Revival! Tony Alonso Gives New Life to Classic Hymns

Do you know of Revival by Tony Alonso? Click “Preview” in that link and you’ll see that Alonso’s music collection is filled with classic old hymns such as “Praise to the Lord,” “How Firm a Foundation,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Come, Holy Ghost,” “The King of Love,” and more.

But these golden oldies are revived in an entirely new style – with contemporary piano accompaniment, gentle syncopation, chords with added seconds and major sevenths, rhythm parts, and the like. As the subtitle has it, “Traditional hymns for contemporary ensembles.”

For a taste of what this sounds like, here is the Easter hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” text by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Welsh tune from the 19th century. Click “preview” to hear it when you see this:

This collection from Alonso is part of a movement underfoot, especially in contemporary Protestant circles, to modernize or reimagine classic hymns. Sometimes – and this is different from Alonso’s aim – old classics are turned into Christian contemporary music to listen to. Here’s Audrey Assad singing (or is it “sighing”?) “Holy, Holy Holy.”

But Alonso’s collection is solidly congregational, intended for liturgical use. As he writes in the Introductory Notes,

… In most Catholic and mainline Protestant hymnals, the accompaniments for many of our most beloved hymns are intended for organ. For pianists, the challenge of leading hymns from accompaniments crafted for organ often evokes two responses. On the one hand, the paleness of organ accompaniments played on the piano can cause those who do not have the improvisatory skills necessary to translate such accompaniments into a style more idiomatic to the piano to avoid the use of such hymns altogether. On the other hand, the accompaniments of skilled improvisers can often prevent other ensemble members without those same abilities from playing with them. And because the four-part harmonizations found in most hymnals do not match their spontaneous inventions, the choir is limited to exclusively unison singing.

This collection is an attempt to provide piano-based ensembles with a resource to keep a strong tradition of hymn singing alive by offering accessible arrangements of familiar hymns for contemporary ensembles. While there is nothing preventing them from being used as such, these editions are intended not primarily as choral anthems, but as arrangements that can lead and inspire the singing of the liturgical assembly. …

I think this is a positive development. It promises to enrich greatly the range of repertoire used by “contemporary” ensembles. It helps ensure that great poetry from the centuries-long treasury of ecumenical hymnody remains in use (or is introduced into use) in Catholic and Protestant worship.

I’m sure some will have mixed feeling about this movement. I think I understand why. As a monk of St. John’s Abbey, and chapel worship director in our School of Theology and Seminary, I play and sing classical hymns with organ accompaniment three or four times a day in the abbey and grad school. Think Hymnal 1982 (one of the hymnals in the abbey choir stalls). I very much like the power and coherence of solid hymnody, benefitting from a Lutheran sort of strong organ accompaniment which is kind of in the water supply and part of the cultural experience of Minnesotans.

From that context I can readily see why some will find revived-reimagined-modernized hymns just a bit, oh, I don’t know, slick and commercialized, and maybe trendy. I myself worry a bit about watering down or disrespecting a long-standing cultural tradition.

But I know better than to run very far with that line of thought. It risks becoming self-congratulatory elitism. And worse, uninformed elitism.

Reappropriating and rearranging music has been going on for centuries now in the West. Bach (18th century) didn’t bat an eyelash to add wind instruments and organ to the unaccompanied Missa Sine Nomine of Palestrina (16th century). In the 19th century, the brightest and best thought nothing of performing Bach’s keyboard music in recital on the type of concert grand piano that didn’t exist in Bach’s time. (See my big book, pp. 71, 159). The idea in the West that music should only be done in the original way and faithful to the original context is about five minutes old – with roots in the 19th century but only coming into its own in the second half of the 20th century.

In our century, let’s do what works – on our terms, based on our needs and our aspirations. If Revival makes it possible for a classic hymn to be done at all the weekend liturgies of a parish, by all the ensembles from traditional choir to contemporary ensemble, by all the musicians from organist to electric piano player, that is a very good thing.

As eminent Methodist hymnologist Don Saliers writes,

Tony Alonso’s Revival offers us fourteen wonderfully arranged familiar hymns—musically accessible and a delight to sing. Flexibly crafted for voices, piano and guitar with lovely optional descants, this is an ecumenical gift and bridge-builder between classical and contemporary approaches to hymns in the liturgy. It should be in every parish’s working library.

Collections like Revival are not simply a way for contemporary ensembles to plant deeper roots and tap into more traditional repertoires. It is a way for all of us to hear old hymns with new ears, in a new way.

Oh – and I love the archaic-modern cover design!

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8 comments

  1. As a long time director of an ensemble, I echo and agree with this conclusion.

    “Collections like Revival are not simply a way for contemporary ensembles to plant deeper roots and tap into more traditional repertoires. It is a way for all of us to hear old hymns with new ears, in a new way.”
    As was pointed out, just because something changes does mean it is “watered down”. If you put a tea bag in a cup of hot water, you are changing it, but you are NOT watering it down!! Sometimes, the change is for the better!

  2. “I can readily see why some will find revived-reimagined-modernized hymns just a bit, oh, I don’t know, slick and commercialized, and maybe trendy.”

    Not unlike what Vaughn-Williams or Holst or others did with folk tunes to stick them into an organ-SATB box a century or two ago. Good melodies can stand up to thoughtful and respectful accompaniment of many genres.

    “If Revival makes it possible for a classic hymn to be done at all the weekend liturgies of a parish, by all the ensembles from traditional choir to contemporary ensemble, by all the musicians from organist to electric piano player, that is a very good thing.”

    Been doing it that way for thirty-plus years, Wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. I don’t care for contemporary liturgical music generally, but am glad something like this exists. Many older hymns have a lot of depth to them – almost like having an easily recalled musical catechism -and I’d rather they be “re-imagined” and enjoyed as contemporary pieces for those who use that type of music than for them to be retired all-together. I like how it seems the original melodies are retained, meaning a person could grow up with these and still be able to sing them should they one day find themselves at an organ-music OF Mass or EF.

  4. Very impressive. My favorite so far is “How Firm A Foundation.” I think an assembly could convert to this treatment easily. I thought “Praise to the Lord” was great; but I don’t think an assembly could convert over to the syncopated version. My hat’s off to Tony for one heck of a great job here!

  5. This is a valuable resource and does have great value. I’ve done some of this kind of thing over the years. The thing that concerns me is that, at least in the recordings, there isn’t much instrumental energy ON THE CONGREGATIONAL MELODY. The best material on how an ensemble actually leads (Marty Haugen, etc) emphasizes this, and the ensemble I currently work with is very good at this. I fear those that use them without this awareness will offer a nice slick arrangement that says more “sing along with us” instead of “sing as the primary voice”. Perhaps there’s something in the prefatory material that addresses this, but as the recording stands it sounds a bit performance-y.

    1. One useful test of an arrangement of sacred liturgical music intended for congregational participation is how good it sounds, and engages and empowers a congregation, when the instrumentation is dropped.

  6. I hear what’s going on, but am of the opinion that a congregation singing to organ accompaniment sounds better. If you only have a music group with no organ, or no organist, then it’s OK. But there are probably other more modern worship songs that a music group would prefer to use, rather than dressing up old hymns. Why not use the organ, or a keyboard with organ mode, for traditional hymns?

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