HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS IN HYMNS

 

THE HYMNAL committee called for more coffee. We were still toiling through the letter A, and had reached ‘Angels from the realms of glory’. At last, a chance to speak up: "Do we have to set it to IRIS?", I ask, "It makes it sounds like ‘Jingle Bells’, and that’s how everybody sings it. We are so busy saving our breath for the next Glo-o-o-o-o-o-oria that nobody bothers about the verses!"

"Well, some people sing it to LEWISHAM". "LEWISHAM? IRIS is a much nicer name than that!" Was this the moment to raise the whole debate to a new plane? "So, do you have some kind of problem with Lewisham? Is the whole earth filled with the glory of God, or just the earth with the exception of Lewisham? Does your prejudice extend into Deptford and New Cross, conveniently stopping short of Greenwich...?" and so forth.

Readers of New Directions need no reminding of the strategic importance of Lewisham in the eternal plan. I have waited by the Clock Tower, worked in the Hospital, and may one day worship in one of its churches. It is not simply somewhere your train passes through. Where are the glossy calendars with Twelve Magical Lewisham Scenes, I want to know? Yet the Estate Agent mentality has insidiously crept into our very hymnals! Just as properties in Lewisham cast are commonly advertised as being in the Blackheath area, so the hymn-tune LEWISHAM has been fashionably restyled KENSINGTON NEW.

How shall we title our tune? Does anyone notice? Was it hard on St Philip and St James’ Day, to avoid something so delightful as BEDFORDSHIRE MAY DAY CAROL? My old Methodist friend Douglas Wollen, sometime historian of Wesley’s chapel was almost carried away in announcing ‘O love how deep, how broad, how high’ to the tune O AMOR QUAM EXSTATICUS! as he tasted aloud every Latin syllable. And this in Poplar, which itself has at least two tunes named after it.

Some composers name their tunes after their children, or wives, or (I suppose) husbands. Which is fine until a tune drops out of fashion or is replaced by another. Others choose football teams (CHELSEA, NEWCASTLE, TOTTENHAM) while others prefer to sound religious (CONSECRATION, CRUCIFER, CUDDESDON). Saints are popular, the greediest, like ST AMBROSE and ST CATHERINE, have five each.

It is less imaginative to name your tune after the hymn’s opening words (PRAISE MY SOUL, etc.); what is gained in easy identification is lost if the tune is used for other words. But NICAEA was smart choice for ‘Holy, holy, holy’; you can follow that only with TERSANCTUS. ‘Songs of Praise’ (the book, not the programme) was fond of tunes like CHERRY TREE, CHEERFUL, or CORNFIELDS (‘Fields of corn, give up your ears’); perhaps that was part of the problem.

NEW SABBATH, MOUNT EPHRAIM and CAMBRIDGE NEW have moved over into literary history in the evocative poems of Thomas Hardy; George Eliot has her own hymn symbolism in her novels. I spotted GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS in a more recent tale, but when will a Booker Prize-winner feature anything from "Hymns and Psalms"?

Though you would never guess it from the many repeats in the average Index of Tunes, there are still plenty of names to choose from. When you composers run out of wives, daughters, teams and towns, the street where you live may help. To end in the inner-city where I started, BOW COMMON LANE is one of many that sound better than they look.

 

Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church, Old Kent Road in the diocese of Southwark.