I have a priest-aged son, and seeing him administer the sacrament has made me pay more attention to the process than I had since I was a priest myself. One issue that I noticed last week was that the sacrament hymn seemed really short, and my son and the other priest hadn’t finished breaking the bread by the time it was over. Of course this isn’t all that unusual. The organist just played through the hymn again while they finished. It was only a matter of a few seconds, but it brought to mind that when I was a priest, I always worried about this happening, because I could feel the pressure of everyone in the congregation waiting for me to just hurry up and finish.
This got me to wondering, though, about how long the sacrament hymns actually are. I looked up the 30 hymns listed under the topic “sacrament” in the back of the hymnbook. (They are all grouped together between hymn numbers 169 and 197, except for #146, “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain.”) I calculated the length of each hymn given its time signature, number of measures and verses, and suggested tempo (I used the midpoint of the lengths implied by taking the fastest and slowest of the suggested tempos.) I included only the verses actually printed in the music because, at least in my experience, it’s typically only those verses that are sung. I didn’t make any adjustment for fermatas.
Here’s the result. It looks like most sacrament hymns are between 1:30 and 3:00 long. A few are shorter. A few are quite a bit longer.
Which ones are shorter and longer than the average? Well, I’m glad you asked. The graph below shows the length of each of the 30 sacrament hymns. They are ordered by length (as in the graph above, the midpoint length between the fastest and slowest suggested tempos, considering only the verses printed in the music).
In this graph, I’ve shown not just the midpoints, but the range of the lengths implied by the suggested tempos. I’ve also shown, with the gray boxes, the lengths of the hymns that have additional verses printed below the music when those verses are sung.
It’s interesting to see that the hymn that my ward sang last Sunday that prompted me to think about the topic actually clocks in as the very fastest: “Upon the Cross of Calvary” has just eight quick measures, and a midpoint length of just 1:20. At the other end of the list, “Reverently and Meekly Now” is designed for the very slowest of bread-breaking priests, at almost five minutes in length.
I hope that this graph can be a useful resource for ward music chairpeople (assuming that’s who is choosing the hymns) so they can know whether they’re choosing sacrament hymns that will give the priests lots of time or ones that will keep them on their toes.