20th Century British Hymnody to 1950

Dissatisfaction with Victorian Hymnody had gathered momentum toward the end of the 19th century. Although more recent views have encouraged a more favorable reappraisal of that period, there is ample evidence that Victorian congregational song was in need of rejuvenation. See An Overview of 20th Century British Hymnody.


Insofar as music is concerned, a small start toward hymnic revival was made by a group of composers in the latter decades of the 19th century: From Hubert Perry (1848-1918), professor, author, organist and composer, came such broadly sweeping tunes as INTERCESSOR and RUSTINGTON. Because Charles V. Stanford (1852-1924), prominent conductor and composer, thought in expansive festival terms rather than congregational terms, his hymn tune contributions were minimal. He is remembered, however, for ENGELBERG, set now mostly to John B. Geyer's "We know that Christ is raised" or Fred Pratt Green's popular "When in our music God is glorified" (UMH # 68). Like, Stanford, Basil Harwood (1859-1949), a cathedral and collegiate organist, wrote little for the churches; however, his THORNBURY has enjoyed some success. These tunes signaled a new trend during a period of general music complacency. However, the 1904 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, incorporated these and other tunes in this newer musical vocabulary (sometimes referred to as, the "big" English hymn tune") failed to win popular acceptance.

At this juncture several energetic men began to challenge the conventionalities of prevailing usage: Robert Bridges (1844-1930), poet laureate who had retired from an earlier career in medicine to give himself to literature and hymnody; George R. Woodward (1848-1934), a learned Tractarian priest of Oxford; Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), an Anglican vicar who became professor of ecclesiastical art in King's College, London; and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), greatest British composer of his generation.

In 1899, Bridges prepared the Yattendon Hymnal which championed the restoration of old metrical psalm, chorale, and plainsong tunes. To supply suitable words in English for many of these, Bridges found he had to make new translations or create completely new texts. This resulted in an excellent group of hymns, including "Ah, holy Jesus", "O splendor of God’s glory bright", and "All my hope on God is founded'.

Woodward edited Songs of Syon (1904, 1910) a much larger collection following the same general plan of Bridges (that is, reviving tunes for British from the Latin, Genevan and German traditions and writing texts that could fit their unusual meters).


Neither the Yattendon Hymnal nor Songs of Syon found wide use, but they made it easier for Percy Dearmer and his musical collaborator, Ralph Vaughan Williams, to achieve the successful publication of The English Hymnal (1906).

The pioneering work of Vaughan Williams was followed by the labors of a group of prominent music teachers, including Walford Davies (1869-1941) and the Shaw brothers, Martin Shaw (1875-1958) and Geoffrey Shaw (1879-1943). Davies' hymn-tune style (more conventional than Vaughan Williams' but less so than most of the Victorians) has not worn well in the late 20th century. Martin Shaw, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, was versatile and uncompromising in his hymn-tune style. Along with the older composer, he was musical editor of both Songs of Praise (1926, enlarged ed., 1931) -- the direct successor of The English Hymnal and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) -- the carol equivalent of The English Hymnal. [See carol.]

These books contained further adaptations of folk tunes, such as BESONCON, COVENTRY CAROL, NOEL NOUVELET, NOS ALLONS and ROYAL OAK. Martin Shaw also wrote original tunes intended for unison singing in the chapel services of public schools. His PURPOSE, first included in Songs of Praise (1931) and subsequently in many public school hymnals, is a good example of his broad melodic style. His younger brother, Geoffrey Shaw, a public school musician, wrote tunes like LANGHAM. This tune has a forcible melody rising to a climax on the refrain of Laurence Housman's, "Father eternal, ruler of creation," for which it was written.

Songs of Praise was no less fresh and zestful in its selection of texts. Percy Dearmer, its editor, continued the liberal theological policy he had established in The English Hymnal, choosing, editing, translating and writing hymns that boldly confronted the new mood of doubt and experimentation prevalent at the time. An example of his translation from the Latin is "Father, we praise thee (you). "He (All) who would valiant be," based on John Bunyan, is a good example of his adaptation of earlier English devotional poetry. "Draw us in the Spirit's tether" reveals his talent as a hymnist in his own right.

