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The Yattendon Hymnal: Hymns Ancient and Modernised?

Judith Blezzard
Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Liverpool

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, two publications were issued that have been viewed ever since as pioneering landmarks in the history of the English-texted hymn. Both have been extensively drawn upon by commentators and compilers in the field of hymn texts and music, yet both remain as fairly obscure sources, neither held in numerous collections nor particular easy to obtain and consult. They were primarily the work of one man: the poet and scholar Robert Bridges (1844-1930) who became Poet Laureate in 1913. He was associated with many notable musicians and music scholars including John Stainer, Godfrey Arkwright and William Rockstro, as well as the composers Stanford, Parry, Frank Bridge and Gustav Holst: a Holst autograph manuscript in Liverpool Cathedral consists of a setting of a text by Bridges.

The two 1899 publications were the article A practical discourse on some principles of hymn-singing’, in which Bridges explained his stance on what he termed the ‘ethical significance’ of music and the appropriateness, or otherwise, of particular kinds of music for use in worship; and the complete version of The Yattendon Hymnal, which embodies these principles. The Yattendon Hymnal, which had first appeared in four separate parts (each containing text and music for 25 hymns) from 1894, was sumptuously and elegantly produced, using red as well as black stave-lines, and a distinctive and archaic-looking music typeface first introduced by Bishop John Fell, who ran the printing activities at Oxford University in the mid-seventeenth century. This manifestation of Bridges’ interest in printing, together with the hymnal’s large format, heavy, high-quality paper and widely-spaced layout, set The Yattendon Hymnal apart from the spate of other hymnals, including Hymns Ancient and Modern, that appeared in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps intentionally, the design of The Yattendon Hymnal made its use at most keyboard instruments and by congregational singers impossible: ideally its sole use would have been at the choir stall or lectern for unaccompanied singing. Limited editions of extracts (for example, the words only) were published but did not achieve widespread circulation. Even the members of the committee overseeing revisions of Hymns Ancient and Modern wished the Yattendon material had been made more easily accessible. In a footnote to his article, Bridges drew on his experience as ‘precentor’ in the parish church of Yattendon, Berkshire, promoting his article as follows:

Example is better than precept; and my own venture as a compiler of a hymn-book  has made it possible for me to say much that otherwise I should not have said. In The Yattendon Hymnal, printed by Mr Horace Hart at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and to be had of Mr Frowde, price 20s., will be found a hundred hymns with their music, chosen for a village choir. The music in this book will show what sort of hymnal might be made on my principles, while the notes at the end of the volume will illustrate almost every point in this essay.

Two features here are especially noteworthy. First, the music was for a village choir (not a village congregation), from which a considerable degree of musical literacy as well as a strong commitment was clearly expected. Bridges trained the church choir in the village of Yattendon for nine years until his exasperation with the vicar’s sermons proved too much of a deterrent. Second, unlike hymnals for congregational use, the complete 1899 version of The Yattendon Hymnal contained notes on all the texts and music, often naming origins and sources, and outlining modifications that had been made. Not all subsequent editions of the hymnal contained this textual material. It makes interesting reading, raising some anomalies between principle and practice in the hymnal. It gives clues about attitudes towards the reception and treatment of music of the past, and permits an intriguing glimpse into the thinly-disguised accolades and invective reflecting Bridges’ own very strong preferences and dislikes.

Bridges concluded his article in the following terms, encapsulating his objections to the current state of hymnody in England as he perceived it:

We are content to have our hymn-manuals stuffed with the sort of music which, merging the distinction between sacred and profane, seems designed to make the worldly man feel at home, rather than to reveal to him something of the life beyond his knowledge, compositions full of cheap emotional effects and bad experiments made to be cast aside, the works of the purveyors of marketable fashion, always pleased with themselves, and always to be derided by the succeeding generation.

Undoubtedly there was some justification for this description, in the light of the contents of some other hymnals including the 1889 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, although some did include a broader selection of music, in terms of origin and chronology, than that which was the object of castigation on the part of Bridges. Where did this idea that the purveyors of marketable fashion were ‘always pleased with themselves’ come from? Did he ever consider that his own generation’s creations and precepts might one day be derided by a generation that succeeded him?

