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Hymns Unite Believers in Praise

“Beautiful, inspirational and meaningful poetry that is joined with singable, striking tunes, combining the powers of music and literature in a profound way.” If that clue came up on “Jeopardy,” Berea College’s Professor Stephen Bolster’s response would be, “What is a hymn?”

D.J. Swiney accompanies choir at the festival

Bolster and music department colleague Professor John Courter, recently teamed up to teach a “A Festival of Hymns” course to 39 students who studied hymnology and the origins behind the poets and musicians who came together to make lasting songs that inspire believers. The culmination of the three-week course was developing a hymn festival for the public, which was held at Union Church Jan. 28.

Speaking about hymns in more textbook terms, Bolster explains that they are basically congregational songs of praise to God that are lyrical poems. They are “simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, direct and immediately apparent so that (they) will unify a congregation.”

Class members were involved in planning and participating in the festival. All were required to sing in the choir, which led the congregation in the hymns, several of which were not familiar to average church-goers. Instrumentalists in the class accompanied various hymns on the clarinet, euphonium, flute, guitar, piano, string bass, trumpet and tuba. Teachers’ assistants Jessica Slaton and Lederrick Wesley also helped conduct. Fifteen students introduced hymns, telling the audience about the origin, history, author and composer of each song.

Class members also chose the theme of the festival and selected, researched and rehearsed the hymns they included in the program. “And His Name Shall Be Called … Biblical Images of Christ” was suggested by member Adam Sparks and chosen as the theme. Hymns focused on Christ and his many names and titles.

Appropriately, the organ prelude and one of the first hymns was “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Participants sang the lyrics to two different tunes, a practice made possible due to the simple, metrical forms mentioned above.

Some of the more interesting selections included hymns sung in other countries. “Jesus the Christ Says” came from Pakistan or Northern India; “Christo es la peña de Horeb” (“Christ is the Rock of Horeb”) from Puerto Rico; and “Sekai no Tomo” (Here O God, Your Servants Gather’) from Japan.

Other hymns with less traditional backgrounds were “O Holy Radiance, Joyous Light,” an ancient Greek hymn with a simple plainsong melody that is centuries old; “God Our Author and Creator” first sung by the choir with American Shape Note harmony written in 1835 and “The Lily of the Valley,” an African American Spiritual.

A highlight that garnered a standing ovation was the world premiere of “And He Shall Be Called,” the official festival hymn, which was written by student Treshani Perera. She accompanied the choir on the piano while they sang the verses with the congregation joining in on the simple, yet beautiful chorus. The festival ended with a jaw-dropping toccata of “Hope of the World” by Courter on the pipe organ that earned him shouts of approval from students and audience members alike.

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