Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!

'Wondrous Love' on the hammered dulcimer with drones

Some Appalachian folk hymns have a powerful, stark, droning nature; perhaps the most well-known and effective of these is ‘Wondrous Love’, and it’s included in many modern hymnals with hollow harmonies reminiscent of the old shape-note books.

How does one arrange for this strong Dorian-mode melody when playing it solo on the hammered dulcimer?  I’ve always loved the shifting minor and major chords in some versions of it (see one possible set of modern chording in the lead sheet I’ve included here: Wondrous-Love-in-Edor-F.pdf), and it certainly is compelling when played as a melody only, solo a capella --- but I’ve opted to do only the stark, harmonized sound when I play it solo, and usually I play only one verse, letting the hymn be an introduction to another, contrasting, piece in a medley.

How, then, to do it starkly and emotionally? 

1)    I use the suede surface on my hammers, to give a more mysterious tonal coloring and to prolong the presence of the ringing drones;

2)    I limit harmonies strictly to fifths across from each other, and play some of the melody notes by themselves, in between these carefully chosen monolithic pairs;

3)    I choose a key in the middle of the instrument that isn’t too high in pitch (and thus lighter) or low in pitch (and thus boomier);

4)    I use body language to fling the hammers down to the strings from up high in a motion parallel to the strings, then pull them quickly upward in a follow-through maneuver, to get just the dramatic tone desired;

5)    I purposely avoid a steady rhythm (but don’t wait too long for each next note either) and focus on expressing the astonishing message of the anonymous words that forge a progression through time.  (This is a kind of slow rubato.)  In a sense, this is ‘letting the music breathe.’

6)    I use dynamics for expression, getting louder for a declamatory phrase, and quieter for a shocked meditative effect.

7)    I insert a few ornaments --- pointed and emphatic grace notes --- incorporating my ‘Excelsior’ idea of ‘up’ rather than purely stating the melody.

I’ve included basic sheet music of the arrangement for anyone who would like to see actual notes, here: Wondrous-Love-DLC.pdf.

Explore the expressive qualities of your dulcimer!

P.S.:  For the studio recording of this arrangement, you can get it from the final track of the album Sycamore Rapids here.

P.P.S.:  For my other version of the tune on bamboo flute with first melody only then the three-note shape-note harmonies, see the album Cleansing Fountain here.

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