Notes on the text-setting of Holst’s “Hymn for Jesus”

In this essay, I aim to explore the text-setting of Holst’s “Hymn for Jesus”.

The work incorporates a double choir (SATBSATB) in the second hymn, and a semi-chorus throughout which consists initially (in the first hymn) of trebles and later of tenors and baritones, and then (in the second hymn) of trebles and altos. The semi-choruses in the first hymn sing in unison, giving a monophonic vocal texture – added to the orchestra, the overall texture is homophonic.

Throughout the first hymn, the music is homorhythmic – the text is set to quavers, with crotchets on the last note of each phrase being the only exception to this rule. Adding to this impression of regularity and preciseness is the use of phrases of very similar lengths. However, as the music of the first hymn is in free time, the perceived note values of a performance of the work would differ from those notated.

The minor tonality of the first hymn, added to the thin texture (due to the choir semi-choruses singing in union) gives a melancholy, sombre mood to the music. However, the music modulates to Bb major in the third bar after figure 3, and later the texture thickens in the sixth bar after figure 4, with block chords played by the orchestra, and the music modulates from F minor (which it is in at figure 4) to C major at this point, which implies that the text is not as grave as the music would earlier have suggested.

For the first two bars of the second hymn, the double choir are singing C in unison, before separating onto the notes of an E major chord in 2nd inversion:

This emphasises the idea of “Glory”, as E major is a bright chord, but also implies, due to the second inversion, that the music has not yet resolved onto the final chord of the cadence.

In the seventh bar, the semi-chorus comes in (two trebles and alto), singing in thirds the chords E major, F major and G major (all in root position). This use of harmony gives a thicker texture, though the music remains homophonic.

The use of the choir singing and then the semi-chorus coming in after the choir is used several times during the first twenty-seven bars of the hymn. After this point, there is use of spoken contrapuntal music for the singers (the first use of counterpoint in the hymn so far) – the line “Glory to Thee, Holy Spirit” is spoken by (in turn) basses, tenors, altos and trebles from each of the two halves of the double choir, in canon, to the following rhythm: Adding to the use of counterpoint, as well as each segment of the choir coming in in counterpoint, the two choirs also come in in canon.

After the spoken part of the hymn, the use of counterpoint is continued by the choir for the line “Glory to Thy Glory!” Each line after this is treated in a similar way, the difference being that each choir comes in separately as opposed to each voice coming in separately (i. e. “SATB, SATB” as opposed to “B, T, B1, T1, A, Tr, A1, Tr1”).

The line “We give thanks to Thee, O shadowless light!” is emphasised by the use of longer notes on the word “thanks” and “light” and by the use of triplet crotchets on the word “shadowless”. The choir sings, in thirds, a C major chord in 2nd inversion on the word “shadowless”, giving a joyful mood to the phrase. A C major chord in 2nd inversion is also sung (and doubled in the accompaniment) for the word “Amen”, implying joy (by the use of a major chord) and possibly also unity (by the use of a block chord which is doubled by the accompaniment). As this is the same chord that is used at the end of the first hymn (though at the end of the first hymn it is in root position), this further links the two hymns musically, as the chord is treated in a similar way (played as a block chord each time) at the end of each hymn.

The accompaniment throughout the second hymn of the work plays descending scale phrases which give the impression of ringing church bells – as these descending scales are also major, this further enforces the idea of “Glory” and joy.