During the last days of classes before final examinations, 17 Thomas Aquinas College juniors gathered in the rotunda of St. Thomas Hall to sing four hymns. The brief performance marked the latest chapter in a young but increasingly anticipated campus tradition.
This was not a performance of the Thomas Aquinas College Choir. Indeed, many of the students have little or no choral experience. As members of the College’s junior class, the singers are students in the music tutorial  that is required in the third year of the College’s integrated academic program. Students in the tutorial study music’s inner mathematical structure and learn how to read music.
The emphasis on singing, with the public performance at the end of the semester, is a new phenomenon, the inspiration of Dr. Phillip Wodzinski , a tutor  on the College’s teaching faculty . After his first semester teaching the tutorial in the fall 2010, Dr. Wodzinski was eager to showcase his students’ achievements; so he arranged for the mid-afternoon performance in the College’s faculty and administration building — surprising and delighting passersby.
Buoyed by this success he has arranged for subsequent performances at the end of every semester ever since. “This performance,” says Dr. Wodzinski, “is a way for the students to close off a semester of hard work that has combined some difficult theoretical reflection on the nature of music with some effort to analyze and perform some basic choral music.”
Below are audio clips of the juniors’ five end-of-the-year hymns, accompanied by Dr. Wodzinski’s description of each one. (Note: To download a clip, click on the down arrow in the audio player.)
1. The students begin with “Song 5”, composed by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) for George Wither’s collection, Hymns and Songs of the Church (1622). (Originally scored for two voice parts, “Song 5” was expanded in the late 19th century to include the two middle voices.) The piece begins in e-minor, has a brief interlude in a-minor, and then returns to e-minor; a contemplative and slightly mournful almost-drone prevails throughout. To this haunting music the students sing “Saviour, When Night Involves the Skies,” by Thomas Gisbourne (1758-1846), an Anglican priest who wrote everything from abolitionist tracts to nature poetry. The hymn’s double theme of the power of death and the glory of God is powerfully brought out by the music.
2. The mood lifts, at least a little, with “The Martyr’s Crown.” The hymn’s theme of reliance on God for the grace to persevere in the face of persecution and death is well housed in “St. Cecilia,” a G-major (with a brief move into and out of D-major) tune that manages to sound vaguely sad, perhaps because of its slow tempo and the downward tendency into an e-minor chord at the end of the first phrase. Its composer, Leighton George Hayne (1836-88), was a builder of pipe organs, and perhaps this can be heard in the harmony.
3. The third hymn, “O Master, it is good to be,” by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1815-81), reflects on the glory of the Transfiguration and is well set in music that, while largely in a minor key, is itself glorious. The tune, identified in the 1906 English Hymnal as “Tallis’ Lamentation,” is not related to the famous Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis (1505-85). Instead, it appeared in John Day’s 1562 Psalter as a setting for “O Lord in Thee is all my trust.” Here, in an arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), the music begins in d-minor, moves to F-major (its relative), modulates to a-minor, makes a strange but beautiful cadence to an A-major chord, and then returns to d-minor at the end.
4. Ascending from the key of d-minor, the students conclude with a hymn in D-major, i.e., the parallel major, a leap up several fifths. “The Father’s House Eternal” is a translation of words attributed to Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471). The tune, “Munich,” originally appeared in the Meiningen Gesangbuch, a 1693 German hymnal, and was later harmonized by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) for his oratorio Elijah. The students sing a sped-up and slightly simplified version of Mendelssohn’s harmonization. For the relatively complicated harmony, Mendelssohn appears to make use of five different keys: The first two phrases of the hymn are identical and consist in the few most important chords in D-major, but the third phrase strings together e-minor, then b-minor, then cadences to A-major. The dissonance near the beginning of this phrase threatens to undermine the melody, but it steadies itself and blossoms, and then the fourth phrase turns to an uplifting G-major thread that sets up a strong cadence to D-major.
Updated: January 16, 2014