The Twentieth-Century Hymn Explosion: Where the Fuse Was Lit

Article excerpt

My subject is the beginnings of the Hymn Explosion, as it came to be called. I seem to have been around on the edge of much of it, and so some of what I shall have to say will have an autobiographical flavour as I try to look at those early years.

So, I take you to a meeting of the Hymn Committee of Westcott House Theological College in 1955. It was a scene re-enacted every week as four of us sat down to choose the hymns for the next week from the two books in use there, The English Hymnal 1906 and 1933 and Hymns Ancient ana Modern Revised 1950. We often failed to find anything satisfactory and at that point the member who was to become in due time a diocesan bishop of the Church of England would say, "I must write a hymn about that." We did not doubt his ability, but we took his promise with a pinch of salt, because but he did not write a hymn then, nor has he ever to my knowledge. I make two points from that. We were not satisfied with the hymns that we had, but we did not see writing new hymns as a real possibility. What was to change was not only the existence of new hymns but, equally important, the expectation that new hymns could be written.

The Precursors

The first development to arouse my interest was what was emerging from Taizé, the meditative choruses, but even more the Gelineau psalmody. At the time, that seemed a real step forward. Here was a way of chanting the psalms that could, with the right style of music, become a strong mode of chanting the psalms, open to congregational participation. I was serving in my first parish by then, but came to know about this, and I did my best to move it forward with a small publication I engineered. I was still pushing this, both with psalms and with canticles, old and newly formulated, when in 1962 I was appointed Precentor of Manchester Cathedral.

What was really causing a stir at this time was the music in a popular idiom that was being introduced to our worship largely by the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group. The title was wholly accurate, if cumbersome. A group of young clergy and musicians found most parish church music at the time dull. Most people, and certainly most young people, listened to a different kind of music, the dance-band music of the time and the songs from the great Broadway musicals. So this group set about writing music in this style to go with the texts we then had in church. They wrote new tunes to the standard hymns. This was the period when the standard Sunday morning worship in Anglican churches was changing from Sung Matins or a Sung Eucharist to the Parish Eucharist, with its emphasis on congregational participation, but still with The Book of Common Prayer 1662. So, there were settings of the Prayer Book text for the Eucharist, the best known being Geoffrey Beaumont's 20th Century Folk Mass and Patrick Appleford's Mass of Five Melodies. This music was not well served by the organ-at least in the way that most church organists had been taught to play the instrument-so this was the time in which one began to hear instrumental groups in the churches, above all with guitars. The "Do It Yourself" approach to music was abroad at the time in Youth Clubs such as the one that I helped to run in that first parish. It had depended on a record player for its music for dancing but then branched out into a Skiffle Group (with its tea chest double bass and a guitar or two). This breaking of the mould of church music by the use of a popular idiom was, I believe, a true groundbreaker, that prepared the way for the developments that followed. I think the original team would be happy with that. They claimed after all to be writing throw-away music, and most of it has been duly dropped. All that has survived is the tune Gratias for "Now thank we all our God,"1 and two hymn tunes from the more sophisticated part of the movement represented by Malcolm Williamson, the most useful and indeed delightful of which is Hail to the LORD WHO COMES. …