Magazine article The Spectator

Voices of England

Magazine article The Spectator

Voices of England

Article excerpt

When all seems too gloomy to endure, I take myself up to the British Camp in the Malverns, there among the windblown tufts and Iron Age ditches. With the rain lashing and my trousers flap-flapping like two Spithead flags, I lean on the gale and claim my birthright: to hum hymns of England and think of our forefathers.

The Camp, by legend the fort of gallant Caractacus, is this kingdom's greatest hill.

At 1,110 feet it is not the tallest. It is not the broadest, sharpest, steepest or most remote.

But from that ridged summit (a wedding cake, say some, though from boyhood I've thought of it as an enormous nipple) you can see far into the three-choir counties: Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford. Hymnshire.

At Christmas we go all gooey over carols. An annual blast of 'Hark the Herald' is enjoyed even by Scroogey secularists. But church music in other seasons is just as good.

Hymns are a buttress against ignorance. They are (as the Arts Council might say) accessible. It is time our politicians and institutions, not least the BBC, rediscovered them.

Hymns are the greatest expressions, in music and verse, of a certain type of Englishness. They pack giddying emotional force in taut metrical form, performed in sober public worship. Hymns are not self-absorbed.

They do not collapse in a sobbing heap and moan that life is unfair. Hymns gave voice to this nation's Christian sturdiness, its sense of mercy amid order. If teachers and BBC producers find that all a bit judgmental, let us try a different tack: hymns build a sense of community. They are our multi-denominational heritage. They can help children connect to poetry and music. There, is that less frightening?

The history of hymns has just been gazetted in a vast reference work, the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, currently online but eventually to be placed between hard covers. It is the first such dictionary for a century, several editors having gone to their graves with their work unfinished. Perhaps Isaac Watts's 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' was sung at their funerals. Here is a hymn in which mankind's individualism is shown to be puny beside the sacrifice at Calvary. Its last lines, sung to the twilit tune 'Rockingham', always make my back tingle - 'love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all'.

Mediterraneans have romantic arias to vent their amorous histrionics. Germans have the precise, doom-laden devotion of lieder. Such icy frauleins. We Anglos, awkward at expressing commitment, sing of questing love amid the swaying fellowship of parish hymns.

Certain tricks repeat themselves: the final note of a hymn often the same as the first; melodic repetition in the first two or four lines; a flourishing of hope before the final diminuendo. You could say this mirrors life. W. Chatterton Dix's 'Allelulia! Sing to Jesus!', which is best sung to the Welsh tune 'Hyfrydol', bubbles away for four lines (verse four has the wonderful 'Earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne'). Then, pow, the turbos open and the hymn reaches the heights - 'Hark! The songs of peaceful Sion, thunder like a mighty flood' - before its slow return of stability.

Hymns are not sung at school assemblies quite as they were. Happy-clappy 'worship songs' often prevail. This is not a harrumph simply about the decline in high-church Christianity. The aesthetics matter. …

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