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A Practical Discourse On Some Principles Of Hymn-singing by Robert Bridges


'The seven tunes by Tallis are all transcripts of his original four-part compositions. Only two of these tunes are in the common books; one of them |The Ordinal| is always reset, the other |Canon,| which is usually sung to Bp. Ken's evening hymn, is completely altered, the canon being put in a different position and the harmony changed. This tune is I believe correctly edited for the first time in the Y. H. and it is now thus sung at Wells Cathedral.

'Of the eight tunes by Orlando Gibbons, two only (and these altered both in rhythm and harmony) appear in the common books. All Gibbons' tunes are given in the Y. H. with his own bass, the inner parts being supplied.

'There is a complete list of the music in the word-book of the Yattendon Hymnal, which is published by Mr. Blackwell of Broad Street, Oxford, and may be bought for 1s. 6d.'


The origin of this book was my attempt, when precentor of a village choir, to provide better settings of the hymns than those in use.

When I gave up my office, I printed the first twenty-five hymns for the convenience of the choir, and also for the sake of the tunes by Jeremy Clark, which I had been at some pains to restore, and for the preservation of the tunes composed on our behalf by Professor Wooldridge.

My choice of music had so far been limited to tunes, for which suitable words were to be found in Hymns Ancient & Modern; but by the time that these first tunes were printed, I determined to continue the book free of this restriction, and, from whatever source, to provide words for tunes which I had hitherto been unable to use. I then became aware of a real cause for the absence of most of these tunes from the common hymnals: there were no words of any kind to which they could be sung. Having already translated some of the old Latin hymns for their proper melodies, I was thence led on to the more difficult task of supplying the greater need of these other tunes; the result being that over forty of these hundred hymns have english words newly written by myself. Almost all of these new hymns are in some sense translations, for even where an original hymn could not be followed in its entirety, as an old Latin hymn generally may be, there was usually a foundation to begin upon, and I never failed to find the music conditioning, dictating, or inspiring the remainder. I did not willingly engage in this, nor until I had searched word-books of all kinds; a fruitless labour, unless for the hope begotten thereof that my practice in versifying and my love for music may together have created something of at least relative value.

The unusual method which I was constrained to follow, that is of writing words to suit existing music, has its advantages. In some cases, as will be seen in the notes to the hymns, the musician, out of despair or even contempt for the doggrel offered to him, has composed a fine tune quite independent of the words to which it was dedicated, and such tunes have been silent ever since they were composed: while even when a melody has been actually inspired by a particular hymn, the attention of the composer to the first stanza has not infrequently set up a hirmos, or at least a musical scheme of feeling, which, not having been in the mind of the writer of the words, is not carried out in his other stanzas: indeed, as every one must have observed, the words of hymns have too often been written with insufficient attention to the conditions which a repetition of any music to every stanza must impose. To get rid of such discrepancies between words and music is advantageous to both, and although this treatment cannot of course be applied to english hymns, -- which it is not allowable to alter, except in cases of glaring unfitness or absurdity, such as would if uncorrected cause the neglect of a good hymn, -- yet, where the hymn has to be translated from a foreign language, some reconstruction is generally inevitable, and it can follow no better aim than that of the mutual enforcement of words and music. And the words owe a courtesy to the music; for if a balance be struck between the words and music of hymns, it will be found to be heavily in favour of the musicians, whose fine work has been unscrupulously altered and reduced to dullness by english compilers, with the object of conforming it in rhythm to words that are unworthy of any music whatever. The chief offenders here are the protestant reformers, whose metrical psalms, which the melodies were tortured to fit, exhibit greater futility than one would look for even in men who could thus wantonly spoil fine music.

The form and size of the book were determined by the type, chosen because it was the only one that I could find of any beauty; and I wished that my book should in this respect give an example, and be worthy both of the music and its sacred use. Moreover a book from which two or three singers can read is more convenient in the choir than a multiplicity of small books; and the music being in full score, its intention cannot be mistaken: for it must be understood that most of these tunes are set in the manner proper for voices, but unsuitable for the piano or other keyed instrument; and the book is intended to encourage unaccompanied singing. A choir that cannot sing unaccompanied cannot sing at all; and this is not an uncommon condition in our churches, where choirs with varying success accompany the organ. A proper manner of sustained singing, and the true artistic pleasure that should govern it, will never be obtained until these conditions are reversed.

There is one novelty which I am responsible for introducing, namely the four-part vocal settings of certain early plain-song melodies. The later plain-song tunes, such as No.44, are, I suppose, as fit for this treatment as any other tunes of the same date; but in the case of the earlier melodies, which were composed before the invention of any complete system of harmony, it is generally agreed that they should be sung in unison, in fact the more elaborate of them cannot be sung otherwise. To give four-part settings of any of these early tunes calls therefore for an explanation, which I will give as briefly as possible.

When these tunes are sung, they are usually accompanied, and this implies a harmonic treatment. Now the best harmonic treatment which they can have is the Palestrinal, because that was the earliest complete system, and therefore the nearest to their time, and also because we may rely on the truth of its interpretation of the modes for the reason that Palestrina had never heard any music that was not modal. A modern musician, if he attempts to go back beyond Palestrina, must draw on his imagination, and while his aim must be to produce something artistically and technically less perfect than Palestrina's system, his work, when it is done, will carry neither authority nor conviction.

