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Quentin Letts: Why hymns are the true voice of England

For Italians it's romantic arias. For Germans, lieder. Give me Isaac Watts, John Bunyan and Edward Elgar

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

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. It is a matter of introducing our children to noble rhymes, sturdy rhythm, classical form. And not just our children. BBC licence payers are not given so many classical hymns these days. On Songs of Praise, plastic infomercials keep interrupting. Radio Two’s Sunday hymns programme has been shunted to the dawn slot. Modernisation or marginalisation?

Did you ever see South African Mike Procter bowl? He did so ‘off the wrong foot’. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s tune ‘Sine Nomine’ does the same at the start of ‘For all the saints who from their labours rest’. The organ hits a bottom G before the congregation enters with a high D. From the British Camp I sometimes fancy I can see Cheltenham, where I used to watch Procter bowl for Gloucestershire at the cricket festival. Vaughan Williams’s ‘Down Ampney’ (the tune to ‘Come Down O Love Divine’) is further east, beyond Cirencester.

Some of the great hymn tunes could almost be folk songs. Take Bunyan’s ‘To Be A Pilgrim’ and its explosive third verse — ‘no goblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit’. Its tune, ‘Monks Gate’, is English traditional. The fifth line almost shouts — ‘There’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent’ — and a feisty congregation will hit those two ‘ents’ like a workman slapping his quid coins on a bar top on Friday night.

Here is church worship with its rural parish roots ripped bare. Same with the Easter hymn ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’. Imagine singing it with a Morris man’s staves tapping the beat. Those repeated ‘allelulias’ suddenly become an irresistible dance refrain, not a boring, churchy thing.

I never feel more proud of my country than when singing hymns, from Parry’s ‘Sunset and Evening Star’ to Hubert Howells’s wringingly sad ‘Michael’ (the tune to ‘All My Hope on God is Founded’). Both of those composers lived near Gloucester, just past May Hill.

Many hymns have peaks of optimism falling away to an acceptance of fate — the third and fourth lines of Jeremiah Clarke’s ‘Bishopthorpe’ (‘Immortal love for ever full’), full of grace notes and brave little swells. S.S. Wesley’s tune ‘Hereford’ (‘O thou who camest from above’) is hailed by the new dictionary for its ‘yearning intensity’: Samuel Sebastian was the restless Wesley, ever itching for betterment. Dick Watson, co-editor of the dictionary, says hymns ‘are for many people the only poetry that they know. They allow people to express their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows.’

Down in the lee of the Malverns lies the village of Colwall, where a former vicar was the Rev C. Harris, writer of ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’.

Broadheath-born Edward Elgar taught at the Elms school in Colwall as a young man. He would whoosh down Evendine Lane, cycling with his heels stuck wide, the breeze rippling his soup-strainer moustache. Elgar was organist at Broadheath’s Roman Catholic church, not much more than a first-tee drive from the British Camp. Hymns can teach a young composer the virtues of compactness and sentimentality. Elgar named his hymn tune ‘Drake’s Broughton’, a Worcestershire village near Pershore. You can see that from the top of the British Camp, too. So long as your eyes are not by then smarting with tears at recent neglect of the treasure of English hymnody, a neglect the Canterbury dictionary goes some small way to redress.


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