Beautiful and inspirational hymns
Klassen to read from book and play piano arrangements in public pay-what-you-can performance
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Inspired by J.S. Bach’s prolific output and encouraged by friends and family, former Winnipegger Carla Klassen set herself the goal of composing a new piano arrangement for 52 beloved hymns over the course of a year.
Along the way, she discovered the songs she loved — and even those she didn’t — resonated with her a new way.
“Something written in 1880 has a completely different context than now and maybe the language is different, but there is meaning that can be pulled out now,” says the piano teacher and church musician now living in Ottawa.
Faced with unanticipated free time during the first year of the pandemic due to cancelled piano lessons, Klassen decided to compile those reflections into a 212-page book titled These Songs We Sing, published in 2022 by Pandora Press.
Klassen reads from this book and plays some of her piano arrangements in a public pay-what-you-can performance, 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5 at River East Church, 755 McLeod Ave.
Klassen began the year-long project by asking friends and family for their favourite hymns and organized them loosely according to the liturgical calendar. Each week, she set aside a morning or two to think about the text and then compose an arrangement at the piano.
“Musically, my inspiration came more from the text rather than a tune,” says Klassen, who recently retired from the soprano section of the Ottawa Bach Choir after 15 years.
She posted the written reflection and a recording of her hymn arrangement on her website thehymnproject.net as well as sending weekly emails to people who signed up for the project.
Her year of hymns includes spirituals, Christmas carols, Easter hymns, funeral songs and a variety of hymns based on Psalms. The list of collected favourites also features tunes and texts recognizable across the denominations, such as Jesus Loves Me, written to comfort a dying child; Amazing Grace, with the text written by 18th century British slave trader John Newton; and Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, composed as part of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
As for Bach, the Baroque-era composer who managed to write a cantata each week for his church choir, Klassen included the 17th century tune by Hans Leo Hassler, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, harmonized by Bach for several of his later compositions.
Throughout the process, she found layers of meaning in unfamiliar or less favourite hymns through the interplay of text and tune.
“Even though the way we believe things is different, the experiences we’ve had throughout history is similar. People still have the same fears, struggles, sadness and joy,” Klassen, 54, says of the emotions this style of sacred music can address.
Although a particular sacred song or hymn may not resonate for some, a good hymn has staying power and the inferior ones are discarded over the years, says Brian Hehn, director of the Centre for Congregational Song, a program of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada.
“That’s what hymns provide us — a constant dialogue with the past,” says Hehn in a telephone interview from Baltimore, Md.
Not all hymn singers have to enjoy every text or tune in the church repertoire, but they should attempt to engage with it, like Klassen did, before deciding its value, he suggests.
“To dismiss it as something as having no worth is to dismiss what a hymn is,” says Hehn, an adjunct professor of church music at Wingate University in Wingate, N.S.
“A hymn is a testimony of faith.”
Favourite hymns — often referred to as heart songs — also have staying power because of their connection to memorable events, explains Anneli Loepp Thiessen, a doctoral music student at the University of Ottawa and committee member for Voices Together, a Mennonite hymnal released in 2020.
“Carla’s book includes many of these heart songs — the songs that people hold close and will not forget,” she wrote in an email.
“It is so important that a new hymnal both brings in new material to help us grow, while also representing the songs that people hold close.”
For Klassen, who regularly plays piano in her own church, rewriting accompaniments to familiar songs has broadened her own spiritual understanding beyond her Mennonite tradition.
“Hearing from people who believe many things and have had all kinds of different reactions, sometimes to the same hymns, has been a great source of inspiration into the complexity of faith/beliefs and an understanding that the specifics are often not as important (to me) as the way these songs can inspire us to live with greater generosity and kindness,” she says.
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Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.