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If hymn accompaniment is the church musician’s most important task, it is too rarely encountered and even less frequently taught, contends Stuart Forster in a new book on the subject. Good hymn playing, he writes, used to be passed down through exposure and osmosis. But today’s young organists come to the instrument more on their own or in conservatoire, not as from-the-cradle churchgoers. Thus they land their first church jobs, Forster writes, poorly equipped for that most vital job of leading hymns.

Most 20th-century treatises give the subject short shrift; the venerable Gleason method accords it precisely three pages. In the past two decades, however, more material has become available. David Cherwien, David Heller and Joyce Jones have addressed the topic in book length, as has the Royal School of Church Music. Forster’s volume isn’t a personal exposition, however, but an oral round table of eleven musicians whose hymn work he esteems. All received a set of questions in advance, which in turn form the book’s chapters, ranging from primary issues (tempi, articulation) to more remote ones (acoustics, reharmonisations, the clergy’s role in hymn selection). While the roster tilts towards those who, like Forster, are steeped in the Anglican tradition, John Ferguson, David Cherwien and David Erwin balance things from Lutheran and Presbyterian viewpoints. Unsurprisingly, there is no Roman Catholic perspective here.

The divergence in approach and taste among the Anglican players is where the fun begins, bolstered by the book’s unexpectedly personal nature. In his interviews Forster let his subjects speak freely, without interference or reaction. Having transcribed all comments essentially verbatim, Forster makes no apology for the chatty, informal quality of some material. Prose-like responses from John Scott play off the breeziness of Steve Loher (an assistant at Grace Cathedral in the 1960s). Where Mark Dwyer analyses in great detail (‘I avoid thirds in the tenor octave’), Tom Whittemore adopts an intuitive, even emotional approach (saying, in essence, given awful acoustics he simply plays as many notes as possible). Thus what emerges is neither dialogue nor really a conversation, but a stimulating and passionate counterpoint of approach, thought and opinion. If duplication is inevitable in this approach, the material never feels repetitive, and ends up offering an inspiring and unusual read.

JONATHAN AMBROSINO Read the full review on Agora Classica


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