enough. Effective hymn playing requires the organist to be familiar with the character and meaning of the hymn text. The text is the soul of the hymn; in fact, the word hymn refers specifically to the text—not to the tune. So it’s very important that organists study each hymn’s words.

As I studied, I made the following observations about the text of "Jesus Shall Reign":


  • The song has five brief but substantive stanzas, inspired by Psalm 72.
  • Stanza 1 is a proclamation that Jesus shall reign and a description of the scope of that reign.

  • Stanzas 2, 3, and 4 describe that reign: "endless prayer be made," "praises throng," "his name . . . shall rise," "dwell on his love," "infant voices proclaim," "blessings abound," "prisoners leap," "the weary find," and "the hungry and the poor are blessed."
  • Stanza 5 is the crowning stanza, a doxology exhorting all to praise.


  • Wk Each stanza consists of four eight–syllable phrases, grouped 88.88 (long meter).
  • The pattern of text stress is basically iambic 0/0/ (weak, strong, weak, strong), but several phrases begin with one trochaic pattern 0/ (strong–weak).
  • Complete phrases of text do not always parallel the four eight–syllable lines. Note the punctuation:

st. 1: 1 2; 3, 4.
st. 2: 1, 2; 3 4, with 2 commas
in phrase 3.
st. 3: 1 2,3 4.
st. 4: 1;2, 3,4.
st. 5: 1 2,3 4.

  • In other words, the phrasing is different in every stanza.
  • The rhyme scheme is AABB: stanzas 1,4, and 5 contain perfect rhymes; stanzas 2 and 3 contain some off rhymes ("made . . . head," "rise . . . fice," "tongue . . . song").
  • The text is strong, celebrating the reign of Christ in a spirit of praise; several readings are required to understand its meaning and depth.

Step 2: The Music

Effective hymn playing also requires the organist to be thoroughly familiar with the musical elements of a hymn tune and its harmonization. By definition, hymns are poems that are meant to be sung. People experience hymns through singing, not reading. It is essential for the organist to understand the musical means by which the poetry comes to life.

As I studied "Jesus Shall Reign," I made the following observations about the tune (duke street) in conjunction with the text:

  • The song has a singable melody of predominantly stepwise movements (30 of them) with judicious use of leaps (only 7) in phrases 3 and 4 for climax and contrast.
  • Though not a long tune, its phrase structure is well balanced; the tune is complete and satisfying.
  • Each musical phrase ends with a whole note, providing a comfortable breathing place— though for textual reasons a breath is not desirable each time.

  • The rhythmic character of the tune enhances the iambic pattern of the text, including each phrase’s opening trochee. (One could read the text iambic throughout, with only a few exceptions, but the tune begins each phrase on the strong downbeat.)

  • The octave range is d’ to d", not too high or low—a comfortable range for all.
  • The squareness of the 4A time signature may burden the flow of the tune.
  • In terms of style, emotional content, and singability, text, tune, and setting are generally well matched.

Step 3: Leading the Congregation

Once organists understand the hymn text and musical setting, they must skillfully communicate that understanding to the congregation. Being able to verbalize a concept of the hymn is not enough. On Sunday morning that concept can be communicated only through the organ.

Organists are also responsible for keeping the congregation singing in an orderly and confident manner. Organ playing should enhance the service—not distract from it through startling effect or under–rehearsed playing. By learning, practicing, and applying organ techniques, organists can achieve specific results and correct or avoid problems.

I made the following observations as I prepared to lead the congregation in the singing of "Jesus Shall Reign":

  • Notes There is no substitute for playing the right notes at the right time. Any hymn must be practiced until all pitches and note values can be played accurately and with ease.

  • Rhythm Accurate musical rhythm is the single most important element in leading congregational singing. A hymn’s rhythmic character may be communicated by tasteful variation of organ touch and articulation.
  • take great care to get this hymn started with movement, allowing the quarter–note pattern to push ahead just a little. Though the song is written in 4A, playing it with the feeling of a broad 2/2 greatly enhances the hymn’s rhythmic flow without actually increasing the tempo.

It’s important to pay attention to the punctuation of the text when playing the hymn tune. The whole note at the end of each phrase containing punctuation may be shortened by one quarter note, but be sure to then add a quarter rest; and it’s important not to be late or early for the next phrase. The organist should carry over phrases that are not followed by punctuation (e.g., "Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does his successive journeys run"). When phrases are connected in this way, the congregation may breathe between them anyway, but at least they may hear that the thought continues. I often ask my choir to crescendo through such long notes with no breath, hoping that perhaps the congregation will notice and understand the intention.

