Georgian Society for East Yorkshire

Hymns and their tunes during the Georgian period- and some of the characters involved in their production: Part 1



I have at home a tiny bound copy of “Church Services” from 1856 which has at the back “A New Version of the Psalms of David fitted to the tunes used in churches by N Brady, DD and N. Tate, Esq.”. This metrical Psalter first appeared in 1696, not entirely supplanting the 1562 Sternhold and Hopkins, referred to as the “Old Version”. The contemporary Calvinistic practice restricted congregational singing to these metrical versions of the psalms. “Singing hymns was regarded as a popish aberration, putting human words on a par with Holy Writ” (John Betjeman)

The “New Version” of psalms (mostly in Common metre 86 86, Long metre 88 88 and Short Metre 66 86) formed a significant part of the musical diet of most parish church congregations for the next 150 years. Also set were the usual canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer, together with the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments.

However, there was considerable progress during the 18th century. During their return from chapel the 22 year-old Dissenter Isaac Watts had complained to his father of the present state of things. “Then give us something better, young man!” had been the older man’s reply. Isaac certainly did, publishing his first book in 1707. His most famous hymns are “When I survey the wondrous cross”, “Jesus shall reign” and “O God, our help” (inspired by Ps.90)

Of course, there was a huge amount of religious poetry well before Watts, for example George Herbert’s “King of glory, King of peace” and Samuel Crossman’s incomparable “My song is love unknown”, but these poems and others were never sung as hymns until the early 20th century and are therefore not within the scope of this article.

Anglican worship gradually permitted the use of a very few hymns such as Nahum Tate’s own “While shepherds watched”, printed at the back of the“New Version”. William Cowper and Augustus Toplady (“Rock of Ages”) and others provided fine examples but it is the Methodists who have provided us with the majority of Georgian hymnody now so familiar to us.

John and particularly Charles ,who wrote over 7,000 hymns (e.g.”Jesu, lover of my soul”, “O for a thousand tongues”)did an enormous amount to advance the Christian faith through hymn-singing, which has been the bed-rock of many a Methodist service.

The first “High Church” hymn-writer was Reginald Heber (1783-1826) who penned “Bread of the world”, “Brightest and best”, “Holy, holy, holy”, but was worried about his hymns being sung in public and they were not published until after his death, around the same time as the long-overdue legalisation of hymn-singing in Church of England services!

Now- the tunes!

Most of the old psalm tunes were English or Scottish. Most well-known is Tallis’s Canon, written for Archbishop Parker’s “Whole Psalter” and since at the latest 1732 associated with Thomas Ken’s “Glory to thee, my God, this night”. As the 18th century progressed, the limited range of metres in the “New Version” were expanded- for example John Wainwright’s “Christians awake!”10 10 10. Fine tunes in more usual metres abounded and were not necessarily connected with any particular hymn. Those marriages were made largely by later hymnals. I shall list a few of my favourite, with the texts with which they are now invariably linked, for ease of identification:-

Jeremiah Clarke’s Bishopthorpe “Immortal love, for ever full”, common metre.

J. Hatton’s Duke Street “Fight the good fight”, long metre.

Charles Lockhart’s Carlisle “Stand up and bless the Lord”, short metre.

William Croft’s Hanover “O worship the King” with the unusual metre of 55 55 65.

The Methodists encouraged the writing of many new tunes, commissioning Handel to write Gopsal 66 88 88 for Charles Wesley’s “Rejoice, the Lord is King” and were particularly famous for their “fuguing tunes” which involved a little elementary counterpoint including places where the melody line falls silent for a few bars or becomes temporarily subservient to another voice part (usually the bass). Good, well-known examples are T. Jarman’s Lyngham “O for a thousand tongues to sing” and J. Ellers’s Diadem “All hail the power of Jesus’ name”. Both these tunes date from near the end of our period, but are clearly inspired by the previous generation. One very late example is often attributed to Handel. It is, in fact, by the American Lowell Mason (1792-1872) whose tune for “Joy to the world” is inspired by phrases from Handel’s “Messiah”. Some fuguing tunes are cruder in their cavalier treatment of the words. Percy Scholes in the Oxford Companion to Music quotes “And catch the flee-, and catch the flee-, and catch the fleeting hour”.

Julian Savory, June 2020

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