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More Ancient than Modern

The real deal
I love church music. I have been singing it for 40 years and it includes some of the most beautiful music ever written. Which is why I want to ask the churches of Britain why the have such a love affair with Ancient and Modern hymn books.

I need to give a little historical perspective. Back in Victorian times there was only one hymn book worth using - Hymns Ancient and Modern. But it had significant problems. It was chock full of nauseously maudlin Victorian hymns that no one in their right mind would sing these days. And many of its tunes and harmonies were awful. For example, Welsh tunes were excluded, omitting some of the greatest melodies ever. The only possible reason I can see for this was racism. Seriously. As for harmonies, Bach was bowdlerised and many of the other hymns had dull harmonies not worth singing.

One man was primarily responsible for countering this - the great Ralph Vaughan Williams. He masterminded the musical content of the 20th century rival that took the nation's cathedrals by storm - The English Hymnal (updated to New English Hymnal). There is hardly a cathedral in the land that doesn't use this. Yet most parish churches stick with A and M. The good news is that if they buy the latest version of that book, they are in for a serious awakening. A and M has now imported many of RVW's gorgeous harmonies, and does allow Welsh tunes (though sometimes as a 'second' tune to a totally limp one). It has also done away with some of the crazy omissions - superb numbers from English Hymnal, like the Russian Kontakion for the Dead, and the mildly bonkers (the tune changes part way through) but glorious St Patrick's Breastplate.

So that's it, really. Next time you replace your hymn books, churches, put the New English Hymnal at the top of your list for a real hymn book, but if you must go for A and M, choose the latest one.

I'll leave you not with a hymn, but with an example of the sort of Tudorbethan church music that makes life worth living, in a wonderful, contemplative fashion, William Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus.


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