Bridges propounded that the ethical significance of music depends on the musical experience of the hearer. He speculated that St Augustine, moved to tears of joy by church music, witnessed ‘the beginnings of the great music of the Western Church’. He comments thus: ‘How few resources of expression it can have had, being rudimental in form, without suggestion of harmony and in its performance unskilful, its probably nasal voice-production unmodified by any accompaniment.’ His approach reflects a view common in the nineteenth century: that of music having followed an evolutionary progression entailing continuous improvement, so that later music is necessarily more advanced than that which preceded it. His friend Harry Ellis Wooldridge, editor of The Yattendon Hymnal, held similar views. Wooldridge was also the editor of Old English Popular Music, his revision published in 1893 of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time which came out in two volumes in 1855 and 1859. Grappling with the problem of how to present folk tunes so that they would appeal to late nineteenth-century listeners and readers, Wooldridge opted for a solution consisting of anomalies: pastiche sixteenth-century harmony supplied by Sir George Macfarren, presented (presumably for practical reasons) as a ‘pianoforte rendering’. He comments as follows:

As we ascend to the beginnings of the art [of music] we come to a time when harmony was so undeveloped as to be useless, and there is no choice but either to leave the tunes of this early date unaccompanied, or to explain them by the harmony at which we may be sure the rude efforts of the time were aiming, because we know that they ultimately attained to it ... Sir George Macfarren’s harmony may be more advanced than anything the composers of that time could have imagined, but it represents the goal towards which they were unconsciously striving.

Bridges and Wooldridge put similar principles into practice in The Yattendon Hymnal, although in not quite such a persuasive way as Wooldridge had done in his work on secular music. Early hymn melodies (liberated, where necessary, from the common metre of their later versions) were given four-part harmony ‘with some attempt towards the particular qualities of workmanship upon which much of the beauty of old vocal counterpoint depends.’ Where plainsong melodies were harmonised, the compilers stated that ‘the best harmonic treatment which they can have is the Palestrinal’. This they considered to be the earliest ‘complete’ system, yet still ‘reliant on modality’, in common with plainsong. The idea was to help choirs that found unison singing wasteful, nevertheless to get to know plainsong tunes as well as other early melodies. These workings were pastiche, reflecting belief in a separate ‘church style’ of music based on the so-called ‘sublime’ ideal embodied supposedly in the works of Palestrina, with a perceived degree of purity and worthiness to which supporters of the Tractarian movement, at any rate, believed all church music should aspire. Even so, Bridges and Wooldridge, having discovered some consecutives in tunes by Tallis (14, 78) were prepared to accept them as part of Talus’s style. They did not seek to expunge them as amateurish blemishes falling short of an idealised style, a policy adopted by other editors of the period (for example Arkwright in his editions of Christopher ‘Tye). Elsewhere, however, Bridges’ remarks on supposed ‘indifference to words’ on the part of Orlando Gibbons (28), and to harmonic ‘liberty permissible in the transitional style of Gibbons’ writing’ (35).

What kinds of music did Bridges regard as suitable for worship? After an astute and rather rueful observation that nature seems to have arranged matters so that where people are musical they would rather listen, and where they are unmusical they would all rather sing, he proposed dignity as the chief quality of music appropriate for use in worship. He found congregational singing appropriate to express faith, celebration, fellowship and similar emotions. On the other hand, hymns of lament, humiliation, repentance, divine affection and similar emotions, he believed to be more appropriate for singing by a choir only. For his ideal hymn-book, he listed categories of music in chronological order. Plainsong came first, unbarred and in free rhythm. It clearly took pride of place in The Yattendon Hymnal, the unharmonised versions being given red four-line staves with archaic clef-forms and ligatures, and large red initial letters to the underlaid texts. But seen in the context of other nineteenth-century presentations of plainsong, and bearing in mind that The Yattendon Hymnal was intended for choirs and not for congregations, this is hardly surprising. It is one aspect of a tradition that went back as far as the work of William Dyce, Frederick and William Helmore and John Mason Neale in the 1840s, and continued in the deliberately archaic presentation of plainsong in George Ratcliffe Woodward’s Songs of Syon (1904) and Basil Harwood’s The Oxford Hymn Book (1908), as well as its presentation for congregational use in The English Hymnal of 1906.

