Life is sung in different volumes. The mother’s lullaby is softer than the University Fight Song, the ballad than the National Anthem. And so it is with psalms and hymns. This obvious fact has been somewhat obscured in our day by the distorting effect of amplifiers, because of which, very often, everything seems to be sung at the same volume, the volume produced by the sound equipment. But musicians and composers certainly understand the importance of this distinction; hence the careful instructions provided within the score as to the volume in which a passage is to be played or sung. For example, the three beautiful piano pieces Mrs. Bechtel played in the evening service prelude were no doubt annotated by Brahms so that they would be played piano or mezzo piano, in virtually their entirety. Perhaps there were a few measures to be played mezzo forte but the volume was soft almost throughout. A pianist could have played them fortissimo but it would not have been the music Brahms wrote. As you know, many second movements of famous symphonies, concerti, or sonatas are played at a lower volume than the first or last. The contrast of volume is itself part of the music! So it should not be difficult to understand that a sung confession of sin would not be as loud as a celebration of the prospect of the Lord’s triumphal return, or a contemplative hymn on the sufferings of the saints would be quieter than a martial hymn on the spiritual battles which the saints are called to fight. We would not sing, as we did this morning, “Weary of Earth and Laden with My Sin,” which has within it a reflection on the eternal future of the saints in the same volume at which we would sing “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand,” also a reflection on the end of the world and the world to come, but which is, nevertheless, a very different hymn to be sung in a very different spirit. Volume, like tempo, and like harmony, does important service to the text and the music.
In the same way, we do not expect that a gentle psalm, such as 121 – “I will lift up my eyes to the hills” – would be sung in the same volume as 150, sometimes referred to as the “Hallelujah Chorus” of the Psalter, a psalm in which the volume seems to build as one accompanying instrument is added to another. In the same way, we do not expect an evening hymn, a hymn for the end of the day, to be sung loudly or a great paean of praise – “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “Praise to the Lord the Almighty, the King of Creation” – to be sung softly.
In this too art both imitates life and serves its various moods and times and seasons. But why then should a congregation not distinguish in the volume of its singing between those songs that ought to be sung grandly and those that ought to be sung in something more like a whisper? If we can distinguish between harmony and unison, between various tempos, surely we can as well distinguish between soft and loud, contemplative and triumphant, gentle and grand.
We have a full range of hymns and psalms in our hymnal and among those we print for the use of the congregation. In some cases different verses deserve a different volume, but more often the entire hymn should be sung more softly or more grandly. We want to be able to add this musical discrimination and liturgical sophistication to our sung worship and plan to do so with the use of sigla in the bulletin, indicating to the congregation in what volume the hymn is to be sung.