A series of occasional pieces about music or hymns. Comments are welcome, and if intended for publication please use a pseudonym. The webmaster's decision about whether to post any reply on this website is final.

Singing hymns in church

Is it right to sing hymns in church? Well nowadays, of course, that is what we are all used to; but frequently in the past people have objected to them on various grounds. In the first part of the nineteenth century there seems to have been a ban on hymns sung as part of a church service in the Church of England, perhaps on the ground that they were not Scriptural. Metrical psalms were sometimes allowed, but not hymns.

However, round about 1820 there was a challenge, which was heard before Chancellor of the Diocese of York, no less. The outcome was that he concluded that there was no legal bar to the use of hymns before and after services (not during services, note: they were still disallowed).

That decision started, first a trickle, and then a flood of hymns and tunes. One of them was a volume which Samuel Sebastian Wesley worked on for some years, called The European Psalmist (can you imagine a book with that title appearing today?) which appeared in 1872. The book contained hymn tunes from abroad (hence the title) and some from Wesley himself. One of the tunes composed by Wesley became called Cornwall because he was supposed to have composed it at Land's End. That was later found to be untrue but the name stuck.

Wherever it was composed, it is (in the words of the Companion to Rejoice and Sing) one of Wesley's most graceful tunes - and he wrote several tunes that you could describe as graceful.

Becoming technical for a moment, although I must admit that I have no idea where the magic comes from, the tune is unusual in not changing key to what we call the dominant (in the key of D major the dominant key is A major and it is quite normal for a tune to change key to the dominant at some stage); instead it changes key twice to F sharp minor and E minor respectively, and it might be these minor tonalities that give the tune such an air of wistful longing; but I am not convinced that that accounts for all the attraction of the tune.

The tune has been associated with the hymn "O Love divine, how sweet thou art" for a hundred years but fits "Not far beyond the sea" (R&S 318) just as well.

"Not far beyond the sea" is the work of the distinguished New Testament Scholar Dr George Caird, who became Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford and, later, Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. The hymn takes up the idea of an older hymn which talks of the authority of the Word of God "discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit".

Professor Caird's hymn explores what the New Testament itself says about the unfolding Word of God.
In correspondence with the Compilers of RS, Dr Caird's widow Mollie wrote that "as a Biblical scholar my husband was rather proud of the fact that he had incorporated no less than 17 distinct Biblical quotations into this hymn." Five of the references are listed in the index, but you will have to seek out the other 12 yourselves.

But with or without showing the exact source for every quotation the hymn has much to say to us and much to put into our mouths to sing in praise to God - the purpose of hymns, after all, which makes it right to sing them in worship, which is where we came in.

Angels and Songs

Some hymn tunes have very odd names, and some simply have numbers. In Rejoice and Sing we have SONG 1, SONG 20, Songs 24, 46 and 67, all composed by Orlando Gibbons. He also wrote two tunes which have been given more conventional names: ANGELS' SONG and CANTERBURY.

Gibbons wrote all these tunes for a hymnbook by George Wither, called Hymnes and Songs of the Church, published in 1623. These days we make a definite distinction between hymns and songs (let alone "hymnes"), but apparently Wither did not. (It is a pity that his "hymnes and songs" did not become better known, because they are much better than some of the other stuff that has been sung in the past. It is too late now, I am afraid, because his seventeenth-century language seems needlessly quaint most of the time-but R&S 255, "To God with heart and cheerful voice", is well worth singing, being one of the most cheerful hymns in the book.)

Gibbons' tunes have worn better than Wither's words. His tunes have been set to more recent words. There are no less than 13 hymns (not all of which are very well-known) in Rejoice and Sing set to Gibbons' tunes:

SONG 1: Dear Lord, to you again our gifts we bring (R&S 436)
Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round (R&S 623)
Pray for the Church afflicted and distressed (R&S 634)
SONG 13 (simplified version = CANTERBURY):
When my love to God grows weak (R&S 218)
Lord, thine heart in love hath yearned (R&S 704)
SONG 20: The universe to God / in silence sings its praise (R&S 122)
SONG 24: I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art (R&S 501)
Give me, O Christ, the strength that in thee lies (R&S 524)
O God, be gracious to me in your love (R&S 695)
Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go (R&S 521)
How blest are all the saints, our God (R&S 539)
SONG 46: Beloved, let us love: for love is of God (R&S 610)
SONG 67: Lord, it belongs not to my care / whether I die or live (R&S 545)

How did ANGELS' SONG get its name? Song 34 in Wither's book is a single-verse paraphrase of Luke 2:13:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God . . .

