IDLE CURIOSITY

And Glory Shone Around

 

ONE WAY of adding spice to our hymns is to celebrate a notable anniversary. Something not to be overdone, and we don't want a history lesson at every service; but come Christmas 2000 it could be worth remembering that just 300 years ago, one of the classic Christmas hymns was launched on our church and nation. It arrived in those pre-Wesley, pre-Heber days when hymn-singing was nonconformist, suspect, and probably illegal. It hitch-hiked its way into the Book of Common Prayer on the back of the 'New Version' of the Psalms (1696), from Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady.

Whichever music you use, the former of these Irishmen is credited with the words which follow Luke chapter 2 so closely. And this Christmas as ever since then, by lantern or torch or candle or electric light, millions will be turning back the clock to launch into While shepherds watched their flocks by night.

Which music? Surely there is only one tune! Not exactly; WINCHESTER OLD predates the familiar words by more than a hundred years; for over a century it accompanied a metrical version of Psalm 134. At least the Christmas hymn provides a few extra verses, with more scope for variation, parts, solos and descants.

Now come with me to Carol Praise, that lively, under-used Christmas resource from 1987 (editors, Perry and Peacock, publishers, Marshall Pickering).

Here we are; Nos. 341 to 344, and four different tunes to the same text. That doesn't happen at every choir-practice. We start on familiar ground with the oldest tune, though even that has a John Barnard descant (which is always good news). Next in line, our old Methodist friend LYNGHAM, usually the staple music of O for a thousand tongues. But wait again; the heirs of the Wesleys seem to prefer LYDIA, RICHMOND or even UNIVERSITY for their former number one hymn; their latest book 'Hymns and Psalms' prints LYNGHAM for one text only - While shepherds watched! Either way, this tune is well after Wesley, let alone Nahum Tate.

Back to Carol Praise, with words printed out each time to help both musicians and congregations with phrases to repeat, and tune number three is undated. 'English traditional melody' is a fair enough label for ILKLEY MOOR BAHT'AT.

Try this one, shut your eyes, and just listen to Thomas Hardy's father swinging things along from the west gallery! A fourth tune, with the name Herbert Chappell attached, might prove more tricky.

While you are thumbing through the book, not to mention its mind-boggling indexes, your eye might catch some other treasures. But perhaps your congregation can't quite cope with Riding out across the desert (tune: THE CAMEL SHUFFLE) or the breathless rewrite of The twelve days of Christmas, aka On a night when the world in sin and sorrow lay, the Saviour Jesus was born? Then maybe the book for you is the slightly more up-market 'Carols for Today' instead (Perry and Ihiff, Hodder and Stoughton, same year).

Hint; both books include the Wigmore/Edwards gem Small wonder the star.

We were talking of shepherds. You may have to adjudicate between swathing bands and swaddling clothes; all mankind and whatever else you can replace it with. But if one year is better than any others for trying something different, this surely is it. The New Directions AD2000 music choice? It has to be ILKLEY MOOR. If only for the end of verse one, which gets you off to the best of all possible starts: 'And glory shone around, and glory shone around, and glory shone around!'

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.

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