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.
Probably the first I ever heard was on a 78rpm disc: There’s a friend for little children sung by Barbara Mullen (later Janet the housekeeper in TV’s Dr Finlay’s Casebook), a grown-up actress who, pre-war, specialised in doing children’s voices on the radio. The first one I learnt to play myself was Ye holy angels bright (tune: Darwall’s 148th); the first I played in public (at a school assembly) was When morning gilds the skies (tune: Laudes Domini). Both were happily in C major. The three flats of Bunyan’s To be a pilgrim were a challenge; the five flats of Jerusalem the golden (Ewing) were way too scary.
At my senior school in the early 1960s there were about a dozen hymns which even the most delinquent among us could not resist, when the sniggering on the back rows stopped and 400 voices were raised in unison: Jerusalem, of course, Praise, my soul, and I vow to thee, Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord (to Vision, the Walford Davies tune, not the Battle Hymn), Eternal Father, strong to save, Guide me O thou Great Redeemer (Cwm Rhondda), Lift up your hearts (to Woodlands), All hail the power of Jesu’s name (to Diadem or, sometimes, to Miles Lane), O praise ye the Lord (Laudate Dominum, Parry’s robust melody), Hail, gladdening light (Sebaste) and, a Methodist speciality, There’s a light upon the mountain – rarely sung these days, perhaps because of a line in the second verse: "And the hearts of men are stirring with the throbs of deep desire" (cue for the back row sniggerers). And I’m not the only one among my former school chums who, 50 years later, can recite, without looking them up, the numbers of all these hymns as they appeared in the Methodist Hymn Book that we used – still, to my mind, a superior collection to Hymns Ancient and Modern, The (New) English Hymnal or Mission Praise.
I write as a typical Anglican agnostic. Why have these hymns stayed with me and millions of others over the years? How have they stood the test of time, wormed their way into our affections and become “indissolubly joined” (Soldiers of Christ, arise) to our collective subconscious? Of the countless thousands of hymns ever composed, only the strongest have survived. Most hymnals have their fair share of duff tunes and mediocre words. The best of them have melodies which, even though they may be unfamiliar, take you where you hope they will go. Four- or three-square tunes sung in even and/or dotted crotchets and/or minims with only occasional use of syncopation make it easy for the average person to pick up. Memorable after a couple of verses, they have a life of their own, the words supporting the melody and vice-versa. O Jesus, I have promised – with at least four alternative tunes – All things B&B, The King of Love my Shepherd is are but three of the many exceptions, but the majority of hymns and their lyrics are inseparable, joined at the hip as much as an Ira Gershwin lyric is wedded to a George Gershwin melody.
Strangely, proportionately few Great Composers have contributed popular successes to the Anglican hymnody: Gibbons, Tallis, Purcell, Bach and Handel stand out; Haydn (one, thanks to a string quartet), Beethoven (one, thanks to the Ninth Symphony), but what of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms? Nearer our own time, more took up the challenge: Stainer, Sullivan, Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Ireland. But the greatest writers of the best-known hymn tunes are not, by and large, well known. Who can put a face to Barnby, Dykes, Gauntlett, Goss, Monk or Shaw, to say nothing of the prolific Ira Sankey? Who can name any of the hymns for which they wrote their immortal music? Lesser composers they may have been, but it takes a kind of genius to write a classic hymn tune that goes round the world and survives for centuries.
It did not matter when we first sang some hymns that the allusions in some of the lyrics were not immediately apparent. “This is the famous stone / That turneth all to gold” (George Herbert’s Teach me, my God and King); “Who is this with garments gory, / Triumphing from Bozrah’s way...” (sung to the sturdy Welsh tune Ton-y-botel). What do they mean exactly? Like some passages from Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer, we got the gist of the mystical, metaphysical or Biblical references and they were oddly reassuring. Hidden meanings have a deeper resonance than the immediately accessible. The canon of the traditional Anglican hymnody tells the whole story. Indeed, you could say that several – The Church’s one foundation, for example, and Praise to the holiest – rehearse the whole Christian doctrine in a handful of verses, unlike the pop pap that characterises many modern hymns. These are notable for the paucity of their musical and lyrical invention with their three-chord tricks for guitar and the cheap sentiments of a greetings card. Make me a channel of your peace with its scrambled, ungainly word-setting, is a particular horror. Even worse are the embarrassing "I’m-in-love-with-Jesus ditties", some of which verge on the homoerotic. Dignity and nobility are in short supply.
Some of the old favourites are deemed non-PC in many churches where the incumbent is too dim or unimaginative to realise that not every hymn lyric is meant to be taken literally. Onward, Christian soldiers (to Sullivan’s splendid St Gertrude) is viewed by some as an invitation to join the army and kill people, forgetting that it was intended as an image of the Christian “soldier” facing a daily personal battle with evil and temptation. Stand up, stand up for Jesus has been banned in some churches for fear of upsetting people in wheelchairs. Through the night of doubt and sorrow offends some feminists because of the penultimate line of the second verse: "Brother clasps the hand of brother". True, God of our fathers, known of old (Kipling’s words) is a relic of Empire, as is the unsingable second verse of From Greenland’s icy mountains: “In vain with lavish kindness / The gifts of God are strown, / The heathen in his blindness / Bows down to wood and stone!".
But banned or not, my point is that the entire Anglican hymnody is in danger of extinction. Why? Because we live in an increasingly secular society. Because many schools no longer have any formal service of worship and youngsters have no other opportunity to sing hymns (unless their parents drag them to church and away from their mobile phones). Because increasingly people listen to music in isolation on headphones, and singing with other people is completely foreign to them – unless they’re at a rock concert or a sporting fixture and have had a few beers to loosen inhibitions. Paradoxically, it is our country’s liberal multi-faith multi-cultural agenda that has led to the virtual elimination of one of our country’s seminal cultural reference points. Rather than offend or be seen as non-inclusive, we have put our hands up and surrendered. A tradition at the heart of the nation’s identity stretching back at least 500 years has been all but eradicated in the space of two decades.
My generation was one of the last to sing hymns on a regular daily basis. If things continue as they are, there will be few people who know any of them by the end of my lifetime. Talking of which, my own favourite (since you ask) is down to be sung at my funeral: God be with you till we meet again (tune: Randolph by Vaughan Williams). It’s uplifting and consoling. 914 in the Methodist Hymn Book; 524 in The English Hymnal. It says everything so much better than Angels (Robbie Williams) and My Way (Frank Sinatra). The funeral will be many years hence, God willing, but I do hope you’ll be there, join in and sing it at the top of your voices.
Music excerpts courtesy of Hyperion Records. For more information about the recordings click the 'Buy recording' link beneath each Player, or click here for more information about the whole series.