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Recalling Hymn Tunes by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Recalling hymn tunes by Ralph Vaughan Williams

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

In the late 19th century, the Anglican Church sang many “popular”-style hymns that were emotional, subjective, and often complacent in their religious message. Tunes used were sentimental, simple, secular in 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 first example of consumerism in music, a culture of listening by persons not used to participating in any music-making experience whose ears were filled with secular music heard during the week. 

Vaughan Williams became music editor of the English Hymnal (1906) with the intention of including the best tunes and hymns written in the English language. “Good taste is a moral rather than a musical issue,” Vaughan Williams wrote in the preface to the hymnal. He was convinced hymn tunes of inferior quality should not be used in worship and thought hymn singing should provide the best musical experience of the week for those attending.

Vaughan Williams saw in English folk and traditional songs an alternative to frequently used tunes. He thought native songs provided a bright, cheerful flavor to hymn singing and promoted a sense of heritage among the English people. 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 tunes from English folk songs 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 folk songs, German chorales, and French psalmody: PICARDY, LASST UNS ERFREUEN, SONG 1, RESONET IN LAUDIBUS, DEUS TUORUM MILITUM, and CHRISTE SANCTORUM. Equally important, new tunes composed by Vaughan Williams set a standard for judging all tunes, for example, SINE NOMINE, DOWN AMPNEY, KING’S WESTON, RANDOLPH, SALVE FESTA DIES, MAGDA, THE CALL, WHITE GATES, and OAKLEY. As we take pleasure in singing hymns set to tunes of Vaughan Williams, we experience the characteristics of a good tune, how it contributes to the success of the text, feeds our spiritual development, and brings about transcendence in worship.

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

SARUM shows limited melodic interest, repeated notes and rhythmic movement, stagnant bass line, little forward motion and energy. Numerous musical phrases end with sustained notes that compromise the triumphant text. Concluding “Alleluias” are melodically and rhythmically anti-climactic, and the general impact of hymn and tune expires. 

SINE NOMINE (without name) contains both unison and harmonized stanzas. Attention is directed to the rhythmic interest of the “walking” bass that projects energy and forward motion throughout each stanza. The melodic third phrase (measure 10, “Thy name, O Jesus”) is given the highest note up to that point to advocate the importance of the text. Vaughan Williams surprised further in measure 12 by having “Alleluia!” enter before we expect it, on the third beat. And, not only that: he extends the melody for “Alleluia!” above the previous high note to create a moment of true excitement in the explication of the text. How’s exultant text is given an equivalent musical setting that leads to spiritual ascendancy.

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

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

Featured image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay 

Recent Comments

  1. Roger

    There’s a certain paradox in RVW’s role in creating the music of the contemporary Church of England. Although his father was a clergyman, and Rowan Williams would have liked to canonise him, Bertrand Russell remembered Vaughan Williams as a “most determined atheist” who once walked into the Hall at the College exclaiming, “Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?”
    He may have softened to agnosticism (or Anglosticism), but it was the Church’s Englishness, not its religion, that attracted him. Even at the end of his life, the hero of his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress was Pilgrim, not Bunyan’s Christian.

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