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Vol I No. 1

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Hymns and Hymnals in the American Church

by Mark Dwyer

If you were to scan the bookshelves in my office, you would find an engaging, if somewhat haphazard collection of books related to church music that I have accumulated since I was about 16 years of age. It first struck me as odd that there is an entire shelf dedicated to plainsong and Gregorian chant, an entire shelf dedicated to composers and the performance of their music, two-thirds of a shelf dedicated to the organ, and – here it is – two and one-half shelves filled with hymnals. Contained in the prefaces to those various books are hundreds of pages of nuanced editorial philosophies about what and how Christians should or should not sing congregationally in public worship.

It is a tall order, is it not? – to produce a tune that can be sung by a large group of people of varying degrees of musical skill, coupled with a poetic text which expresses theological and experiential truths: both music and text married in such a way as to produce a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. And at its best, it is memorable: worthy to be remembered for a lifetime. And did I mention, there will be no rehearsal?

Die-hard Clint Eastwood fans as well as some people my age and older will remember the 1966 spaghetti-western film The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. But I suspect that most of all people would recognize the iconic main theme: mi-la-mi- la-mi, do-re-la, // mi-la-mi-la-mi, do-re-sol, // mi-la-mi-la, do-ti-la-so, // mi-la-mi-la-mi re-la-la etc… While it is an instantly recognizable theme, it is very hard to sing because it is not terribly “vocal.” However, it is very good movie music, aptly suited for its intended purpose. But, it would make a very bad and ugly hymn-tune.

First, because the range of the tune is wide, in this case, the real estate spans one octave plus one note. That’s nine notes in total. Secondly, the tessitura or the spot on that bit of real estate where we spend most of our time is also wide — we are constantly running from the extremes of the top of the range to the bottom. Thirdly, we are often jumping from note to note with skips in between. Stepwise motion, punctuated by the occasional artful skip is a much better plan for hymn- tune melodies. At the beginning of each phrase there are repeated skips of a fourth: and that so-called yodel or “Tarzan Yell” is very hard to do.

In contrast, I have always admired the Welsh-tune Hyfrydol, and remember learning it by rote as a child. The tune itself is a fine example of apt writing for group singing.

First, the range of this tune is very narrow – almost impossibly so. It is only five notes wide, with the sixth and highest note used only once at the climax in the last line. Secondly, the tessitura – admittedly almost unimportant with a five-note range – is carefully managed so that each phrase is slightly higher, until the climax at the added sixth note in the last line. The sixth note feels almost inevitable.Thirdly, it is almost always step-wise, there are very few skips. The skips are managed artfully to heighten our interest in the tune.

Lastly, it’s inspired and craftsmanly. Better writers than I have tried to put a label on that intangible quality of beauty, using every imaginable adjective, but I will not even try. Let us just say it is a worthy melody that has somehow captured the beautiful. All of this is not to say that these simple rules cannot be broken, and are not beautifully broken in some of the best Hymn-tunes we have. But it is to say that most poorly crafted and unsuccessful tunes most often fail to manipulate these rules in artful ways.

We are fond of thinking, even if it is not polite to say aloud, that in the Episcopal world we have the “best” of everything. The best choral music, the best liturgy, the best preaching, the best Hymn-singing, the best architecture. The best taste. And there surely is a fine and uniquely English thread in all of these areas. But, if we look closely at the past 100 years, we find that, as Anglicans, we have learned to assimilate what we consider the best from other and diverse Western traditions: Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated!

While we have our own Byrd, Tallis and Stanford, we have also appropriated the best Masses of Palestrina, Guerrero, Lobo and “Loboo”, the best motets of Brahms and Rheinberger, the best hymns of Luther and Bourgeois. The French Gothic, the Italian Baroque, the American Colonial — all styles represented in what we like to think of as a uniquely Anglican stew-pot.

I believe that the Hymnal of 1982 is one of the “best” modern hymnals for any number of reasons and not least because it builds on the remarkable achievement of its predecessor, the Hymnal 1940. The 1940 Hymnal, released in 1943 was surely the finest American book of the immediate post-war era, edited by Charles Winfred Douglas, a towering figure in the American church. It was rivaled in this country only by the 1958 Pilgrim Hymnal for congregational churches. As an aside, The Pilgrim Hymnal was edited by Hugh and Ethel Porter of the School of Sacred Music at Union Seminary and was published in Boston by the Pilgrim Press. Ironically, when the School of Sacred Music left New York in the early 1970s, it merged not with Harvard University in Cambridge, but with Yale University in New Haven!

It is not really the case, however, that American Episcopalians and English- speaking Anglicans in general have always had the “best” of everything, and certainly not the best hymnal or best tradition of vernacular hymn-singing. It is a modern phenomenon that has roots perhaps only 150 years old. From the time of the Reformation until the 1860s congregational singing in the Anglican Church had consisted mostly of metrical psalms. These were accepted because they were the words of scripture. Canon Douglas himself says that:

“Metrical Psalms, often of appalling dullness, but sometimes set to tunes of sober beauty, reigned in England. The hymn proper began to be in use again early in the eighteenth century. To some degree in the Church of England, but far more extensively among the Congregationalists and Wesleyans, a new type of religious song came into use. Isaac Watts, the great outstanding hymn-writer among the Congregationalists, began publishing in 1707; the Wesleys printed their first hymnal, the basis of modern Methodist hymnody, in 1739. The influence of this new Protestant art in America was very great indeed.”

