The nature of a hymn, one supposes, is to sum up, in language which evokes a response in the human personality, the idea which is moving a congregation to worship. Crowds normally react to simple ideas and hymns must therefore treat simply of some single theme like the best of Ambrose, Watts or Wesley. That theme varies from generation to generation, from congregation to congregation; in the missionary time of Ambrose the emphasis was laid on the fundamentals of religion, the nature of the Trinity, the attitude of God to man and man to God, the purpose of the Incarnation and so forth. As one would expect, later hymns dealt more with details like the mass, the saints, the incidents of the Incarnation, commemorations. The Wesleys wrote enough hymns to treat all these subjects and to add a number of exhortation hymns calling men to a change of motives or to faith and thanksgiving. During the nineteenth century hymns were preoccupied with the aspirations and difficulties, the weaknesses and strength of men and only occasionally, as in Holy, Holy, Holy, did they deal with basic concepts. Music details HERE. In our own time the most popular hymns seem to sing of service to one's fellow men: national, social service has become the watchword of the shopkeeper both in his shop and his church. It is good that trading and hymn-singing are thus linked but such service hymns are dealing with the results rather than with the first causes of Christianity. Each generation, including our own, has provided in addition a number of mystical, symbolic hymns which have an appeal limited in scope but strong in feeling.
Mere adequacy of subject matter is not enough.
O for a man-
O for a man-
O for a mansion in the sky
expresses clearly the aspiration of a man who seeks to ascend into the presence of his maker but its technique lacks poetic decorum.
Jerusalem on high
My song and city is
voices the same theme with a better technique and so is more moving. There are many hymns foisted on congregations which express great ideas and worthy sentiments in dull, prosaic language and so lack driving power. As an example we may quote the verse of a hymn popular in some quarters:
Was there ever kindest shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet
As the Saviour who would have us
Come and gather round his feet?
It is true enough but put in that way it has no more moving power than a popular love-song emanating from Charing Cross Road. It is partly a mere statement, partly absurd sentiment. It could please only those whose conception of religion is a set of intellectual propositions backed up by cheap sentiment. A mind imbued with a vital and working faith would find it hard to reawaken or retain the emotion born of such a worthy idea when it is expressed in such a mundane and cheap-jack manner. How much more moving the similar phrase:
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in his arms.
To the principles of decorum and power we must add that of apt word-rhythm: the words must fit the tune. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds and Jesus, my shepherd, husband, friend can fit the same tune only if it is the right tune (it could, for example, be made more easily to fit 'St Anne' than its usual tune because of the lie of the melody). These particular words also lack the power of:
Jesu, the very thought is sweet,
In that dear name all heart-joys meet.
If we set beside these weak lines some of the finer phrases from English hymnody we see clearly the importance of word association and get consequent power:
O God, our help in ages past Music details HERE.
where ages evokes a strong association; or:
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
which gives a startling picture, or the familiar:
Jesu, lover of my soul
which gets an immediate response; or Watts':
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the prince of glory died Music details HERE.
where survey gives a picture, wondrous cross calls the inert mind to attention by its oxymoron, prince calls up some radiant figure of childhood days and its association with glory contrasts with cross in the previous line. But word association must not be too imaginative for congregational singing, and for this reason Myers' magical lines:
Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing
Stirs on the earth, and trembles in the air!
Is it the thunder of the Lord's appearing?
Is it the music of his people's prayer?
are successful where the extract from Masefield's beautiful lyric:
O Christ, who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough,
O Christ the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after.
too intimate and truly poetic to be so.
Blake's 'Jerusalem', however, gives
the lie to our thesis:
the symbolism of the words is obscure but the hymn has
become popular possibly because, as often, a fine tune has made the
uncomprehended text acceptable. Music details HERE.
[Possibly the words are misunderstood. With his 'Satanic mills' Blake is almost undoubtedly tilting at organised religion. At any rate he certainly does not mean the cotton mills of Lancashire.]
The example of 'Jerusalem' shows that the tune has a power of its own, enough here to rob the singer of his critical faculty. Music may exert that power for good or evil, strength or weakness, banality or poetry, and people ordinarily judge their hymns by the pleasure they give rather than by the quality of the feeling evoked. Stainer's highly emotional, almost self-pitying tune to The saints of God, their conflict past wrenches the strong meaning of the words into something less strong, just as Barnby's tune to For all the saints weakens the force of the text while 'Sine Nomine' by its vigour gives it a bracing feeling which it would not have if recited. The words have strength in their own right but Vaughan Williams' tune gives them exultation. The banal words and tune of While shepherds watched have yet become popular; here, however, the Christmas story exerts its perennial appeal so that the hymn resembles a folk-song ballad where plot overrides tune and words. In Hark, the herald angels sing the unadorned theology would perhaps, like 'Jerusalem', never have been popularised without its jubilant tune. The power of music should in fact teach a lesson to those whose business it is to choose hymns.
To be sung by the unskilled music must naturally keep its difficulties of performance within limits. Of these limits that of compass and tessitura come first in importance: a compass of a tenth and a tessitura centring round G, A, B suit all voices. Unskilled singers who have quite a tenor quality speaking voice find notes above C beyond them, except occasionally, without a trained choir to lead them. Congregations should seldom be expected to sing above E-flat, even D in villages where the number of singers is small and the organ often a semitone above normal pitch. As for the melodic shape, no criterion can be set. Conjunct melodies always give easy results but the 'stilt tunes' of the eighteenth century show that conjunct motion can become unutterably dull. The large number of popular stilt tunes shows that leaps are no bar to success as we see in O God, our help, the seventh drop in 'Richmond' or God moves in a mysterious way. Too much rhythmic parallelism sounds dull to a musician but often delights the simple collective mind of a congregation; rhythmic subtlety, in fact, is out of place with a large body of singers though it can often be effective where the congregation is small or fairly skilled. By lengthening the notes at certain places in 'Old Hundredth' many think to improve the tune, but it is questionable whether the new parallelism attained is any better than the other obtained when the tune is sung in equal notes and words are not distorted (short vowels on long notes). Music details HERE. Melodies are indeed sometimes more subtle in rhythm when the gathering-note is abandoned but the metric beat of the hymn is eased on the initial note of each line. No doubt the best system is to vary the length of the gathering-note as one varies the reciting-note of the chant in psalm singing; but perhaps time and experience alone would induce congregations to think so intensely during their hymn-singing.
Queer and presumably unalterable is the custom of taking up the collection during the singing of an act of praise to the Almighty. It requires much practice and experience in members of the congregation—and even choir—who must at some place in the hymn hold a hymn book with one hand and with the other take the bag, release their mite and pass the bag besides keeping the act of praise going. There are obvious solutions, but few churches seem to adopt them. One day, perhaps, every church will print and distribute its music lists; the calling out of arithmetical numbers during divine service is as unseemly as it is unnecessary.