An English Hymnal

The story of Vaughan Williams and the musical treasure trove that is The English Hymnal.

A selection of books about England, in Hatchards, St. Pancras International, London. With thanks to Millie.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

For those of us who have learnt an instrument in the classical way, certain books of music often have a way of finding a special place in our affections. Those which contain a wealth of music we enjoy are revisited again and again, and left worn out with repetition.

If like me you studied piano, it might be Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, a two-volume set of the Beethoven sonatas, or a collection of Chopin’s waltzes. I have all of these and have enjoyed them in their turn. But there is another book, one I first encountered as a falling-apart old edition in my mother’s collection, that always fascinated me too.

The first version of The English Hymnal appeared in 1906. As an object it is something of a hefty brick, hard-backed and crammed with over 1000 thin pages. Held within is a collection of hymns spanning hundreds of years from many different choral traditions, even going as far back as plainchant.

To flick through these pages is to enter a rich world, one structured around the rhythms of the liturgical year. Each tune is given a name, often mysterious or evocative – Kingsfold, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Forest Green. In the older editions, the note engraving has its own archaic charm – with short stems, and wide voids on its semibreves looking almost handwritten, overlapping like little venn diagrams when two parts land on the same note.

The musical editor of The English Hymnal was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This task came at an early stage in his career, and he told the story of how it began with an unexpected visit:

It must have been in 1904 that I was sitting in my study in Barton Street, Westminster, when a cab drove up to the door and ‘Mr. Dearmer’ was announced. I just knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing room; but he had not come to me about tramps. He went straight to the point and asked me to edit the music of a hymn book. I protested that I knew very little about hymns but he explained that Cecil Sharp had suggested my name […] and the final clench was given when I understood that if I did not do the job it would be offered to a well-known Church musician with whose musical ideas I was much out of sympathy.

Percy Dearmer was a priest in Primrose Hill, and an avowed socialist with a passion for social justice. As the head of the committee overseeing the new hymn book, he told Vaughan Williams that his work would take about two months. In fact it would last two years:

The truth is that I determined to do the work thoroughly, and that, besides being a compendium of all the tunes of worth that were already in use, the book should, in addition, be a thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world – at all event all such as were compatible with the metres of the words for which I had to find tunes. 

Inevitably, some tunes would need new words – Dearmer himself penned Holy God We Show Forth Here to fit a chorale from Wagner’s opera Der Meistersinger. In other cases, fine words required new tunes. Vaughan Williams composed his beautiful Down Ampney, his friend Gustav Holst contributed his much-loved arrangement of Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter, alongside music from other contemporary composers.

Altogether the hymnal contained melodies from across Europe and America. ‘No particular country, period, or school has been exclusively drawn upon to supply material’, Vaughan Williams wrote in the hymnal preface, ‘but an attempt has been made to include the best specimens of every style’.

However, at around this time Vaughan Williams was a leading figure in the British folk-song revival. His work involved traipsing through villages, cajoling older locals to sing him the country ballads that were fading from collective memory. ‘They will require a little persuasion’ he wrote of this delicate fieldwork, ‘and to be assured that they are not being laughed at’. The immersion in these songs went on to profoundly influence his own music.

Consequently, many of these folk melodies found their way into the hymnal, wherever appropriate words could be fitted to them. These became some of its now most familiar numbers: the christmas carol O Little Town Of Bethlehem was pegged to a tune sung to him by a man in Surrey, while the rousing melody of He Who Would Valiant Be was provided by a woman in Sussex (its new words, from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, were bowdlerised by Dearmer to remove references to lions and hobgoblins).

The hymnal would therefore cross England’s deeply entrenched class divides, combining the songs of manual labourers with melodies blotted down by prestigious composers of the past like Thomas Tallis and J.S. Bach.

This diversity of material is one reason why the hymnal is so rewarding to delve into, though the sheer quantity also produces its biggest irritation – the thick spine is reluctant to stay open on a music stand without something to pin it down. To play these hymns offers tiny lessons in simple forms of musical construction: how a set of phrases can be put together, how harmony builds and releases tension, how different voices in the part writing provide movement. And with some at an endearingly humble eight bars long, there is a satisfaction gained from their simple completeness.

It is worth remembering how easily this book could have been different. A less committed stewardship of the project would have produced something that was functional but dull – after all, hymnody is particularly susceptible to the perils of the plodding dirge. It is a testament to the efforts Dearmer and Vaughan Williams expended that, whether obscure or familiar, these hymns are more often than not interesting.

One important factor was Vaughan Williams’ insistence, unlike earlier hymn arrangers, of not ironing out musical quirks:

The original rhythms of many of the old psalter tunes have also been restored, especially the long initial on the first syllable, which gives such a broad and dignified effect to these tunes. Attempts to adapt them to the procrustean bed of the nineteenth century hymn tune have merely taken away their character and made them appear dull. For the same reason no attempt has been made to square the irregular times of some tunes. These irregularities are always easy to sing by ear–and this is the way in which a hymn melody should be learnt.