Next in the list given by Bridges came English, French and German Reformation hymns, again ideally with no modification to harness them into regular pulse or phrasing, and harmonised, says Bridges: ‘strictly in the vocal counterpoint which prevailed at the end of the sixteenth century; since that it is not only its proper musical interpretation, but it is also the ecclesiastical style par excellence [Bridges’ italics] the field of which may reasonably be extended, but by no means contracted.’ This supposedly rules out Bach’s harmonisations of Reformation hymns, but admits the examples of pastiche Palestrina found in The Yattendon Hymnal. Even so, Bach’s setting of Jesu, meine Freude is included. At cadences where the alto falls from the leading-note to the fifth, Bridges suggests: ‘Rather than strain the sympathy of some singers, let them sing the finals in these places’. This seems at odds with his keenness to restore the music of his chosen hymns to its original form as faithfully as possible.

Restoration hymns are also admitted, particularly those of ‘Jeremy’ Clark and William Croft, even though in the annotations he describes those of Clark as ‘truly popular in style’. This seems to be an anomaly, since he commends Clark’s tunes but deplores nineteenth-century hymn tunes that could be similarly described. In The Yattendon Hymnal settings, one of Clark’s tunes is harmonised as ‘the outcome of vocal experiment’ (7), a second, harmonised by Wooldridge, ‘discards Clark’s bass’ (no reason is given, nor earlier version noted) (9), and a third, to the text beginning ‘0 Christ, who art the light and day’ (6) restores a version that began its career as an instrumental trio by Clark, only later having been turned into the tune known as Rockingham, nowadays sung to ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. Bridges described Rockingham as a ‘maudlin composition.. .which any congregation can sing, and one which, alas! the average English congregation is never tired of singing’. The notes by Bridges at the back of The Yattendon Hymnal, together with the heading in the hymnal itself (6) (which also records that the parts for ATB had been devised by Monica Bridges, the poet’s wife) imply a source for this hymn dating from 1700. Professor Nicholas Temperley holds the view that this tune, and hence the origin of the tune Rockingham, should be attributed to Jeremiah Clark of Worcester, an opinion which conflicts with the date given by Bridges though not with the style of the music. Nicholas Temperley suggests, alternatively, that the piece was composed by Joseph Haydn to the words ‘0 let me in th’accepted hour’, the last of his Six English Psalms published in 1795. This setting, in turn, is apparently derived from a canzonetta entitled ‘Pleasing pain’ by Haydn. But although the canzonetta, the Haydn Psalm and the tune supposed by Bridges to have been by the Jeremiah Clark who was very much alive around 1700 all start similarly and use similar rhythms and some of the same contours throughout, they soon diverge into different material. The genesis of Rockingham, and of the tune in The Yattendon Hymnal, remains at least partly a mystery.

As to modern hymns, after deploring the ‘profuse employment of pathetic chords’, Bridges commends those that are impersonal: that seem not to interfere with or add to the sacred words, and that proceed with dignity and reserve. This is presumably intended to encompass the new tunes composed by Wooldridge especially for the hymnal (4, 11, 17, 18, 22, 46, 96), espousing mostly a rather colourless and unmemorable functional style, with austere harmony (not counterpoint) perhaps borrowed from Palestrina but without the mobility, shape and cohesion of much Renaissance polyphony. For example, Wooldridge’s setting of ‘Hark! how all the welkin rings’ (18) is faultless but demure, its sublime counterpoint standing not entirely at ease with the unabashed jubilation of the four-square p>How did Bridges view the notion of Palestrina himself, or his immediate forebears and contemporaries, parodying a secular chanson or paraphrasing a secular melody in the counterpoint of a sacred piece? How did he justify the inclusion of J. S. Bach’s harmonisation of Hans Leo Hassler’s tune nowadays best known as the ‘Passion’ chorale, when the tune itself started life as a secular air’ (a love song) and had been straightjacketed into a regular metre for use with sacred words? This is only one of a number of similar examples in The Yattendon Hymnal, admissible to Bridges presumably because their secular associations belonged only to the remote past. (82) His criterion was quality of melody, and in a note on common-time metre tunes (10) he castigates some (unnamed) antiquarians for ‘trying to foist upon us what is old, independently of its merit’, later casting aspersions upon ‘350 years of abuse’ by editors such as ‘the Ravenscrofts’. Rimbaults and Havergals’ (72). But given this criterion of quality rather than age, his sources were relatively limited. There is not a secular or mixed source among them. A notable absentee is Piae Cantiones, the Swedish songbook first published in 1582, from which extracts with Christmas carol texts by John Mason Neale began to be published in England from the 1850s. Presumably many of the fine melodies would have been accessible to Bridges and Wooldridge, had they wishes to use them. An edition of Piae Cantiones by George Ratcliffe Woodward was published in 1910. Like The Yattendon Hymnal, this edition was part of the fashion for the deliberate artistic stimulation of old musical notation: its pseudofacsimile contents and appearance were for the connoisseur but with few notational modifications as, to quote Woodward ‘a concession to the weaker brethren’.

