04 February 2018

Destroying a Special Musical Genre

“No composers of international standing emerged from Britain in the 200 years between Purcell and Britten.”  That phrase is repeated so often and by so many people (myself included) that it has become a cliché.  And like so many clichés, it is simply not true.

It might be argued that no British composer wrote operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music or piano sonatas to equal those of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, et al. (although even that is contentious), and that composers like Berlioz, Chopin and Debussy caught the public’s imagination in a way which few of their British contemporaries managed.  Yet we might turn that premise on its head and suggest that, in one significant musical genre at least, a great many composers of significance emerged from Britain.  Not only that, they were so supremely successful that they totally eclipsed the efforts of their foreign counterparts.

And what is that genre which so exercised the creative talents of several generations of British composers that it drove almost everything else from their minds, resulting in a relatively desultory flow of British operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music and piano sonatas?  The answer is the humble hymn tune.

Not so humble, either.  At its peak, the hymn tune was a common musical currency on almost every continent and among cultures and peoples for whom opera, symphony, etc., etc., were completely unknown.  If, as one estimate has put it, over 10,000 symphonies were composed between 1700 and 1800 - "from Sweden to Sicily the Symphony dominated” -  probably at least as many hymn tunes were written in the subsequent hundred year period, and were regularly sung from Cape Town to Cairo, from Sydney to Singapore, from Patagonia to Nova Scotia and from Gibraltar to Grimsby.

Of course, in terms of time-frame, musical resources and intellectual input, the hymn tune would seem to be very much the poor relative of the big musical structures associated with Beethoven and the Boys.  But hold on a minute, can we really say that?

What does a hymn tune do?  In a matter of seconds – possibly just one or two notes – it can create and establish a mood, define a character, lodge itself in the memory and either inspire or move.  Even pop music, the musical genre we usually accept as being the most successful in history, pales in comparison with the immediate impact of a good hymn tune.  What Lennon and McCartney and the rest took a minute or two to achieve, the great hymn tune writers achieved in less than 30 seconds.  Can you get past the first four notes of “St Anne” (composer William Croft 1678-1727) without feeling the immense strength of a melody which has sustained (inadvertently) 300 years of civil war in Ireland? Can you allow the first four notes of “Eventide” (composer W H Monk 1823-1889) to pass without feeling a sense of extreme calm?  Does not the heart race and the hair rise on the back of the neck with the opening of “Laudate Dominum” (composer C H H Parry 1848-1918).  And you would need a heart of stone not to be deeply affected by the tantalising beauty of “St Clement” (composer Clement Scholefield, 1839-1904).  How many of the sumptuous slow movements of Mozart or Schubert achieve in their opening stanzas a fraction of the emotional power found in any one of these hymn tunes?

The insatiable appetite for hymns which went with the spread of the Anglican church as Britain spread its colonial wings in the 18th and 19th centuries, meant that anyone who could write music was obliged to devote their energies into that, rather than musical genres which may have impressed a handful of foreign intellectuals but would have left African natives, Asian converts or American zealots completely cold.  Hymns were not just hugely popular but were an essential tool of colonialization.  Whether we approve in the 21st century of Britain’s empirical ambitions is irrelevant.  It happened, it affected millions of people across the globe, history cannot be undone, and certainly should not be forgotten.

Yet we are losing that wealth of great hymnody with a rapidity which is alarming.  Ignorant, uncultured and philistine clergy, more anxious to appeal to contemporary morals than historical legacy (a weird trait considering their very raison d’etre is based on a historical event which took place over 2000 years ago) feel that the celebration of a Christian art which dates back to a time when those who governed and ruled us were not the kind of people we’d like to govern and rule us today, is inappropriate.  Out, then, go the great hymns with their fabulous tunes and absorbing words to be replaced by cheap and nasty off-cuts from failed Broadway musicals and ersatz pop tunes with which even the most dismal failure of a commercial pop singer would never in a million years associate themselves.  Memorable, uplifting and powerfully-charged music and words are replaced by the bland and banal on the basis that it does not stretch anyone’s brain nor make demands on their artistic sensitives.

