Hymns Ancient and Modern rejected

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sing on, with hymns uproarious, / Ye humble and aloof, / Look up! And, oh, how glorious / He has restored the roof! 

(John Betjeman, Mount Zion, “Hymn", 1931)

At the church where I play the organ, I often get asked by young couples planning their wedding service for advice on the music and hymns (or “songs” as they invariably call them) they should choose. Very many of them have never been in a church before, have no particular interest in religion and absolutely no knowledge of the hymnody. To be frank, it’s the brides who usually insist on a “proper church do". Ours is an impressive-looking building in a pretty location – and the girls want their Corrie moment, their EastEnders photo opportunity. The blokes generally just go along with it. Soap operas have a lot to answer for. 

“Have you chosen what hymns you would like?” I ask. A depressing amount of times, the answer is “Well, we don’t really know any. What do you suggest?” There are several, I tell them, which you should avoid: Fight the good fight, O Jesus, I have promised to serve you till the end, and Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways. A poor joke and one which means nothing to most of the couples as, more often than not, they haven’t heard these hymns. 

The first rule, I advise, is to pick something everyone knows. Jerusalem and I vow to thee my country are popular choices, though some vicars have banned these from weddings for being either secular, nationalistic, inappropriate or all three. Praise, my soul, the King of heaven (surely one of the great hymn tunes with one of the great last verse descants), Lord of all hopefulness and Love divine, all loves excelling are firm favourites, though the last one causes trouble as it can be sung to either Stainer or Blaenwern, depending on how the lyrics are printed (“Which tune would you like?” “Don’t know. You choose.”). Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning is often selected (my friend the Archdeacon still winces at the memory of it being sung at a cremation he conducted) as are Morning has broken and Lord of the Dance, the last a singularly odd choice for a wedding, in my view, with its final two verses dwelling on the torture of the Crucifixion. I do try and steer them away from All things bright and beautiful. Much as I admire its author, Mrs C F Alexander (see also Once in royal David’s city, There is a green hill far away), I really don’t want to sing or play it ever again. Still, as I always say to the happy couples, "It’s your wedding. You have what you want".

This scenario would not have taken place 20 years ago – and certainly not 40. In England, at least, every school day started with assembly or chapel where you sang at least one hymn: one hymn a day for every day of your school life. It was a shared, formative experience. No wonder that by the time you left, you had unwittingly learnt a vast number of unforgettable melodies, if not some of the words. It was taken for granted. Hymns were absorbed as readily as nursery rhymes and folk-songs, and like them, those we sang were simply part of growing-up, part of the fabric and thus embedded deep in the national psyche. 

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