There is a wealth of intriguing detail in The Yattendon Hymnal and its annotations that show how it reflects late nineteenth-century thinking about early music and music for worship. Seen only in the context of parallel developments, rather than with hindsight, it is still a remarkable document; nevertheless it was neither the culmination of an era nor so startling an innovation as perhaps some have perceived. So many other hymnals contemporary with it have passed into obscurity. This would probably have been the fate of The Yattendon Hymnal too, as one mans eccentric choice, had it not been for the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, his associates and successors in the compilation of volumes such as The English Hymnal (1906) and Songs of Praise (1925). These widened the repertory along similar principles (including the incorporation of more music with secular origins) and created opportunities for congregational participation in it. Possibly, the archaic repertory of The Yattendon Hymnal was part of a trend in the composition of new hymns too, in which a deliberately archaic modal style was adopted by composers such as Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Howells, Ireland and Rubbra, most notably in The Oxford Book of Carols (1928).

The Yattendon Hymnal shows that, except in commercial terms, a hymnal does not have to be widely used to be successful or influential. The material and ideas set forth by Bridges were not the sole factor in the new directions taken by English hymnody. Perhaps the idiosyncratic presentation of the material, visually and in substance, helped in procuring the perception of apparent uniqueness accorded to The Yattendon Hymnal. Also, it would be hard to be indifferent to the forthright and sometimes eccentric approach adopted by Bridges. But as a source The Yattendon Hymnal is well worth exploring; not only for the music itself, but for the intriguing glimpses it offers of the practicalities of gathering choir-worship music together and researching it in one English village, a hundred years ago.


Judith Blezzard 

Borrowings in English Church Music 1550-1950 (London, 1990)


‘The Piae Cantiones tunes’ Organists’ Review vol 84 No 332 (1998) 294-99

Ian Bradley  

Abide with me: The World of Victorian Hymns (London, 1997)

Bernard Braley    

Hymnwriters 3 (London, 1991)

Robert Bridges       

‘A practical discourse on some principles of hymn-singing’ The Journal of Theological Studies vol 1(1899-1900) 40-63

Robert Bridges and Harry Ellis Wooldridge (ed.)

The Yattendon Hymnal (London, 1899)

Anthony von Hoboken 

Joseph Haydn: Thematisch-bibliographisches Werkeverzeichnis vol 2 (Mainz, 1971)

Jens Peter Larsen (ed.) 

Joseph Haydn: Werke: Lieder Series 29 vol 1 (Munich, 1958)

Catherine Phillips 

Robert Bridges: a biography (Oxford, 1992)

Erik Routley

The Music of Christian Hymnody (London, 1957)

Stanley Sadie (ed.) 

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 20 vols (London, 1980)

Nicholas Temperley

The Music of the English Parish Church vol 1 (Cambridge, 1979)

Nicholas Temperley (ed.) 

The Romantic Age 1800-1914: The Blackwell History of Music in Britain vol 5 (London, 1981)

Nicholas Temperley 

The Hymn-lime Index: a Census of English-language Hymn-Tunes in Printed Sources from 1535 to 1820 4 vols (Oxford and New York, 1997)

Harry Ellis Wooldridge (ed.) 

Old English Popular Music 2 vols (London, 1893)

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