Wither's hymn has only one verse:

Thus Angells sung, and thus sing we;
To GOD on high all glorie be:
Let him on Earth his Peace bestowe,
And unto men his Favour show.

-- and so Gibbons' tune got the name ANGELS' SONG.

The trouble is that Gibbons used bits of tunes all over the place like pieces of Lego so that they would join together to make lots of different complete tunes. The end result is that ANGELS' SONG has two versions, one in the rhythm of SONG 34 and the other in the slightly different rhythm of SONG 9:


The first version is that found in Ancient & Modern and the second in most other books. Oh dear! Never mess about with hymn tunes. Wars have been fought for less.

In the actual book Gibbons wrote just the tune and the bass, leaving the poor organist to work out the middle parts on his or her own. It is a beautiful, and rare, book. There is a copy in the British Library, and a long time ago I went with my then boss to look at it in a special part of the British Museum reserved for the most precious books. (Unfortunately my boss was so full of enthusiasm that he started singing the tunes -- I thought he would be thrown out, and he nearly was.)

But whether or not you have seen the book it is nice to know what Gibbons thought the angels sang at Christmas.

Why is the tune at 218 called CANTERBURY? Because that was where Gibbons died; he was the organist of Westminster Abbey but went to Canterbury to conduct the music at the reception of Henrietta Maria, who had been married to King Charles I by proxy in Paris on 1 May 1625. She arrived at Canterbury on 5 June but, alas, he died just before her arrival. He was only 42.

 Everybody's favourite psalm

The King of love my Shepherd is, R&S 552, tune DOMINUS REGIT ME

This hymn is of course a paraphrase in verse of everybody's favourite psalm, no. 23, one of many translations. Apart from the Scottish version (The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want, R&S 679), there are versions by Watts (My Shepherd shall supply my need, CP 50), Herbert (The God of love my Shepherd is, R&S 677), Addison (The Lord my pasture shall prepare, CP 48) and heaps of others. It may not be the best translation of the psalm, but it must be the most popular after the Scottish version.

Shepherds seem to have been a bit of a rough lot in the Bible. The reason that Luke has the birth of Jesus announced to the shepherds first is exactly for that reason: Jesus does not appear to kings and queens and rich people but to the poor.

The other famous reference to shepherds in the New Testament is in John's gospel, chapter 10: "I am the good shepherd". Perhaps this is to draw a distinction from a bad shepherd, or at least an ordinary shepherd.

However, shepherds in hymn books often seem to be "tender" shepherds rather than "tough" shepherds. There is something wrong there: it should be quite clear that a lamb is in the shepherd's bosom only because it has wandered and hurt itself. Otherwise the person singing the hymn will soon be thinking that the shepherd is carrying the sheep only to save it the trouble of walking on its own feet. Hymns which represent the shepherd as an ethereal creature who treats the lambs like babies had better be put aside. The shepherd's business is to go over the moors and collect the stragglers in all weather, and to defend the sheep from wolves.

The popularity of the hymn is helped by the fact that it has two cracking good tunes available. The tune set in Rejoice and Sing, DOMINUS REGIT ME, takes its title from the Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate). That version starts as follows:

The Lord directs me, and nothing will be lacking to me. He has settled me here, in a place of pasture. He has led me out to the water of refreshment. He has converted my soul. He has led me on the paths of justice, for the sake of his name…

Note that there is no mention of shepherds in this version! The idea of shepherds seems to arise from the thoughts of "the place of pasture" and "the water of refreshment".

The tune could not be much simpler: in the key of G, it rises to D and descends scale-wise down to G with two notes repeated to add a bit of interest:

And this is followed by a rising scale, ending (quite properly) on a chord of D:

The third phrase is simply a repeat of the first with a bit of decoration and a change of key; and the last is a variation of the second, but ending on the keynote. There is nothing wrong with simplicity in a tune, and it works beautifully here.

J. B. Dykes, the composer of the tune, is often sneered at as being a sentimental third-rate Victorian composer (H. C. Colles described him as an amateur musician who could not tell why he succeeded or failed in composition beyond judging whether the music suited the words or not), but in this tune he has surely hit the mark.

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