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Recalling the hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams

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The hymn tunes of Ralph Vaughan Williams make consensus: undisputed quality. The greatest English composer of his generation is credited with composing, adapting or arranging over 80 tunes to important hymns of the Christian faith. Who can imagine All Saints’ Day without singing “For All the Saints” on Vaughan Williams’ SINE NOMINE or the hymn of blessing “God Be with You ‘Til We Meet Again” not sung on RANDOLPH?

At the end of the 19e century, the Anglican Church sang many ‘folk’ style hymns that were emotional, subjective and often self-indulgent in their religious message. The tunes used were sentimental, simple, secular musical style, and showed limited melodic imagination with repeated notes and rhythms, reserved rhythmic movement, and a stagnant, inactive bass line. This is perhaps the earliest example of consumerism in music, a culture of listening by people unaccustomed to participating in a musical experience whose ears were filled with secular music heard during the week.

Vaughan Williams became music editor of the English hymnbook (1906) with the intention of including the best tunes and hymns written in English. “Good taste is a moral rather than a musical matter,” Vaughan Williams wrote in the anthem’s preface. He believed that inferior hymn tunes should not be used in worship and believed that hymn singing should provide the best musical experience of the week for those in attendance.

Vaughan Williams saw English folk and traditional songs as an alternative to frequently used tunes. He believed that native songs gave a bright and joyful flavor to hymn-singing and fostered a sense of heritage among the English. The tunes were arranged in unison with organ accompaniment, modified for liturgical use, and made accessible to singers through the use of lower keys. Examples of English folksong tunes are KINGSFOLD, FOREST GREEN, SUSSEX, KING’S LYNN, MONK’S GATE, SHIPSTON and HERONGATE.

In addition, Vaughan Williams revived tunes from earlier sources, including non-English folksongs, German chorales and French psalmodies: PICARDY, LASST UNS ERFREUEN, SONG 1, RESONET IN LAUDIBUS, DEUS TUORUM MILITUM and CHRISTE SANCTORUM. Equally important, the new tracks composed by Vaughan Williams set a standard for judging all tracks, for example, SINE NOMINE, DOWN AMPNEY, KING’S WESTON, RANDOLPH, SALVE FESTA DIES, MAGDA, THE CALL, WHITE GATES and OAKLEY. As we enjoy singing hymns to tunes by Vaughan Williams, we experience the characteristics of a good tune, how it contributes to the success of the text, nurtures our spiritual development, and brings transcendence in worship.

To gauge the change in melody composition caused by Vaughan Williams, consider the tunes set to William W. How’s hymn “For All the Saints”: Joseph Barnby’s SARUM (1868) and its replacement, Vaughan’s SINE NOMINE Williams, composed for the English hymnbook.

SARUM shows limited melodic interest, repeated notes and rhythmic movement, stagnant bassline, little forward movement and energy. Many musical phrases end in sustained notes that compromise the triumphal text. The concluding “Alleluias” are melodically and rhythmically anticlimactic, and the overall impact of hymn and melody expires.

SINE NOMINE (unnamed) contains both unison and harmonized stanzas. Attention is drawn to the rhythmic interest of the “walking” bass which projects energy and forward movement throughout each stanza. The third melodic phrase (bar 10, “thy name, O Jesus”) receives the highest note up to this point in defense of the text’s importance. Vaughan Williams surprised again in bar 12 by having “Hallelujah!” enter before you expect it, on the third beat. And not only: it extends the melody of “Alleluia! above the preceding high note to create a moment of genuine excitement in the explanation of the text. The exultant text of How is given an equivalent musical framework that leads to spiritual ancestry.

A new era in hymn writing emerged with innovator and pioneer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams raised the standard of musical creativity and superiority in composing hymn tunes to support meaningful worship, identified the value of a tune in effectively supporting a hymn, and provided a model from which all composers hymns could learn and congregations could enjoy. singing.

This blog post first appeared in the Church Music Institute Newsletter, December 2021.

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