If then we take Palestrina's harmonic interpretation of the modes, it seems to me that there can be no objection to giving vocal parts to the simpler hymns. If it is preferred to sing them in unison, the modal settings will be a guide to the accompanist. But it is my opinion that such settings as I offer will really please, and they may possibly do something to bring these tunes, which have a unique, unmatchable beauty, into favour with choirs that dislike the effort and waste of unison singing. These settings offer no difficulty of execution all; that is necessary is that the under voices should know the melody: and though this is not generally thought requisite in a modern hymn, it is asking nothing extra of a choir that would sing the plain-song tunes; for even if they are sung in unison, they must first be known by heart (otherwise their rhythmical freedom, which defies notation, and is indispensable to their beauty, cannot be approached), and when once a choir has got thus far, the under parts, being phrased with the melody, will easily follow it. An explanation of the notation of these settings is given in the note to Hymn 29. Congregational singing of hymns is much to be desired; but, though difficult to obtain, it is not permissible to provoke it by undignified music. Its only sound musical basis is good melody: good melodies should therefore be offered to the people, such as it has been the object of this book to bring together; and they should have as much freedom and variety of rhythm as possible. If some of the good melodies are, owing to their wide compass or other difficulty, unfit for congregational singing, this is an advantage; because neither are all hymn-words equally suitable. Most of the words in this book are suitable for congregational singing; some are not. A hymn-book which is intended entirely for congregational use must be faulty in one of two ways; either it will offer for congregational singing hymns whose sacred and intimate character is profaned by such a treatment, or it will have to omit some of the most beautiful hymns in the language: but congregations differ much, not only with regard to the music in which they are capable of joining, but also as to the sort of words which best express their religious emotion.

In the following notes the left-hand side of the page is given to the words, the right to the music of each hymn: in the latter column will be found full information as to the text of the music, the source whence it is derived, &c., together with a careful account of every departure that has been made from the originals. It is hoped that this will not only be of general interest, but that it may inspire confidence in the text of the book, and ensure the reception which its authority demands. For the text of the music, and all the statements in the notes, I am responsible; excepting those portions of the notes which are therein assigned to their proper authorities, and in these I am responsible for the correctness of the quotations and references, in which I have done my best to secure accuracy. I owe much to the kindness of Mr. W. Barclay Squire at the British Museum; I have also to thank Mr. Godfrey Arkwright for the loan of some rare books, and Dr. Chas. Wood of Cambridge for two settings and occasional reading of music proofs; in which latter task I gratefully record the help of Mr. J. S. Liddle and Dr. Percy Buck. To Mr. Miles Birket Foster I owe the three trios by Jeremy Clark, and to the Revs. W. H. Frere and G. H. Palmer the text of the plain-song melodies, and the information concerning them which is given in the following notes: it is due to the generosity with which they put their learning and judgement at my disposal that I am able to offer these tunes with the same confidence as the rest of the book. Professor Wooldridge, having co-operated with me throughout, has allowed his name to appear on the title page.

No.28 is a good example of this. See also No.98.

No.57 is a good example. The line Du bist mein, und ich bin dein, corresponds in stanza 2 with Wenn die Welt in Truemmer fallt, and in stanza 4 with Elend, Noth, Kreuz, Schmach und Tod. Again in No.77 the opening phrase, Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, of the twenty-second psalm needs music which conditions the other stanzas severely. Again the weak apologetic latter half of the German hymn Herzliebster Jesu, No.42, is irreconcilably out of the key with the pathetic grief of the beginning. Cases in which caesuras and grammatical breaks are inconsistent are numberless.

See note to Hymn 90. Other english hymns altered for practical purposes in this book are Nos.19, 35, 51, last verse of 52, 66, 94, and 96.

I give illustrations of these words in notes to Hymns 27, 54, 58, 63, 68, 84, and 98.

The cheapness is not the direct cause of the ugliness of our common hymn-books, nor is their ugliness the cause of their cheapness. If many copies of a book are sold, they can be sold cheaply; if only a few, then the initial expense, which is much the same whether the book be beautiful or ugly, must be shared between those few buyers and the author. But thus it comes about indirectly for cheapness to be the cause of meanness and ugliness, because in a larger market there is greater indifference to artistic excellence of all kinds, and from habit a preference for what is inferior. In a large edition this book could be sold as cheaply as another.

I state here once for all that in musical matters I offer my opinion with becoming humility.



Edited by Robert Bridges and Professor H. Ellis Wooldridge. Containing 100 hymns and 4 voice-parts. Printed at the Oxford University Press, 1899. May be obtained of Henry Frowde, Oxford Warehouse, Amen Corner, London, E.C., or through any bookseller. Price, 4to boards, 1. A few copies of the Folio, price 4, are still to be had.


Which contains a full list of the music, and is called,


may be had of B. H. Blackwell, Broad Street, Oxford, or through any bookseller. Price 1s. 6d.

Oxford: Horace Hart, Printer to the University

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