Easter 2024

21 January 2012
hymnody - Victorian

We at St. Paul's, Richmond (and miraculously, by the grace of God, the good folks at St. James's just up the street and St. Stephen's on the West End) are preparing for a large-scale collaborative performance of The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer. Our concert is Friday, February 24 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Paul's.

And until then, it's time to study up on this much-maligned work, underestimated composer, and the musical milieu that surrounded it all.

In particular, I found myself wondering: what were victorian hymn registrations like?

And so, down the rabbit hole we go.

One resource that emerged fairly quickly was Ian Bradley's Abide With Me: The World of Victorian Hymns, and while I haven't yet digested the entire book, I don't think it's going to give specific registration instructions.

But Bradley has clearly done a lot of thinking about the era, and he helps set the scene. Hymn singing in the Church of England, he reminds us, was a new phenomenon, being first sanctioned only in the 1820s, and taking many years to make a dent in the stranglehold that the Old Version (Sternhold & Hopkins) or the New Version (Tate & Brady) of the Psalter had on congregational music in Anglican worship. Hymns Ancient and Modern, the quintessential Victorian hymnbook was first published in 1861.

And while congregations were familiar with singing metrical psalms, these were "lined out" by the parish clerk (congregation listening first to the clerk, then repeating a phrase at a time), not accompanied by an organ. And then there was that amusing "West Gallery music" phenomenon in parish churches. It also took many years for the organ and choir arrangement that we now take for granted to trickle down from cathedrals to parish churches.

So Stainer's five hymns contained in The Crucifixion, written in 1887, are fascinating in light of this dynamic period of hymn proliferation in the church, and the brand new organ and choir arrangement encouraged by the Oxford Movement.

So how to register them? Well, one resource doesn't give precise answers to that question, but we certainly get reminders that things were a little different back then.

Stainer, who was organist at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, had a great colleague in J. Frederick Bridge, Organist of Westminster Abbey. His Organ Accompaniment of the Choral Service was written in 1885, just two years before the premiere of Stainer's Crucifixion.

And Bridge's work is edited by none other than "Dr. Stainer" himself.

Bridge gives his thoughts on nearly every aspect of service playing, including some stern rebukes on what must have been prevailing customs of some other church musicians (rolling chords before beginning hymns, word-painting).

Also notable, he recommends a specific number of beats between stanzas of a hymn "to preserve the rhythm" -- believing that the meter and major metrical accents should be preserved over the breath.

Another interesting comment:

Except in special cases––as, for instance, at the words, "Now above the sky He's King," in the well-known Easter hymn, "Jesus Christ is risen to-day," where a moderate rallentando is very effective––no rallentando should be made in playing the verses of a hymn, other than that naturally called for at the last verse just before the "Amen."

p. 20

I direct you to the beginning of the discussion of hymns on page 18,

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