Out of necessity, many of the hymns keep their arrangements simple. Chromatic harmonies are, for the most part, used sparingly and judiciously, making the lines more easily singable for amateur church choirs. A good example is It Is A Thing Most Wonderful, which allows the natural eloquence of the the beautiful folk tune Herongate shine through.

For the 17th-century German tune in Deck Myself, My Soul With Gladness, Vaughan Williams uses a few suspended notes in the lower parts to poignant effect.

At other times, the choir is instructed to sing in unison with the congregation, and Vaughan Williams provides greater intricacy to the hands of the organist. Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, another old German tune, is given a flowing accompaniment that unfurls mellifluously like a peal of bells.

A similar technique was used for Vaughan Williams’ own melody in his processional hymn For All The Saints, its verses alternating between unison singing over a marching organ part, and softer four-part choral writing. In both cases the loving craftsmanship casts the melody as the backbone of a more ornately beautiful texture – the unison passages from the choir adding extra force to the majesty of the melody.

The long process of poring over these hymns left a lasting impression on Vaughan Williams, echoed in subsequent works like his famous Tallis Fantasia, and his beautiful organ prelude on the Welsh hymn Rhosymedre. Nor would his collaboration with Dearmer end there. He was involved with the 1925 book Songs Of Praise, which drew heavily on The English Hymnal with the added intention of being more suitable for schools. An updated edition of the original book appeared in 1933.

‘The music is intended to be essentially congregational in character’, Vaughan Williams began his 1906 preface, ‘and this end has been kept in view both in the choice of tunes and in the manner of setting them out’. It is a book written for mass participation, not just for those who can read the notes. In putting the needs of church choirs and organists second, he offers a pre-emptive and amusingly forthright reproach to any dissenting voices:

The choir have their opportunity elsewhere, but in the hymn they must give way to the congregation, and it is a great mistake to suppose that the result will be inartistic. A large body of voices singing together makes a distinctly artistic effect, though that of each individual voice might be the opposite. And it may be added that a desire to parade a trained choir often accompanies a debased musical taste.

Today England is a more secular country than it was in 1906. For those like myself who are not church-goers, the relevance of hymns is different. They may not play a regular role in our lives, but like our parish churches they point to a beautiful and meaningful part of our history, one we wouldn’t want to lose altogether either.

What music today might we think of as being ‘essentially congregational in character’? It is one of those peculiarities of modern life that an audience is more likely to sing at a football match than at a classical concert. At pop and rock gigs, audience participation is often compulsive and unstoppable. Classical music is different: there is a distinctive value of collective stillness in listening to high-calibre musicians, and the concentration and attentiveness that involves.

Nonetheless, it is surely inarguable that singing together is one of the most instantly powerful bonding experiences that music can provide. Is it a coincidence that the most famous classical tradition in Britain, the last night of the Proms, culminates in a singalong? Yet it is precisely this that makes it eccentric and exceptional. I am not nostalgic for some golden age of church-going, if such a thing ever existed. But playing through The English Hymnal does make me ponder why there are not more opportunities for audiences to sing together, in our rather restrained art form. Vaughan Williams himself was not a man of faith. It was not belief that made his work a success, but understanding the human value of collective song, something which ultimately transcends religion.

It is easy to take books like The English Hymnal for granted. It can seem too mundane and commonplace to feel valuable – hymns are an unsexy topic, and the idea of creativity by committee doubly so. And yet through Vaughan Williams’ whole career, has anything else he did seeped into as many ordinary lives through a century of church services and school assemblies? To put aside the romantic idea of art as individual expression – and consider it as a civic act – his musical editorship of The English Hymnal, and its subsequent iterations, is arguably his most important achievement of all.

Importantly, it is also a model of inclusive, progressive Englishness, one which nurtures native heritage while casting its gaze wide abroad. It is not a window into the past but into many different pasts, brought together in an attempt to create a better future. ‘Is it not worth while making a vigorous effort to-day for the sake of establishing a good tradition?’, Vaughan Williams wrote. The book is bound with this simple idealism – that common worship can be more enriching, beautiful and dignified.

‘We have endeavoured to produce a book that shall suit the needs of learned and simple alike’, Dearmer says in his introduction, ‘and shall at the same time exhibit the characteristic virtue of hymnody – its witness, namely, to the act that in the worship of God Christians are drawn the closer together as they are drawn more closely to the one Lord.’

Whether singing these wonderful hymns, or fumbling through them at a piano, the lesson of this book is not just about how to craft music in a highly distilled form. It’s also in intent. To absorb the meaning of The English Hymnal is to ask the question of for what – and for whom – we compose at all.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.