The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 290309




‘Much too simple for us…’

The composer Bernard Barrell sees in the availability and selection of congregational hymns a number of problems that could easily be avoided.

Thus, the director of a Suffolk village choir rejected, at a mere glance, a short setting suggested for possible use… whilst, as composers, we do sometimes under-estimate the degree of difficulty in our works, the true musician sees instantly the quality of a piece quite irrespective of its standard of difficulty: these two dimensions underlie all music - the composer ensures that quality is paramount! Many performers like a challenge and many composers have helped to advance technique (sometimes even suggesting fingerings, etc.) by ‘stretching’ performers, just as soloists often invite composers to test them to the limit. Many composers have had works rejected as ‘un-playable’, only to find others ready to accept the challenge. One remembers, in the choral field, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) which, despite its difficulties, has become a quite standard work much loved by performers and audiences. Though it sounds obvious, there is still a great need for music which gives those less advanced performers the chance to make music of the highest quality. As Holst used to say: ‘Real music for real people…’.

Many have answered this call admirably: some with shorter works of character which have a permanent place in the choral repertoire; but let us focus our attention more upon the average Parish Choir than the bigger Choral Societies, and remember that fine unison singing can be most up-lifting - e.g. Parry’s magnificent ‘Jerusalem’ at the Proms. when even the teddy bears seem stunned by the sheer dignity of this splendid setting of Blake’s words!

The problem is by no means new, and the technical difficulties are enormous. To take difficult ideas or issues of theology, express them clearly in terms that are universally comprehensible, and then to set them in such a way as to convey and enhance the message without drowning it in music or reducing it to banality is surely a daunting task. Sir John Stainer made a brave but ultimately controversial attempt with The Crucifixion (1887). It seems that Stainer requested a libretto from W.J. Sparrow Simpson - the son of Dr. Sparrow Simpson, succentor of St. Paul’s Cathedral - as the basis for what he described as ‘a Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer’. Contemporary accounts seemed to comprehend the underlying purpose: one review notes that Stainer ‘carefully avoided any pedantic display of musicianship’. There was slight criticism of the libretto, but nothing to match the scorn that has been heaped upon it in the last fifty years by Long, Fellowes and Routley, the former characterising it as naïve, banal, and inane, besides making the widely-quoted but unsubstantiated claim that Stainer wished that he had never published the work. Sparrow Simpson took a first in the Cambridge Theological Tripos and subsequently developed a reputation as a scholar. It is surely the case that his libretto - whether it was successful or not - was a worthwhile part of an exercise in giving the people a piece of music upon which to centre their Passiontide thoughts. The result may be patchy, but the enduring popularity of the work suggests that it should not lightly be dismissed.

As to the music, even Stainer’s biographer, Peter Charlton (whose work has done much to bring about a more balanced re-assessment of Stainer) concedes that it has its weaker moments. In his view, the work contains an inherent contradiction in that its simplicity suggests that its true place is the village church, but yet it needs an accomplished performance by professional-standard singers to carry it through its awkward moments. Some years ago, the BBC Singers under Stephen Wilkinson undertook the work. The television performance was, indeed, highly polished, with each and every nuance lovingly produced with immaculate singing. Nobody could have taken more trouble to give the work an outstandingly accurate performance. Yet in places even the performers themselves appeared to be uncomfortable with what they were required to do. Have the obvious difficulty of the undertaking and the treatment meted out to Stainer discouraged other composers from attempting a similar exercise? Do we encourage sufficiently efforts by contemporary composers to take up the task that Stainer set for himself?

In his admirable little book The Principle of English Church Music Composition (1921), Martin Shaw quotes a wonderfully strong passage from Blow’s anthem ‘God is gone up’, which illustrates the use of false relation vividly, whereas Stainer quotes the same passage elsewhere as an example of what notto do! The late Victorian era was hardly a time of great musical adventurousness, with a rather heavy German influence still blocking an emergent ‘English-ness’ which was starting to reveal the extent of our national folk song heritage. 1906 saw the publication of the English Hymnal (EH) under the editorship of Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams - a landmark in English Church Music (and the year in which this noble Society was founded). At this point, the splendid work of composers like Sir Hubert Parry, Charles Wood and Sir Charles Stanford must be acknowledged, as must also their great and good influence as teachers of the then younger generation of English composers.

Soon after the 1914-1918 war, another influential hymnal appeared which also drew attention to our great national heritage of words and music - this was Songs of Praise (SP: 1925), edited by Percy Dearmer (words) and Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw (music). A particular feature of the book was the inclusion of tunes by some of the finest composers of the day, and likewise, leading poets supplied many new hymns to ‘carry’ specially fine tunes. Aimed at schools, colleges and other institutions as well as the Churches, this was so successful that an enlarged SP appeared in 1931 - a veritable treasury of fine, strong words and music through the ages, replacing the ‘rather somnolent sentimentality’ of so much of the previous fifty years… and as the Preface to the enlarged edition of SP states: ‘But it must also be remembered that these tunes are now being taught in the Schools and are already becoming familiar in many cities and counties: there is indeed already evidence that young people who have learned better things at school will not be content to revert to a poorer standard in church.’ Of course, that was before the advent of television and popular entertainment - but the School-Church link is still a vital one and it is something of a national disgrace that the enlightened work of those mentioned above (and many others), who strove so successfully to give back to us our heritage in words and music, and establish our ‘roots’, should today so often be replaced by feeble and hopelessly dated, namby-pamby offerings unworthy of those who use them and the cause in which they are sung.

