Affixed to a glass panel of a telephone kiosk in a Belfast Street (just up the road from Botanic Station on the way to Queen’s University) is a small piece of paper which, inexplicably, is a photocopy of a page from a hymn book. It includes the music (in four-part harmony) and words of the hymn “How Great Thou Art”.
Why that hymn and, more intriguingly, why is it there at all? It’s too small to attract most passers-by (my eye was caught by the presence of musical notation) and faces outwards rather than inwards, so it can hardly be there to keep the occupant of the telephone kiosk entertained while awaiting connection. It remains a mystery, as does, it has to be said, so much else about this hymn.
“How Great Thou Art” regularly gets voted as “the nation’s favourite hymn” in polls run on broadcast and social media, and any vaguely Christian event on television usually finds it being performed either by a massed congregation or, more cringe-makingly, by some solo singer of dubious talent but excessive vocal aspirations. Its phenomenal popularity seems preposterous given its dirge-like musical quality and its grim words, and the biggest mystery is why it strikes such a powerful chord with the public at large irrespective of the depth of their musical knowledge or Christian convictions.
Its popularity seems to be something of a recent thing, and I survived almost 30 years as chorister and organist, attending sung church services on an almost daily basis and devouring hymn books like some ravaging half-starved monster, before it crossed my path. I recall vividly that first encounter and my reaction to it. Invited to adjudicate at a hymn-singing competition held in the Lake District, it was the set hymn for “Children’s’ mixed choirs 12 and under”. I looked aghast at the copy handed to me before the competition and wondered what on earth I could find in this dire dirge to use as a yardstick in assessing the performance of the five eager young choirs. The tessitura was so low as to risk damage to young voices and preclude any hope of dynamic variety (it can, at best, only ever sound like an extended low moan), each line ended with a long note - an open invitation, it seemed, for the singers to take an extended break and thereby destroy any sense of coherence the melody might have had (and all five choirs enthusiastically accepted that invitation) - and the melody was so blatantly unsuited to the words that any choir director with a hint of sensitivity would try to keep them as low-profile as possible. After five dreary, colourless and utterly uninspiring performances I felt unable to award a placing and, as a consequence, the presentation of a cup to the winning choir was withheld. The Lady Mayoress, who had donated the cup and was to present it, was horrified and demanded that I change my mind (she had put on her chain and regalia in the expectation of another public appearance on stage, which my decision had effectively dashed). The subsequent altercation had me explaining that “whoever selected that hymn clearly had no understanding or knowledge of the vast number of uplifting and inspiring hymns more suited to young voices”. Of course, it was the Lady Mayoress who had selected it and she explained that she did it in memory of her late father, whose favourite hymn it was. My reply that I did not think it fair to impose on innocent and fresh young voices such a dismal dirge simply for her own personal gratification saw the Lady Mayoress storm out of the hall in high dudgeon.
So much of Christian church-going revolves around the comfort of the familiar, and I can appreciate that many people may have memories of an occasion on which a hymn is sung which they revisit every time they hear it again. But why has this hymn got itself so firmly rooted in so many people’s psyche? Neither extended exposure to it over the past 30 years nor prolonged study of it has made me change my opinion; it remains, as it ever was, a total mystery to me how this grim thing wins over so much of the great inspirational church hymnody of the past 300 years. Is this perhaps a manifestation of that “lowest-common-denominator” we see in so much of our artistic life; the public preferring the least complex and intellectually stimulating material to anything more inspiring.
The clue may come from this web page devoted to this grindingly boring hymn (http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/o/w/how_great_Thou_art.htm) which explains that its origins go back to 19th century Sweden. Swedish music and literature can be grim and forbidding, yet holds a strange fascination for the British, and perhaps the current vogue for British television dramas set in Scandinavia and built around grim and forbidding characters and stories might reflect a subconscious craving for a more miserable existence than that which we currently enjoy. Possibly our anonymous bill-poster in Belfast was trying to tell us that, while the streets around are grim and grimy, the shops mostly shuttered and the graffiti and litter left undisturbed, there is, buried deep in our hymn books, something even more grim.