The History of the Hymn Festival

The Hymn Festival in the U.S. is attributed to Paul Manz, an American composer for choir and organ. As a performer, he was most famous for his celebrated hymn festivals. Instead of playing traditional organ recitals, Manz would generally lead a “festival” of hymns from the organ, in which he introduced each hymn with one of his famously creative organ improvisations based on the hymn tune in question. The congregation would then sing the hymn with his accompaniment. Sometimes he would play an improvisation between each sung stanza, as with his well-known variations on the tune, St. Anne, sung to the Isaac Watts text “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past” with which he would traditionally end each festival. Many volumes of these improvisations have been written out and published and are played by church organists throughout the world.

Having heard his first hymn festival in 1945, Paul recast the format, adding the unique approach of bringing a number of hymns together under a theme with appropriate readings interspersed. He also brought back the ancient practice of alternation during the singing of hymns.

Paul’s idea for the hymn festival began to germinate when he presented annual organ recitals. “So finally, instead of doing a recital with a hymn at the beginning and the end, I did a program with hymns only. It caught on like wildfire, and I have subsequently presented hymn festivals all over the world.” Concordia St Paul Memorial Service Program.