Although it is doubtful if the overall excellence of words and music in SP has been surpassed, it is fair to mention that since its appearance in 1925 and its enlarged edition in 1931, there have been revised editions of various collections (e.g. Hymns Ancient and Modern - and more recently, Ancient and Modern, New Standard Edition: and The Church Hymnary, Third Edition (1973), which like SP, includes new settings by modern composers). Among the newer collections, the Cambridge Hymnal (1967) introduced many settings by our own contemporary composers, as did the New Catholic Hymnal of 1971. The BBC Hymn Book (BBC) of 1951 also offered some new settings. The 1933 Edition of EH dealt only with ‘enrichment of the music’ by relegating some earlier tunes to the Appendix - the ‘new’ EH appearing in 1986. The Plainsong content has been maintained.

Apart from Christmas Hymns and Carols, the simple Hymn-tune is often the only music that some people ever make - when General Booth made his famous comment that it was a pity for the devil to have all the best tunes, one might have agreed, and added that it was also a pity that the Church should have so many of the bad ones! One of the false notions about the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ in Hymn-tunes is the ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’ assessment - which ignores the very root of the matter: we need hymns for all time and not merely for today… those which have been passed down to us by real musicians have set an example of durability and agelessness and to which our present-day composers have added (and will further add) their enrichment. We are dealing here with a tiny art form whose every detail must be perfect, whose rise-and-fall must intensify the words, and whose range must yet not exceed the comfortable congregational limits. Composers are usually self-critical, and if invited to write (say) a hymn tune, would regard this task seriously - however easily or not it was achieved, for such a tune has to bear much repetition and still stay fresh.

Of course, one may assume that the climax in the words occurs in the same place in each verse; but some well-intended inclusion of a fine tune in the same metre does not guarantee this! The masterly ‘St. Osyth’ (SP 511) appeared in 1925 - its beautifully planned climax is thrown away for the want of a slight adjustment to avoid faulty accentuation in A.F. Bayly’s dignified verses (no. 78 in 100 HFT) - Parry’s beautiful ‘Intercessor’ would fit perfectly, but ‘St. Osyth’ must rank among the finest unison tunes ever.

The fine, sturdy ‘Pembroke’ of Patrick Hadley appeared in SP in 1925, setting Shelley’s ‘The world’s great age’ for unison voices - how magnificent it is: its strong diatonic tune lavishly harmonised ‘in modern style’ with suitable dignity. This gem, set to words by Michael Perry, has appeared in Hymns for Today’s Church (no. 507)… when there is so much good work available, why bother with the bad - or even the ‘not bad’? This raises the usual question: ‘How do you know it’s bad?’ - to which one might justly reply that musicians, like other specialists in their own field, are trained to distinguish between the sound and unsound articles brought to them, as in the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ of BBC Television. The BBC supplement Broadcast Praise deserves credit for including Howells’s ‘Michael’, Peter Aston’s ‘Divine Image’, Grayston Ives’s lovely, gentle canonic ‘Guildford Cathedral’ for ‘Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost’ - and other items such as Holst’s 7-bar gem: ‘Brookend’ set to Herrick’s ‘In this world (The Isle of Dreams)’ from SP (1925)… how well I remember introducing this to a class of secondary school boys many years ago… and how they took to it as their own at once and insisted upon singing it over and over again for the entire lesson - and subsequent lessons… they were not joking, as one might have thought. They loved the healthy diatonicism, and grinding dissonances in the penultimate bar. I remember, too, how apprehensive they were to hear that another form had sung it!

Hardly a week passes, it seems, without the publication of another hymn book, and the Forewords and Prefaces of such books are highly entertaining in their various claims of excellence… and what enticing titles they now have! Hymns Old and New? Hymns Slow and Quick? Hymns Right and Wrong? Hymns Good and Bad? Hymns Nice and Nasty? - !! - where will it all end? With the Church-School link facilitating two-way traffic, and with much confusion about the true meaning of ‘rhythm’, and other basic ingredients of music, it is really no wonder that some Cathedral organists all too often find that candidates being auditioned for their choirs do not know any of the great hymns passed down to us as our heritage. And now for the ultimate blow - not content with hi-jacking the title of one of the finest hymnals ever made (for one of its weekly television programmes), the BBC has now announced ‘A new standard’ in hymnbooks: ‘OUP and the BBC combine to bring you the only hymn book your Church or school will ever need!’ … BBC Songs of Praise… beautifully produced with gender-inclusive language… what more could one need? Incidentally, the fine SP editions of 1925 and 1931were also published by OUP (has anybody, anywhere a surviving copy of the 1925 Full Music Edition of SP?).

Finally, back to the Suffolk village choir and the short setting which was so sweepingly dismissed as ‘much too simple for us’ … have you already guessed its identity? The choir-mistress (who was also the vicar’s wife) was so quick to give her dismissal that she never even noticed that this gem-of-a-motet was written for the Choir of Westminster Abbey to sing during the Communion at the Coronation (1953) and had been specially written by none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams! I have often wondered if that good lady had followed the Psalmist’s invitation to ‘taste and see’ - and found that it was, after all, a beautiful and rewarding setting, but certainly not ‘too simple’ for anybody!


The writer acknowledges gratefully the amendments suggested by RE.

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