Musical Style II: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Sing

Many non-musicians and a few musicians are under the presumption that the composer or source determines the style of music. This is not necessarily true when other people play the music.

Take the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” one of my favorites. Horatius Bonar wrote the words in the 19th century and the renowned British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams arranged an English folk tune for four-part choir. So it’s church music for organ and choir, right? V-W also arranged the melody in five variations for orchestra. So it’s classical music, too.

But wait, Rory Cooney used a folk variant, Star of the County Down for his Magnificat setting, “Canticle of the Turning.” You can also hear the tune performed (without Cooney’s words) by Ensemble Polaris on their outstanding recording Midnight Sun: Traditional Nordic Melodies: track 16, “The Skipper O’Dundee.” (If I played in a band, I’d want it to be like this one.)

Hold on, though–the tune goes back way before Vaughn Williams and Bonar, and if you comb through folk tunes, you’ll find it’s had different names and variations, including John Barleycorn, an allegory about brewing beer. So it was done with fiddles and other folks instruments and sung in pubs long before classical and church musicians ever got their paws on it.

So if I use the hymn and accompany it with dulcimer, guitar, bass, and violin, (as I have in the past) it will be done in an authentic folk style. Let me tell you that there are other ways to play or sing the tune, but maybe not as convincingly as my ensemble or an organ-plus-choir or a symphony orchestra. I can swing the tune, alter the harmonizations and it will be jazz, gospel, or blues. I can even out all the note values and sing it unaccompanied in the style of plainsong.

My ensemble plays it in a way fairly authentic to the roots of the song, but would Gavin and his pastor find that unacceptable? We could even out all the note values and would that make the tune acceptable to the chant-only crowd? Or I could add 7th, 9th, 13th, and a whole slew of jazz chords and would a Black Catholic parish find it very good? Or if I sang any variants in a bar, would that render the whole exercise totally unacceptable?

A lengthy example, but I hope to make a point. Music is what musicians make it. I laugh when I hear stories about songs being banned, hymnals thrown out, and the like. Because I know that 80% of the actual music-making isn’t the song–which can be dramatically changed–but the players and singers.

Which brings us to the objections to the Glory and Praise oeuvre. Much of the music contained in that series had serviceable to great melodies. Some of the texts were decent, many being based on Scripture. The arrangements left much to be desired, naturally. My sense of church music is to have a good melody set to an appropriate text. Once I have that, anything is possible.

I realize that many musicians don’t depart from the written page. If you are in that category, you’re missing all the fun. David Haas probably would not approve of what I’ve done with “Song of the Body of Christ,” but two things: he’s not around to criticize me, and if he were to insist I play it his way, I would drop it from the parish repertoire.

Assuming the powers-that-be are on the same page with texts and melodies, everything becomes easy. If you don’t like folk music (authentic or Reppy) don’t play the music that way. As Led Zeppelin commented, “The song remains the same.”


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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15 Responses to Musical Style II: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Sing

  1. Gavin says:

    Having used KINGSFOLD, and enjoying the common text, you make a good point. In my very early days at a, shall we say, charasmatic Catholic church I did hear the “magnificat” version of that tune. I obviously realize the common melodic origin of the 2 tunes, but having heard the “Canticle of Turning” first, I had a low opinion of the tune. I do use KINGSFOLD at my church. As for your dulcimmer-fiddle treatment of the tune, without speaking for my boss I wouldn’t forbid it but I also would not do it myself. I feel the tune benefits much more from a brisk organ rendition with SATB choir than from a primitive-sounding yet authentic rendition. And again, which adds to solemnity in the Mass more? Both of these points I’d say you and I can go back and forth on.

    I’m rather “ad fontes” on many things, if it were up to me we would sing German hymns in the original German a capella at about 20 BPM with all 14 verses. Then we would sing a French carol in alternatum with the organ. Then Gregorian chant. And of course, shape-note songs sung with people sitting in a square reading shape note books! Part of the difference with KINGSFOLD is that its origin is.. a drinking song. Certainly one can’t go too far ad fontes on that! Well, during Mass that is…. ;)

    I’ll agree with you most of the way that a lot of it is how the music is performed. And (I think) I’ve said it before that I’ll take and support “contemporary” music done well over and above “traditional” music done poorly or half-assed. From time to time, I have used “I Am the Bread of Life” at my church, and I always play that on the piano, in more classic of a style than pop-ish. Use big chords at the refrain, and it does sound good. However, for me that’s about as far as I go in experimentation. My church does have a saturday “folk Mass”, and that’s honestly fine by me. I don’t know my boss’s take on the issue, but as I’ve said a million times, whatever you do, do it right!

    My experience with “Canticle of the Turning” was it being sung by a sandaled priest beating on a drum dancing in front of a congregation. This following a sermon about how masterbation isn’t a sin and a Eucharistic prayer with people holding hands around the altar the whole time. And directing the Our Father to Mohammed. So, compared to that, your more authentic version would be a welcome rendition. However, whether that or the organ is better, I don’t think either one of us can offer a superior reason on that. Well besides “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem.” But that’s a given in the Latin Rite!

  2. Liam says:

    “Great” melodies? “Great”? You’ve got me there, Todd. “Serviceable” would be a more tenable assessment, but even then there was often a chasm between refrains and verses (typically, better melodies on the refrains, but sometimes this pattern was reversed, very oddly). And the common reliance on instrumentation to bridge gaps was a very weak crutch.

    The thing about genuine folk music is that it tends to have been written without instrumentation in mind; the melodies tend to be both sturdy and graceful, and lend themselves to being sung without accompaniment. Some melodies, to be sure, originated as instrumental dance music, but the more typical patter was the reverse. A great exercise to test the worth of a hymn melody is to sing it without any instruments.

