Listen to a Watts hymn - 'When I survey the wondrous cross'. Music details HERE.
The Genevan motto, 'back to the bible', and the resultant swing of the people's part in worship from the pre-reformation liturgical chants to metrical psalms placed an emphasis on the psalter which gives the reformed service - church and nonconformist - an old testament atmosphere. There is something more Mosaic than Christian about Calvin, the Roundheads or the services of the Restoration which makes such poets as Bunyan, Crossman and Herbert stand out as Christian lights who lighten the prevailing Mosaic gloom. It was the vision of an ardent youth of twenty, Isaac Watts, which first laid the axe to the metrical psalms. Most of his hymns which were to become popular and influential twenty or thirty years later were written by 1700 when Watts entered the Independent ministry, and we find him among the first to waken the nonconformists, and after them the churchmen, from their old testament torpor. Watts' hymns are steeped in the grace, dignity and zeal of the gospels. Even when at times he degenerates into eighteenth-century bombast the new testament imagery is there; at his best he has the charm and simplicity of Luke. Watts, indeed, never wanders far from the Bible and most of his hymns are paraphrases rather than direct inventions. He writes in the metres of the metrical psalms but his verses are as a breath of fresh air driving out their stale doggerel. His hymns became quickly popular and had no small influence in their time, an influence that has never diminished; they are the first consistent corpus of English hymns, setting this truly national product on the road it was to travel.
L isten to the well known Wesley advent hymn - 'Lo he comes with clouds descending'. Music details HERE.
Following the work of Watts came the gargantuan labour in preaching and hymn-writing of the Wesleys, John and Charles. Both highly emotional men, John was impressed by the hymn-singing of some fervent Moravian brethren whom he met on board ship when travelling to his missionary work in America. He soon took to translating and adapting German hymns. Later, during their itineraries round England on horseback, the two brothers, who both saw the emotional power of hymns to soften hard hearts already pounded in their sermons, wrote their hymns ad hoc for each meeting. The six thousand odd hymns of Charles thus hurriedly penned contain a score or so of masterpieces, countless excellent hymns marred here and there by passages too purple for use today, and, as one can expect from such an output, much sheer dross. He would allow no polishing of his verses, though modern compilers perforce pay scant attention to his wishes. John, the life and soul of the fraternal combination, was responsible more for the ideas behind the actual publications, but he too contributed a number of fine hymns and translations. In every modern hymn-book the Wesleys are drawn upon almost more than any other single source and among the 'hundred best' hymns, if one were constrained to attempt such a compilation, a round score would be by one or other of the brothers.
Listen to two of Croft's hymn tunes - 'St Anne' - 'O God our help in ages past', and 'Hanover' - 'O worship the King'. Music details HERE.
The few excellent hymn melodies by Jeremiah Clarke and Croft which appeared round about 1700 were, like those of Gibbons eighty years before, allied to texts unsuitable for the rough and tumble handling of a congregation; instead of starting a steady stream of good, 'English', workmanlike melodies they were quickly forgotten. Neither Watts nor the Wesleys had the good fortune to have a Clarke in their entourage, but they had all the means of popularising the melodies to which their works were sung. A poor florid style abounding in six-four cadences, appoggiaturas, parallel thirds and sixths ad nauseam and a preponderance of three-in-a-bar became the 'vogue'. To write an acceptable melody in this style needed not invention but practice to acquire the trick of decorating a dull harmonic structure; the amateur composer came into his own. A hymn-tune is so short, so obvious in form, that it must, argued the amateur, be easy to produce melodies - and basses, with a little experiment - in hundreds. Produced they were. A German bassoon player called Lampe may be noted as a type: he was attached to the Wesley circle and, wanting to use his talents to the full and ad majorem Dei gloriam, took to composition. His tunes ran always along the same track with always the same decoration scheme; no atom of striving to match the words or to suggest god-ward movement of the soul mars their suave banality, but there is usually a good bassoon part for a bass, and a grateful vocal line in the melody which in a convert of 1770 must have occasioned as much pleasurable emotion as the sugared harmonies of a century later did to the contentedly righteous Victorians. Among the inevitable hits and misses accompanying such a salvo of melodies we may note Richmond as a hit. It has a salt sea-air feeling, a bracing of the muscles to meet 'the surge's angry shock' to which it is often sung, and it convinces one of rock-like strength in spite of a too obvious third line. Its characteristic drop of a seventh in line four, so beloved of the eighteenth century aria-singer, is a bold but successful experiment for congregational melody. Themselves had apparently some qualms about the worst of the florid tunes to which their hymns were sung and in 1781 published Sacred Harmony where there is a larger proportion of simpler tunes. The florid tunes which to us seem vulgar deeply moved the singers of the time and one can imagine the emotional fervour conjured up by the tunes after a fiery sermon of John in some English meadow, when many of his listeners had fallen down in fits, foaming at the mouth, or had had an attack of conscience accompanied by an equally disturbing fit of 'the jerks'. Whether such storms always led their willing victims on to other more desirable states is a question that sometimes troubled even the Wesley brothers - as it should trouble our present-day missioners.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), born at Southampton. His father had been twice imprisoned for his religious convictions. Though offered a university career by generous Southampton friends, Watts in 1690 entered the Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington. From 1694 he spent two years at home, where he wrote most of the hymns to be published later. 1696-1702, tutor to the son of a prominent Puritan, after which he was ordained pastor of the Mark Lane Independents. Owing to continuous ill health he retired in 1712 to become the guest of Sir Thomas Anthony until his death. D.D. Honoris Causa, Edinburgh, 1728. Publications: 1707-9, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. 1706-9, Horae Lyricae. 1719, Psalms and Hymns.
John Wesley (1703-1791). 1714, Charterhouse, and 1720 to Christ Church, Oxford. Ordained in 1725, he went back to Oxford as a Fellow in 1729, joining his brother's group of 'Methodists'. In 1735 on his way out to Georgia he was influenced by a party of Moravian monks, took, like them, to vegetarianism and set to work to learn German. In 1728 he suffered a 'conversion' and split with the Moravians two years later, disagreeing with their quietism. He gave up active work in 1761, owing to ill health, preaching his last open-air sermon at Winchelsea in Oct. 1790.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Educated at Westminster, whence he went to Christ Church, Oxford in 1726, and formed his group of seventeen 'Methodists'. Thereafter he worked with his brother. The itinerant preaching of the two began in 1741 with the formation of the United Services of Methodists. The 'New Chapel', City Road, became in 1778 the headquarters of the movement. Charles unlike his brother John enjoyed a happy marriage.