This predominantly stepwise hymn tune encourages a smooth, sliding style of singing that may weigh the hymn down; clear articulation and movement are needed to keep things moving along. Rhythm is much more than just specific note values. It’s a hymn’s overall flow of melody, harmony, note values, and text. In this four–phrase hymn—actually two, two–part complementary phrases—the gathering up and release of tension can be seen and heard in the melodic shape, the harmonic movement, and the textual progression. The playing must reflect that ebb and flow with some flexibility.

  • Tempo There is no set formula for determining the speed at which a hymn should be played. Many hymns, including this one, suffer from extremes in tempo. J = 72 is a speed that I find allows this hymn to have a rhythmic flow at a comfortable pace, giving people adequate time to breathe and to think about what they are singing.

Once the organist sets the tempo, it must remain steady; to keep it so requires a clean playing style that conveys accurate rhythm. If the congregation is behind my beat, I adjust my touch (more detached) to clarify the tempo. If that doesn’t work, I don’t worry about it. Obnoxious attempts to bully a congregation into "my" tempo ruin the spirit of worship.

  • Registration The sound used for playing hymns must always be of sufficient volume and substance to lead, not overpower, a congregation. The solid foundation of the principal chorus stops is normally the only sound that will fill the room with music that all the singers can hear and feel. I follow these guidelines when playing "Jesus Shall Reign":

Stanza 1: I begin the hymn on a full principal chorus up through mixtures and reeds.

Stanza 2: The reeds come off, creating a welcome change of color and slightly reducing the intensity.

Stanza 3: Because it contains phrases like "sweetest song" and "infant voices," this stanza is effective on a gentler, yet supportive sound.

Stanza 4: Begin to build intensity again.

Stanza 5: Here you need the full sound used in stanza 1. You may want to add a "crowning" addition—not just because it’s a final stanza but because of its content.

  • Introductions Any hymn introduction must make clear the key, the tempo, and the style of the hymn. It must also clearly indicate what the tune is and when people should start to sing. Maintaining the same or similar registration for both the introduction and the first stanza gives the congregation an idea of how they should sing the first stanza.

If hymns are not announced in the service, playing "Jesus Shall Reign" through once may not give the congregation enough time to find the page, stand, and be ready to sing. I normally improvise on the melody just briefly, then play the entire hymn through. A complete play–through gives the people an idea of the overall style of the hymn tune and of how I intend to treat phrase endings.

If the hymn is introduced verbally, the first and last phrases may suffice for the musical introduction.

  • Between Stanzas After the introduction and between stanzas I relax the cadence just a bit but do not slow down. I hold the last chord for its full value (since we’ve put this hymn in %, two half–note beats), release for two full half–note beats, then begin the next stanza on the downbeat. For this hymn, at my tempo, that seems to work well. With hymns in other meters and other tempos, it will not.

I always try to keep the beat going, to keep the tempo steady, and to give the congregation two beats of silence. In this way the hymn does not "end" after each stanza, and the singers have time to swallow, think, and take a breath.

  • After the Hymn At the end of the final stanza I relax the tempo, hold the final chord for two full measures (in %), and release. I don’t think the organist can add anything further at this point by playing the last phrase again more softly or by reducing the volume while holding the last chord. Such additions are anti–climactic; the final stanza can speak for itself.
  • Free Accompaniments I use free accompaniments sparingly and only on familiar hymns. A well–written reharmonization can be effective and inspiring, but it is no substitute for the basic hymn–playing considerations outlined above. Because of the familiarity and simple harmony of this particular hymn, I often rehar–monize the final stanza. But when I do so, the choir and congregation know what’s coming, either through a bulletin announcement or a brief improvisation between the stanzas.

Toward Better Worship

I’m never sure how my hymn playing relates to the specific details of my hymn study. But I know that that study becomes important in the cumulative effect of spending time with the hymn, thinking about its meaning and place in the service. The suggestions given here for playing "Jesus Shall Reign" pertain only to this particular hymn; study of a contrasting hymn would produce different ideas, though the analyzing and reasoning process would be the same. All general principles discussed may be applied to any hymn.

Hymn singing in worship is not intended to be a comfortable resting place for the mind. As organists, we have the responsibility to lead a congregation into the spirit and style of a hymn, making the singers aware of what they are singing and thus moving them to better worship of Almighty God.

  1. Never get in the habit of using the same sound for every hymn, every stanza.
  2. Never use a stop that cannot clearly be heard coming on or going off.
  3. Never use special–effect stops— such as Chimes, Tremolo, or Celeste—for hymn playing.
  4. Develop a concept of a good hymn–playing sound and, in each situation, do what is necessary to achieve it.

Organ playing should enhance the service—not distract from it through startling effect or under–rehearsed playing.

John W. Ourensma is minister of music for First Presbyterian Church, Battle Creek, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 1 © September 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.