The Art of the Secular Hymn I

What makes a song a Hymn? We know what makes a poetic work a sonnet. We know what distinguishes a Chant from other musical forms. But a Secular Hymn? What exactly is that? I suggest it’s all in how you experience the feeling in the music and the words.

Consider the well-known last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Known as the “Ode to Joy”, the main theme is “All men shall be brothers”. Beethoven was somewhat of a curiosity: he lost his hearing and became a deaf composer. Yet even in his later, deaf years he produced musical masterpieces, of which Ode to Joy was one (1822-24). There is an embarrassment of choices of on-line performances to sample. Here is one of them, AndrĂ© Rieu conducting live from Maastricht, the Netherlands ( we won’t do Mr. Bean, thank you very much!):

Is Beethoven’s 9th a secular hymn?

In 1865-68 Johannes Brahms composed Ein Deutsches Requiem, a massive symphonic and vocal work. The work was composed in the years after the composer’s beloved mother’s death. I can vividly remember my late aunt listening to the Requiem with tears in her eyes. Back in pre-WW II Holland she had sung in a performance of that work. At the time, her mother (my maternal grandmother) had just passed away, so the moment was full of emotion and memories for her. I could understand her feelings. the performance brings tears to my eyes as well.

Was Brahms writing a secular hymn?

From the sublime to the …..? Well to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis, composed in 1934. Profanea! You can’t get much more secular than that! For some reason I have always related Carmina Burana to the also somewhat bawdy Canterbury Tales of Chaucer.

Here is M. André Rieu again, in Maastricht, the same location as above.

Carl Orff was in fact deeply involved in childhood musical education as well. Here is a reference to the appropriate Wiki page which explains it better than I ever could:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orff_Schulwerk

Finally let me put your ears (and mind) to rest with the following which must be archetypal of the 20th century secular hymnal. Here is Enya in her Celtic musical sonority:

Soothing, definitely Music by which to chill, chill, chill……