Amid the many questions we ask ourselves as church choir directors, one of the biggest is repertoire-related: What should we sing and why? While a single blog post can’t address that question thoroughly, I’d like to provide a few simple reasons why—as we continually choose between the myriad anthems, canticles, and cantatas that cross our desks—we shouldn’t neglect the category of the hymn concertato.
- Hymn concertati create musical variety. Concertato settings of hymns treat successive stanzas with various musical textures. Vocal forces alternate between congregation, choir(s), and soloists or small groups. Organ or other keyboard accompaniments are often supplemented by obbligato instruments or groups of instruments, sometimes alternating between stanzas just as the vocal forces do. Often in our churches, we field requests for increased variety in our musical selections; hymn concertati provide one simple way to achieve timbral and textural diversity.
- Hymn concertati have a rich Lutheran history. The term concertato (or concerto) stems from the Baroque era, when composers employed the concerto principle to generate musical interest by maximizing contrast between opposing musical forces in different sections of a single piece. Lutheran chorales, with their numerous stanzas, provided the perfect source material for Lutheran cantors to apply this principle. As Carl Schalk and others have pointed out, it was already common practice in the sixteenth century for “the congregation, choir, and sometimes the organ to alternate in the singing of a chorale.” Praetorius, Hassler, and others wrote cantionale and motet settings of chorales; in the seventeenth century, composers like Schein and Buxtehude wrote complete concertati on chorale texts and tunes. Many of J.S. Bach’s cantatas (such as Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4) can even be viewed as extended, multi-movement chorale concertati.
- Hymn concertati are a direct expression of the choir’s roles in worship. We can think of the choir’s role in worship as having two primary parts: Leadership of congregational song (hymns, liturgical music) and the presentation of more complex musical works (anthems, cantatas) that interpret theological ideas and themes. A well-crafted hymn concertato can incorporate both of these roles, alternating “choir only” stanzas rich in musical interpretation with tutti stanzas in which everyone participates, guided and strengthened by the voice of the choir.
- Hymn concertati can be more flexible than anthems or other published works. There are many wonderful hymn concertati published, and it is always wise to respect the arranger’s wishes. Yet, like our early Lutheran forbears, sometimes we find ourselves without a particular instrument just when we need it—and it’s not always a sin to substitute! Have a concertato that calls for an oboe? Use a flute or violin instead. Don’t have a large enough choir to perform the eight-part choral stanza printed in the score? See if you can leave out some of the doubled pitches, or write your own second stanza and substitute it. We must always follow applicable copyright laws, but there is no law against creative “mash-ups” as long as appropriate, correct credit is given. You can also use resources like Choral Stanzas for Hymns Volume I and Volume II and Vocal Descants for the Church Year to create your own “instant concertato.”
- Hymn concertati create opportunities for intergenerational singing. “Intergenerational” is another popular buzzword in church circles today. Even though liturgical worship is (or ought to be) intergenerational by nature, hymn concertati provide a practical way to highlight the concept. Rather than programming separate anthems for your adult and children’s choirs, prepare a hymn concertati in which they combine forces. Perhaps the adults sing an inner choral stanza, and the children’s choir adds the descant on the final stanza.
These are just a few of the reasons why hymn concertati are worth our individual and collective time. No doubt you can think of more. The point is: the hymn concertato is not “the poor man’s anthem,” but a useful, musically interesting, and historically significant genre of church music. Go and explore it!
 Schalk, Carl F., Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition (1524-1672) (St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 2001). Page 22.