In the American church, the first official Hymnal was authorized by General Convention in 1789, a collection of metrical psalms appended to the first American Book of Common Prayer. New editions followed in 1826, 1871, 1892, 1916, 1940, and 1982. But, surprisingly to us, only hymn texts were authorized for the first four hymnals. These were strictly word-books, there were no tunes! So- called “Unauthorized” editions of these hymnals with tunes added were published and sold by private publishers.

The 1916 Hymnal was the first to be published by the church in an official musical edition with the profits from its sale designated to benefit the Church Pension Fund. The music edition was prepared by the Joint Commission on Church Music, with final editing of the volume by Musician-Priest Charles Winfred Douglas. It was also known as the New Hymnal, and it was a great advance on the Hymnal of 1892. Canon Douglas said of it:

“The new movement in Hymnody supplies us with precisely what is needed, it is a movement to discard the dull, the conventional, the unreal, from our hymnals; and to recover what is great, beautiful, and true from all lands and from all ages.”

Canon Douglas was truly the father of the music of the Episcopal Church, and his influence is still felt today. His work was prolific and lifelong.

The next Hymnal in succession was that 1940. It was also edited by Canon Douglas and drew on a variety of sources for hymn texts, in addition to British and American authors. It included a significant representation of texts translated from Latin, Greek, and German, in addition to some representation of texts translated from Dutch, Italian, French, Hebrew, Danish, Irish, Swahili, Syriac, and Welsh. The music edition for The Hymnal (1940) was prepared by the Joint Commission on Church Music, with Douglas as musical editor.

Prior to the 1982 revision of the Hymnal, the Standing Commission on Church Music adopted a statement of philosophy in 1981 for hymnal revision. This statement agreed that the Hymnal should be a companion for the new 1979 Prayer Book, supporting its changes and areas of emphasis such as the expanded Lectionary, the revised Calendar, and the renewed emphasis on baptism as a public rite; the Hymnal should retain classic texts but also present a prophetic vision, speaking to the church of the future as well as the present; hymn texts should authentically and fully present the church’s teaching, with the Hymnal serving as a practical book of theology for the people of God; the Hymnal should be comprehensive in its coverage of all major historic periods, reflecting and speaking to a variety of cultures and races; obscure language should be clarified for contemporary use; the Hymnal should be ecumenical in nature, although it be prepared for use in the Episcopal Church; the Hymnal should be a practical collection, with keyboard settings that can be used by a performer with average skills; the Hymnal should present various musical possibilities when tunes are used more than once; and the Hymnal should present a variety of musical styles that represent the best expressive artistic creativity of musicians. Music for The Hymnal 1982 was prepared by the Standing Commission on Church Music. This edition was published in 1985. The Hymnal 1982 includes 720 hymns. Raymond F. Glover served as general editor.

The mandate to the 1982 editorial committee was extensive, and it might seem that the only possible book that could do all that was asked of it, would have to have come down from Mount Sinai! But due to a fine editorial committee and years of work, I believe that a fine book was produced, and that it remains the best one of all of the American Hymnals published in the last 30 years. It is not a perfect book, but neither was the Hymnal 1940, a book which I still very much admire. It included such timeless classics as “Golden Harps are sounding, Angel voices sing, pearly gates are opened, opened for the king” with a tune by Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Or, the text of “O mother dear Jerusalem” which is sung to the tune of “America the Beautiful.” But let us also remember that into the Hymnal 1940 Canon Douglas also snuck the Dies irae, (yes, it’s in there, number 468) to be found for decades in multiple copies in the pews of every Episcopal Church in the land, from the snake-belly low to the nose-bleed high.

Now the Hymnal 1982 also has a few less obvious “timeless classics” — such as the Christmas Carol that sings of the “Mighty Gitchimanitu,” or once did, but they edited into “God-The-Lord-of-All the Earth.” Then there’s “Now the Silence” which concludes “Now the Spirit’s visitation, Now the Son’s Epiphany, Now the Father’s blessing Now, Now, Now.”

It also has to be said that there has been some unfortunate fiddling with classic texts. Both “Once in Royal David’s City” and “O come all ye faithful” have had some rather unfortunate plastic surgery. But, there are countless wonderful new tunes and old tunes that were not included in the Hymnal 1940. It’s a marvelous collection which I believe speaks to the present and the future, and is an excellent marriage of tunes and texts.

To conclude, we might remind ourselves that John Wesley, the great preacher and founder of the Methodist movement published these Directions for Singing in 1761, at a time when American Anglicans were still singing, in Canon Douglas’s words “Metrical Psalms, often of appalling dullness”

We would still do well to follow John Wesley’s admonitions and advice:

  1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
  2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
  3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
  4. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead, or half-asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
  5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
  6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before it nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
  7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself or any creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.