A very English Hymnal

Interesting item on Radio 4’s “Sunday” this week (Real Audio format), about the centenary of The English Hymnal, which falls on Ascension Day, tomorrow.

The item includes an archive recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who (while at that time still virtually unknown as a composer) was approached by the compiler of the English Hymnal, Percy Dearmer, to take responsibility for the musical settings in the hymnal.

Some of the subjects covered in this brief (5 minutes or so) item include:

  • Vaughan Williams regarded finding appropriate settings (with appropriate notation, including metronome markings to discourage “rushing” the hymns) as a moral matter as much as a musical one – a question of assisting the congregation to worship God as they sang.
  • Some of the controversies surrounding the hymnal, which was regarded by many Church of England bishops as being too “Catholic” (thanks to hymns such as “Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour, thee” and “O glorious Maid, exalted far”).
  • How Percy Dearmer’s Christian Socialist convictions influenced the choice of many hymns, including GK Chesterton’s “O God of earth and altar”, with its rousing lines:

    Our earthly rulers falter,
    Our people drift and die;
    The walls of gold entomb us,
    The swords of scorn divide,
    Take not thy thunder from us,
    But take away our pride.

    (Shades of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn “Lord, for the years”, with its line about “spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care”.)

Percy Dearmer is probably best known as the writer of “He who would valiant be”. But let’s not hold that against him, even if it is a travesty compared with Bunyan’s original. The two can be compared here. However, without Dearmer’s bowdlerisation, we wouldn’t have that marvellous tune Monk’s Gate, which Vaughan Williams wrote for The English Hymnal. Percy, you’re forgiven.

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