Among other important hymn writers of the early 20th century, George Wallace Briggs (1875-1959), Anglican clergyman and educator, is outstanding. His "Christ is the world's true light" and "Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest" are typical of his contributions to Songs of Praise. His "God hath (has) spoke by his (the) prophets" was one of "Ten New Hymns on the Bible" solicited by the Hymn Society (of America, now in the Untied States and Canada) and originally published in American hymnals. Cyril A. Alington (1872-1955), Anglican priest and Dean of Durham, also contributed "Good Christians all (Christian friends), rejoice and sing" to Songs of Praise.

Other writers of this period whose hymns achieved wide use are John Oxenham (1852-1941) (pseudonym for William A. Dunkerly), Congregationalist churchman and novelist, with his "In Christ there is no east or west;" Geoffrey A. Studdert-Kennedy (1883-1929), preacher and chaplain to the king, with his "Awake, awake to love and work;" Jan Struther (pen name for Joyce Anstruther, 1901-1953), poet and novelist, with her "Lord of all hopefulness" and "When Stephen, full of power and grace;" and Timothy Rees (1874-1939), World War II chaplain and Bishop of Llandaff, who wrote "Holy Spirit, ever living as the church's very life," "God is love, let heaven adore him," and "O crucified Redeemer."

In the area of tunes, David Evans (1874-1948), Welsh Presbyterian editor of the revised Church Hymnary (1927), brought enrichment through his harmonizations of traditional tunes including CHRISTE SANCTORUM, GARTAN, LLANFAIR, LLANGLOFFAN, MADRID, NYLAND, KOURTANE and SLANE. Erik H. Thiman (1900-1975), Congregationalist organist and professor, served in nonconformist circles the role that Martin Shaw played in the established church. Kenneth G. Finlay (1982-1974), Scottish shipbuilder and teacher, composed pleasing folk-like melodies such as GARELOCHSIDE. The latter two men were major contributors to Congregational Praise (1951), which was the first collection from British nonconformity to rise above the conventionality characterizing most of the denominational hymnals in the first half of the 20th century. Congregational Praise was published in the same year as The BBC Hymn Book (1950), and one year after the release of the third complete revision of Hymns Ancient and Modern. These collections, in their breadth of vision and balanced regard for all the main traditions, typify the state of British hymnody at mid-20th century.

Other outstanding names connected with these hymnals include Walter K. Stanton (1891-1978), editor-in-chief of The BBC Hymn Book and composer of CANNOCK; Cryil V. Taylor (1907-1991), who worked in several important posts including Canon at Bristol Cathedral, Warden of the Royal School of Church Music, and the composer of SHELDONIAN, MOWSLEY and ABBOT'S LEIGH (his finest tune); and Sydney H. Nicholson (1875-1947), the leading contributor of new tunes to Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised (1950). That collection's content in both text and tune can be fairly represented by Nicholson's CRUCIFER, set to "Lift high the cross" by G.W. Kitchin (1827-1912) and M.R. Newbolt (1874-1956).

The British hymnic stream flowed deep and wide in the period 1900-1955. Periodically fed by fresh and sometimes turbulent spring (The English Hymnal, 1906; Songs of Praise, 1926; Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised (1950); and The BBC Hymn Book, 1951), it ran in full force near mid-century. Reinforced by subtle cross currents springing from the ecumenical movement, the Anglican main course exerted a favorable pressure on nonconformist hymnody which resulted in a general change of taste.


After about 1955, British hymnody ran into troubled waters, stirred in part by the emergence of The 20th Century Church Light Music Group. Founded by Geoffrey Beaumont (1905-1971), who in 1956 published the 20th Century Folk Mass (sometimes called the "Jazz Mass"), this group of lay musicians produced tunes in various secular styles in the hope of popularizing the singing of familiar hymns for the evangelizing the youth. Causing a shock wave in some church music circles, Beaumont deliberately wrote in the "big tune" style of the Broadway musical and succeeded in having two of his best tunes published in a standard Hymnal -- The Baptist Hymn Book (1962), a comprehensive and eclectic collection after the manner of Congregational Praise. Its chief claim to distinction may be its inclusion of Beaumont's CHESTERTON to H.W. Baker's "Lord, thy word abideth," and his GRACIAS to "Now thank we all our God" (Rinkart-Winkworth).

