Monday 28 December 2015

Getting Nerdy About Hymnals...

Yesterday I posted the  Foreword and Preface of PRAISE THE LORD (sic).  Already two of my best-informed readers have commented, and I think there is more to say about Catholic hymn-singing.

To continue the exploration, and by way of comparison, here is a link to a .pdf of the Westminster Hymnal, which includes a Preface (1912) by John Cuthbert, +Newport, and a Musical Editor's Preface by Sir Richard Runciman Terry, the leading hymnologist of his day, and the composer of many popular hymn tunes. 

A few things immediately strike one. The first is that +Cuthbert sees hymns as adding to the 'devotion and decorum of extra-liturgical worship and popular services.' Presumably that means pilgrimages and processions, school assemblies and parish jamborees and so forth.

A second thing is that Terry uses the start of his preface to lament and correct many popular mistakes made in singing the hymns. That suggests that Catholic hymn-singing was rather more widespread than I had thought. Popular errors in the oral tradition cannot arise unless people are singing!

A third thing that struck me was the ordering of the book - which was 'prescribed by the bishops' Committee.'  It is interesting to contrast the approach taken in 1912 with that in 1966, to the arrangement of hymns.

Here is the Westminster Hymnal (1912):

And here is PRAISE THE LORD (1966)

The change is clear: the second hymnal is designed for use in the liturgy, and gone are huge numbers of hymns for popular devotion.

I was also interested in Terry's view on the pitching of hymns compared with Trotman's. Terry writes: 'Experience has shown that the difficult tunes for a congregation are those in which the melody lies at a high pitch throughout, and not those which contain an occasional high note. Ewing's well-known tune to 'Jerusalem the golden' is a case in point. It takes the congregation to F sharp (top treble line), yet it is invariably sung with lusty vigour, and remains one of the most popular tunes in English speaking countries. The keys chosen for the tunes of this book have been those which secured the requisite brightness, while placing the tune as a whole within the range of the average singer, to whom it should not cause strain or fatigue.'

Trotman, on the other hand, writes: 'A hymnal is intended primarily for congregational use and experience shows that the keys originally chosen for many hymns are uncomfortably high for the average congregational voice, especially men. For this reason many hymns have been transposed down so that except in unavoidable cases, no tune goes above D. Sometimes this results in slightly muddy harmonies, but this is outweighed by the comfort which the average singer gains by a pitch well within his capability.'

I think Terry is right, on two counts. One is that the occasional high note is not a barrier to most congregations; the second is I think bright harmonies are preferable to muddy ones. Trotman seems to me, here, to be exemplifying that exultation of participation (in a particular sense) over quality that I frequently lament.

There is, of course, much more one could say: I await the wise and perceptive contributions of my readers with interest - and will doubtless return to this subject shortly.


Patricius said...

"Presumably that means pilgrimages and processions, school assemblies and parish jamborees and so forth." I'm not sure what "jamborees" were! The main association was with things called "Popular Devotions". In fact I recall a locally produced hymnbook the preface of which referred to "Parish Missions...where the hearty singing of hymns is to be encouraged...."

I have a later edition of the Westminster Hymnal which refers to the Low Week meeting of the hierarchy of 1930 and the promotion of the ancient office hymns as "models". If you look carefully you will see that the Westminster Hymnal relates to the liturgical cycle but the key thing about Praise the Lord is, as you suggest, an effort to provide something that will fit IN the liturgy. (I don't think the Gelignite Psalms- as one choirmaster called them- caught on!)

Yours nerdily,


PS RR Terry should probably be canonised imho!

Joseph Shaw said...

Nb 'extra liturgical' services included Benediction, the scene I understand of a lot of vernacular hymn-singing.

Also there were a staggering number of processions in the old days.

Ben Trovato said...


Yes, there is a section specifically for Missions in the Westminster hymnal - about ten hymns, none of which I know.

Did you never have parish jamborees? We did: fetes and fairs and parties et al...

We sang the Gelineau psalms occasionally - mainly The Lord is my Shepherd, with the Gregory Murray (rather than Gelineau) refrain; and mainly, if memory serves, at weddings.


Yes, I think you are right about Benediction. The Westminster Hymnal gives a straight-down-the-line Benediction at the back (O Salutaris, Litany, Tantum Ergo, Collect, Adoremus/Laudate) but I am sure that would have ended with a hymn or several.

Ttony said...

Perhaps one of the biggest changes of the twentieth century was the introduction of hymn singing to Mass. Prior to that, only the Mass texts, set either polyphonically or in chant would be used.

The two other changes were the introduction of evening Masses, and the abandonment of parish Vespers on Sundays, and evening devotions more generally, apart from maybe a weekly Benediction service.

The surprise (to me) coming from the 1912 Hymnal is the rich variety of hymns: as you say, there must have been a hymn singing culture (and I make two of the mistakes Terry highlights) and this must have been what all of the non-liturgical devotions had lots of, perhaps one of their attractions. Mass was for silently uniting oneself with the actions of the priest, the other services allowed a musical affirmation of belief, and with consciously different hymns from other denominations': lex cantandi lex credendi?.

Neither Bugnini nor Reid make a point about hymn singing in Church but it must have been one of the tools by which the experience of Mass was utterly changed as the momentum of Reform gathered pace after the Second World War. Hymns changed the Mass, the hymn-singing-devotions fell into disuse, then the hymns were changed to introduce protestant one and to lose those of "doubtful merit": it sounds like the task of some rather successful Wormwood.