As usual, I attended a mass in Singapore this morning.  It began with those epic and visionary words “O Worship the King” sung to that uplifting and unforgettable tune “Hanover” (another great William Croft tune, although, sadly, the organist would insist on opening it with a dominant seventh chord – but I suppose I cannot complain in an environment where a dominant chord without a seventh is regarded as the height of dissonance).  What glorious visual imagery in the words; “chariots of wrath”, “pavilioned in splendour” - a phrase which, once understood, lodges in the brain in a way which “looking good” (as one modern hymn has it) does not begin to match.  What a way to begin the glorious celebration of Eucharist.  And what next? A couple of desultory and utterly forgettable songs which inhabited a few notes near the bottom of the range and had no significant features other than cheap and nasty clichés set to cheap and nasty music (what is “Good News” that we feel we need to sing so much about it?).  Did anyone go out humming to themselves one of those horrible songs?  Will anyone carry it around with them for the week as a kind of instant reference to a moment of inspiration at a Sunday service?  I fear not.  Our clergy, in their desperate desire to make worship “relevant” destroy its very uniqueness.  How sad that the great legacy of two centuries of great music and literature has been so comprehensively destroyed by those who believe in the power of the cliché.

And one thing more.  With our loss of hymnody we lose that common musical currency which has kept English (and colonial) music education alive.  There was a time when every child knew the hymns – they were the cultural property, if you like, of those who subscribed (willingly or otherwise) to the English way of life.  When I used to teach, I could get every one of my pupils to recognise a simple interval instantly.  And I did it with hymns.  Major Third (“Once in Royal David’s City”), Perfect Fourth (“Away in a Manger”), Perfect Fifth (“All Glory, Laud and Honour”), Major Sixth (“Crimond”) and so on.  Children do not have this exposure to clear, concise memorable melodies any more.  How much harder the work of music teacher must be as a result.  (Interestingly, Welsh hymns do not possess this intervallic opening, nearly all of them opening in step-wise movement.  I wrote an academic paper on this – fascinating, though I say it myself – but basically I put it down to the fact that Welsh hymns were to be sung en messe by untrained singers, while English ones were led usually by a trained choir.)

Throw out the hymn, and you throw out so much more than a few pages from a dusty book.  But some places still keep the hymn alive, and if you have doubts about the veracity of what I write above, check out this magnificent display of English hymnody on a disc I recently reviewed for MusicWeb International.  Here’s my review;.


Great Hymns from Liverpool

The Choir of Liverpool Cathedral

Ian Tracey (organ)

David Poulter (conductor)

Priory PRCD1180 [78:08]


The choir of Liverpool Cathedral sing their way through 25 wonderful hymns in this spectacular and sumptuous celebration of English hymnody.  My Welsh friends might well be up in arms that this city, so close to their borders, seems studiously to have avoided the truly great hymns which have largely given rise to the claim that Wales is the Land of Song (perhaps next time?), and there will be others, equally passionate about their hymns, who will boil and fume at the omission of a particular favourite.  For my part, how I would have liked to hear “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” (Helmsley) and “Thy Hand, O God, Has Guided” (Thornbury), but I would not want their inclusion to be at the sacrifice of such marvels as “Angel voices ever singing” or “Just as I am, without one plea”.  So, I can offer nothing but praise to whoever devised this programme, recognising the painful decisions on omission and inclusion which had to be made.  As it is, essential favourites are here, there is a fine balance between celebration, meditation, old, new, grand and intimate, and only a stone-hearted gargoyle would fail to be hugely impressed by this selection.

That same gargoyle would also, surely, find his stone heart melting under the searing heat of these glorious performances, beautifully and painstakingly prepared by David Poulter.  There is, of course, an inevitable problem in presenting 80 minutes’ worth of non-stop hymnody; the stop-and-start progress through 102 individual verses (plus three refrains and a doxology), many of which last a mere matter of seconds.  Poulter and his no-holes-barred organist, Ian Tracey, both do a fabulous job in maintaining the flow through each hymn with varied arrangements, re-arranged part writing, descants and organ harmonisations for the separate verses of each hymn, but in the end, as a purely listening experience it does tend to move along in fits and starts.  I love the unaccompanied performance of “There is a Green Hill Far Away” with the various manipulations of the four voice parts taking Horsley’s famous melody through a wide variety of guises, which nicely traces the narrative of Mrs Alexander’s words, although the great climax on the words “unlock the Gates of Heaven” seems more an attempt to inject colour for its own sake than to reflect this essentially meditative text.