Other tune writers of this movement continued to compose music reminiscent of the popular stage songs of the 1920's and 1930's, but their creative output did not include innovative texts commensurate with their unconventional tunes. Many church leaders have regarded the style of this group as "old hat," patronizing, lacking in subtlety, and too compromising to have accomplished its goal of reaching the unchurched.

Another disturbance in the hymnic stream of the 1960's was caused by Sydney Carter (b. 1915), journalist and songwriter. Carter, a master in the use of modern satire, has written informal texts which are sung to folk melodies or to folk-like melodies newly composed. One of his most widely known songs, Lord of the dance (set to the early American Shaker tune, SIMPLE GIFTS), is written in the style of a carol, reminiscent of the medieval carol, "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day."

Sydney Carter became the patron saint of the modern school of conversational style hymnody which included, among others, Malcolm Stewart (b. 1926). Stewart's songs, lacking Carter's irony and satire, are based mainly on narratives and incidents from the Bible sensitively arranged in an easy folk style. The work of the "Church Light Music Group" and the "folk" hymnody of Carter and his followers represent significant deviations from the mainstream of British hymnody.

Simultaneously with the diverging currents, and in many respects in response to them, was the work of the Dunblane Consultations on church music and hymnody that took place among a group of clergy and musicians in the Scottish village of Dunblane from 1962 to 1969. The purpose of the group’s work was to produce an experimental hymnody with both musical and poetic integrity which could be friendly to a broad cross-section of contemporary worshipers. These church leaders were interested in achieving relevancy without succumbing to the pop culture. Their creative activity resulted in the release of two booklets, Dunblane Praises I (1964) and 'Dunblane Praises II (1967), some of the contents of which were more formally published in New Songs for the Church I and II (1969). This project inspired the early work of such hymnists as Brian Wren and Erik Routley, who later achieved major importance in contemporary hymnic history.

Despite the side currents of "light" and "pop" songs, the mainstream of British hymnody, reinforced by some of the creative efforts of the Dunblane Group, was soon to flow more deeply and widely again. The coming tide was not yet evident in The Anglican Hymnbook (1965). This hymnal represented a conservative reaction, ignoring much in the mainline contemporary styles and omitting altogether the new "pop" styles in favor of the older schools of the 18th-century Evangelicals and the 19th-century Victorians. Though not presenting any development text-wise beyond Hymns Ancient and Modern, Revised, this hymnal was slight more adventurous in its tunes.

Textually, mainstream hymnody had for some time been reduced to a trickle but thanks to hymnists like the Congregational minister, Albert F. Bayly (1901-1984), it did not run completely dry. Bayly wrote his first hymns at the close of World War II and subsequently saw over a hundred of them published. Bayly's work, while imaginatively relating the church's worship to the issues of contemporary life, was thoroughly theological and basically conservative in language. After years of local use, his hymns achieved major representation in hymnals throughout the world.

Bayly's best known hymn in the United States is "Lord, whose love in (through) humble service" (UMH # 581). Other hymns dealing with Christian responsibility in social and ecological concerns are "Lord of all good, our gifts we bring," "Lord, save your world," and "What does the Lord require for praise and offering" (UMH # 441). Hymnal supplements released in the 1970's in England contained many of Bayly's hymns--a testimony to their usefulness as contemporary utterances yet tempered by a true classic poise.

Among other promising post-1950 hymnists was Donald W. Hughes (1911-1967), headmaster of a boy's school, whose creative endeavors were cut short by an untimely death. His craft is evident in "Creator of the earth and skies" (UMH #450).


New English Renaissance is a term applied to a group of writers and composers whose work appeared in several supplemental hymnals during the six-year period--1969-1975. These hymnal supplements are vivid evidence of the rapidity of style change in more recent British hymnody. The also indicate a concern on the part of publishers to keep parent books in use while exploring for new treasures during an ear that was characterized by trial and experimentation. By 1980 each major denomination had published at least one hymnal supplement.

[From Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath (Nashville: Church Street Press, 2nd edition, 1995, pp. 160-165.]

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