So what, exactly, is a hymn festival? Well, it’s when people get together and sing: hymns, yes, but also songs, repeated refrains, even responsorial psalms. It’s a little like Christmas Eve, when many parishes invite people to arrive early and sing a number of their favorite carols. Hymn festivals usually have a theme — a season of the liturgical year, a theme of Christian life, a look at a particular hymnwriter or composer. Between hymns, there can be time for reflection, readings from scripture, or historical background on the hymn, its use, its composer, or more. A good hymn festival will be representative, but can never be complete — there is simply too much music.
For parishes, a hymn festival could be a wonderful alternative to a choir concert. The choir can lead and ornament, but this form invites — if not commands — the participation of everyone. Being in the midst of a group of people singing is inspiring and transformative. It’s an excellent form of ecumenical prayer. It can be a chance for a parish to reflect upon its history, or even a time of retreat.
Hymn festivals are a big part of Hymn Society conferences. Each involves the participation and planning of many people. On Monday night, the Rev. Jim Mitulski, pastor of New Spirit Community Church in Berkeley, CA, was narrator and co-coordinator for a festival titled “A Heart to Praise Our God: Celebrating Lesbian & Gay Poets & Composers.” He shared stories of faithful Christians who often were (and are) unwelcome in their faith communities. We sang a hymn used at a notable healing service for those with AIDS. We sang “Singing for Our Lives,” a gentle song of protest. And we sang hymns written for congregations that are mostly lesbian and gay. Jim shared the poignant story of Marsha Stevens, the composer of “For Those Tears I Died,” a 1969 song popular among evangelical Christians. After announcing that she was a lesbian, she received many copies of her own hymn, torn out of hymnals and mailed right back to her. The stories and hymns made for a powerful evening of reflection.
On Tuesday night, we gathered at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Denver for a festival titled “Rooted in the Rockies: Congregational Song with a Colorado Connection.” Mark Alan Filbert, Cantor at St. Paul, was co-coordinator of this festival, which demonstrated many ways to embellish hymns. Members of the Young Voices of Colorado, a renowned children’s choir, joined us along with bell-ringers, an ensemble of Orff instrumentalists, and brass players. Every hymn had a Colorado connection — some obvious, some surprising. Prolific choral composer Natalie Sleeth was a longtime Colorado resident. The composer of the tune for “You Satisfy the Hungry Heart,” Robert Kreutz, who for many years a choir director in Colorado. Even composers like Paul Manz or Gerre Hancock, long associated with other states, were included in this festival for the time that they spent and music they wrote in Colorado.