  3. F. C. Bauerschmidt says:


    Even though I’ve sung both songs many times, I had never connected the melodies of Kingsfold and Star of the County Down until you mentioned it. Maybe I’m just a musical dunce.

  4. Tim says:

    First let me say that I really enjoy your blogsite. It’s become a daily place for me to visit. I have to agree with Liam – “great” as a descriptive word for G & P songs might be hyperbole. I don’t think any of those melodies will stand the test of time – an important consideration when assessing the music we use at Mass. In fact, most of the G & P repertoire sounds dated and trite today like much of the pop music recorded in the 60’s and 70’s. By the way – Van Morrison recorded a version of “Star of the Country Down” with the Chieftains. Worth checking out!

  5. Todd says:

    Okay. But it didn’t say it was all great. I said much–which I might not characterize as “most” was “serviceable to great” in the sense of a spectrum of songs.

    “Great” might apply to a half-dozen tunes in the whole three-part series under NALR. Thirty to forty I would call worthy for liturgy.

    But I would also say that the accompaniments, guitar or keyboard, leave much to be desired, and never go unchanged when I play them.

    That said, untrained and amateur musicians are indeed capable of producing great music. And conservatory training or the possession of musical chops is no guarantee of being able to produce the same greatness.

  6. Gavin says:

    Not to be blunt, but the question that worries me about G&P, that Tim touched on, is when the people alive during the 70s are all dead, will anyone WANT to listen to/sing that type of music anymore? We can’t proclaim the verdict of the “test of time” right now, but speaking as someone who grew up well after the introduction of that music, a lot of it never appealed to me more than anything else. At 6 years old, my favorite songs were “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “They’ll Know We are Christians”. And “Jingle Bells”. “They’ll Know We are Christians” got old for me really fast, and any of that sort of music that I liked did also. I LOVED Mass of Creation for 2 years in high school. Then, it stopped doing anything for me. The same cannot be said of all my other former favorites, “Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, NETTLETON, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”, and of course Veni Emmanuel. Those are just my experiences. It’s kind of like the US church is those Christians my age who are filled with cross and bible verse tattoos or piercings. You have to wonder if they’ll think those things are so “cool” in 50 years.

  7. Liam says:


    Which half-dozen tunes are you thinking are great? And what’s great about them? That might put your comment in better perspective.

  8. Liam says:


    The principle reason the Massive Creation really took off in the late 80s was because an SATB instrumentally scored edition made it immediately the choice for festive celebrations. Trumpets, winds, et cet. But, musically, it is a relatively lame exercise in modal composition. The Lamb of God setting is singularly wretched and hostile to choir and congregation, and I would never program that if I had a choice; I’d substitute Proulx’s setting from the Festival Eucharist if I could (with its simple but graceful descant).

    Fortunately, because its texts are not entirely licit even now, the MOC is going the way of the dodo bird, and I hear it less when I am visiting around. It will be interesting to see if Haugen and GIA decide to revise its texts to become licit.

  9. There is potential for confusion between two hymns here, and I wanted to clear possibility up.

    In the Episcopal Hymnal (both 1940 and 1982), the hymn “I heard the voice of Jesus say” is associated with this hymn-tune: Third Mode Melody, by Thomas Tallis. The English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, set this music to a work for strings, which was entitled Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, or as the Brits call it, Tallis Fantasia. One can find this tune here:

    On the other hand, the Cyberhymnal ( that the hymn “I heard the voice of Jesus say” has also been set to the hymn tune, Kingsfold, which tune was discovered by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the course of his ethnomusical forays. As I recall, it was originally entitled “Dives and Lazarus”. Vaughan Williams also later used this theme for his work “Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus”. The tune for Kingsfold can be found here:

    While I suspect that Todd is referring to Kingsfold in his writing above, some might believe that he is referring to Third Mode Melody instead.

  10. Todd:

    I have to say, “oeuvre” is a pretty swanky word to use of Glory and Praise — one of those terms wandered into the wrong neighborhood.

    Do you have another blog where you write restaurant reviews for Rally’s burger places?

  11. Jimmy Mac says:

    After umpteen years of trying, anything that get Cartholics to sing in an other-than-wimpy fashion will be GREAT! Some of the G&P things do that. I’d rather hear a joyful noice unto the Lord, done with fervor and fault, than music as performance/entertainment art done with perfection by a paid choir.

  12. Gavin says:

    Jimmy Mac, how about “Happy Birthday” at Mass then? People would sing that enthusiastically. Seems to me we should offer people good music to join in proudly with, as opposed to just sticking to whatever it is they already sing without regard to its merits. At least that’s my strategy. I have been pleasantly surprised at what people at my parish will sing – “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” for one.

  13. Jimmy Mac says:

    There is a great spread between “Happy Birthday” and OGOHIAP. We have actually done both in my parish … with HB at the beginning before the mass starts.

    If the mass is the prayer of the people, then what they are most comfortable singing must be pleasing to God. And isn’t that the point? The last time I looked, the liturgists are slightly below the rank of God.

    I have worshipped in evangelical churches where the music was, to my thinking, saccharine and terribly repetitive. However, those in attendance were obviously “into” it and sang with fervor and attention. I’d much rather have that than a perfectly executed performance by a paid choir.

  14. menai love says:

    i would like to know if this lovely vrsion by vaughan williams has a symphony number as i can,t find it and having heard it on tv some time ago ,i would love to own was played with full orchestra

  15. It’s not incorporated into any of V-W’s symphonies. The piece is Five Variants of Dives & Lazarus, and I thought it was for a string orchestra, though I’m sure it’s been adapted for larger forces. The piece is usually tucked away on recordings with his larger works.

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