Liverpool Cathedral is a vast building with an appropriately cavernous acoustic.  Priory, well used to the venue, have done a brilliant job in capturing the clarity of the choir and the essence of the acoustic.  However, the need to project words in the regular round of cathedral services means that, when you hear them at these relatively close quarters, you are very much aware of the choir’s exaggerated consonants, over-dramatized commas and excessive deliberation of phrasing.  It is to Poulter’s great credit that, far from seeming affected or pretentious, there is something quite endearing about these habits, and one thing is certain – which is really important in all hymns – we hear every word beautifully enunciated.

A particularly noteworthy feature of this singing is the choir’s ability to hold and shape a musical phrase.  We first hear that from the top voices in the third verse of Goss’s incomparable setting of “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven”, majestically presented here in an opulent arrangement by Paul Leddington Wright, and even more beautifully in a long-drawn-out performance of “Drop, drop, slow tears” which milks Orlando Gibbons’ melody for every drop of loveliness.  The whole choir does it to perfection in the unison first verse of Vaughan Williams’s classic tune for “Come Down, O Love Divine”, while for “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”, “Come, Holy Ghost” and “O heavenly word of God on High” - plainchant hymns which, while not being quintessential British, are sung very much in the comfortable English cathedral style with smoothed down, carefully manicured expressiveness - the men’s voices exude a mellow mellifluousness which is an object lesson in vocal control. 

There is a simply enchanting arrangement by Simon Lindley of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” with a deliciously delicate organ accompaniment and a splendid solo verse sung by treble Christian Squires, which is difficult to pass by without hitting the repeat button.  There’s also a tremendously sturdy romp through that most uplifting of hymns, “The Strife is O’er”, with piercing arrows sent flying by the chorus “alleluias”.  Spine-tingling descants add a real lustre to the last verse of already sparkling hymns including “Angel voices, ever singing” and Howells’ own for his mighty setting of “All my Hope on God is Founded”. Tracey’s organ accompaniment to “Abide with Me” (incorporating the Last Post) is a real treasure, and while I feel Poulter’s arrangement of Parry’s setting of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is no improvement at all on the superb version which already exists in the hymn books, it certainly offers a great opportunity for him to show the rich quality of his whole choir.  And we can’t mention Parry without a nod towards “Jerusalem”.  Hackneyed and over-used as this might be on the football terraces and in the September Proms jamboree – not to mention at 101 other mass gatherings where its sentiments are given an unsettlingly xenophobic twist – you don’t want to miss this stirring performance, if only to hear how great this musical setting of Blake really is.

As the hymnist wrote, here we have the ultimate example of “craftsman’s art and music’s measure” in perfect and utterly pleasurable combination.



  1. Thanks for that but we've seen lots of memorable tunes used for more contemporary hymns too - think of the Iona tradition using Scottish folk tunes or the beauty of Bernadette Farrell for instance.

    1. I wish I could think of one "contemporary hymn" which is universally enjoyed and not restricted to a single community

  2. Be Still for the Presence of the Lord is one which I have sung in several places, & not heard a word said against. It's one of the few more modern hymns I like (but I am a Victorianist, so...!) My feeling regarding modern hymns is that the words are often, as you say, cliched and trite, and the tunes overly complicated. They tend to be very syncopated so that words and music are in uneasy conflict. I choose the hymns for our church (in Oxford) and include two contemporary 'worship songs' for the family service on the first Sunday of the month. I have to be careful which ones I choose, as the congregation struggles with the rhythms. However, I do think the hymn tradition needs to be kept alive with modern ones joining the classics - I just wish they were better! Often think I should try writing one myself, actually...Interesting post, anyway.