The Church Music Society

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Adventures of a Hymn-Tune

by Dr Francis Jackson, CBE
Senior Vice-President, Church Music Society
From the 1998 Church Music Society Newsletter, February issue.

It all began when I took a dislike to playing All through the night when Choir and Congregation were singing God, that madest earth and heaven; a lovely tune and perfect for its original purpose, which was a secular one (not that there is any harm in using some secular tunes in church: this has been done from time immemorial). Another factor is that many Welsh hymn-tunes are repetitive, with the same phrase appearing three times (e.g. Llanfair, St Denio and the tune already mentioned). This, however, has not prejudiced their popularity or durability. Where secular tunes are concerned, everything depends, of course, on their quality and this, in the case of some which have been produced in recent years - and in a plethora - is not necessarily very high.

So, in an effort to find something else, I sketched three or four tunes of which I retained one; in E flat, in five-four time. This was sung, I think for the first first time, at the 1957 York Minster Old Choristers’ Reunion. By then it had become clear that two beats on God and two on earth were unnecessary (bar three was always in common time). And then, of course, it needed a name. I considered ‘Purey-Cust’, the Dean who founded the Old Choristers’ Association, but eventually decided that a place-name could be more appropriate than a personal one. We had then recently brought our present home at Acklam, but this presented a slight problem since another place of the same name which is part of Middlesbrough exists: on a map printed around 1900 it is called West Acklam. Ours, according to the War Memorial in the church, is called East Acklam, though it does not appear so on any map I know of. But this solved the problem and abolished any ambiguity. (Many have also pointed out that the Jackson homeis the eastern-most house in the village.)

A year or two later, it so happened that I was at a gathering of musical Methodists at Hoddesdon and had taken a tape with me of illustrations for my talk. When we came to the end of one of these the next example followed immediately, so I let it play on - it was all accidental, I swear - and so I was startled to observe The Reverend Francis Westbrook, the chief Methodist musician, becoming excited and declaring that this was just what he wanted for a hymn he was including in the supplement to the Methodist Hymn Book which he was in process of preparing, entitled Hymns and Songs.

Duly it appeared there with the words Through the love of God our Saviour and was spotted by John Wilson and Cyril Taylor whose wish for the tune to have different words caused them to approach Fred Pratt Green. He produced a three-stanza harvest hymn beginning For the fruits of His Creation, thanks be to God which quickly gained wide acceptance joined with East Acklam and has appeared in some thirty hymnals as well as several collections made by churches each for its own special needs. One of these was for the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres in the Philippines.

Needless to say, the words somehow had to be changed to suit the odd (in more than one sense) whim so that, for instance, the first line would become For the fruits of ALL creation. In the 1982 American Hymnal, ploughing becomes “plowing” which is the more normal usage there. “Silent growth while men are sleeping” found no favour with a certain section of the gentle sex: but even some of those who did not wish to grind that particular axe, male or female, could interpret that line as denoting wide-awake women while the chaps slept.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that someone would like the words so much that they wished to produce their own tune for them. This happened. In America. In the same country an amateur organist domiciled in Old Hickory chose the tune on which to compose a voluntary for a competition; but it failed to bring him any reward.

But before all this I received two other hymns from authors who had liked the tune, neither of which has, as far as I know, been published. And the tune has appeared, set to another hymn Gift of Christ from God our Father and yet another Into darkness light has broken, Christ has been born and another For the wonder of creation, God’s name be praised; and all this came about, as I have said, because of a whim of mine and my efforts to displace Ar hyd y nos plus the tape recorder that didn’t stop where it was supposed to.

It was rather ironic, then, that when the new Methodist Hymn Book, Hymns and Psalms, appeared in 1983 I found my East Acklam with its Pratt Green words provided with a second tune - none other than Ar hyd y nos! More ironically still, Fred’s words have appeared in the new Australian Hymn Book recently with - guess which tune - Ar hyd y nos (as far as I know not an alternative, but the only tune).

Quite recently a Canadian organist arranged the hymn as an anthem, with brass and organ, but quite differently from my own effort which was published by the RSCM in 1989. This latter was among a collection of six anthems for harvest entitled “Crown of the Year” among whose composers were numbered Richard Shephard and Prince Albert. I also provided a rather lush harmonization for the last verse on the occasion of the 1993 Worcester Three Choirs’ Festival when the singing of the hymn was led by the choir of All Saints’, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Doctor Fred Pratt Green, poet and greatly respected figure in the Methodist church, worked in York at one time and lived in Muncaster. I regret I was quite unaware of this until May of 1992, when, happening to be in Norwich where he now lives, it was my great pleasure to make his acquaintance. Four months later he celebrated his ninetieth birthday. He has written more than three hundred hymns (nowhere near the seven or eight thousand of Charles Wesley, as he admits, but a healthy total nevertheless) and I am greatly privileged to be counted among the elect who are associated with his work.

Requests to use our joint hymn, to print it or to include it in a hymnal, have come from many different places and still do so. One came from the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Locations as far apart as Chicago and North Berwick, Norwich and Calgary, Ballybrack, New Brunswick, Dringhouses, Nebraska, Australia and Pickering have asked for it.

Hymn conferences have included it, and the dioceses of Bradford, Bristol, Canterbury, Leicester, Llandaff, Salisbury and, of course, York have used it for their diocesan choirs’ festivals, and Dulwich, Harrow, Boston (Mass.), Gloucester and Monmouth have printed and made use of it. Little did I contemplate such a state of affairs when I scribbled those sixteen bars. Broadcasts of it have been heard on Sunday Half Hour, Songs of Praise and the Daily Service.

Most composers would, I suppose, like to think that their works might be durable enough to go into the general repertoire, like the Beethoven and Mozart symphonies, to be played and heard for ever! They should remember, however, that with each new composition the corpus of music has become that much larger and anything added to it has to be increasingly excellent to find a place among it. Fashions change, too, and what - for instance - were once usually referred to as “those dreadful Victorian tunes” have undergone a striking resurgence which should be salutary to any creative person, no matter how popular he may be during his lifetime; and, if he by any chance proves not be a Bach, a Chopin or a Gershwin, perhaps, like Scholefield and Shrubsole, he might be content to look down from heaven - fairly continuously - and hear the one tune he left on earth raising the roof of mission church or cathedral anywhere at all on its surface, to the joy and satisfaction of all those who participate in recreating his musical microcosm, sounding as fresh and spontaneous as on the day it was written.

As I say, fashions change, so I do not expect those sixteen bars to gain, much less retain, immortality. If by chance they did, well and good, but there is always a possibility that someone may dislike playing them as much as I disliked playing “All through the night” and feel that Fred’s words are worthy of something different.

© Francis Jackson, 1998


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