Stephen Lingwood has been riding hard the hymnody found in British Unitarian churches. His most recent comment is in reference to the General Assembly Opening Ceremony just past:
By the last hymn I would have been holding my hands out, if it wasn’t for the fact that the last hymn was to the tune of ‘The Day Thou Gave Us Lord Has Ended’ which, I’m sorry is a funeral song. So instead of leaving the worship thinking/feeling – yay it’s good to celebrate together with Unitarians – I was thinking – oh dear my grandmother’s dead. Ah well.
He had already plowed into the more recent (but more traditional) of the two hymnals in current British Unitarian usage, Hymns of Faith and Freedom. (How is it that denomination of about four thousand can have two hymnals, and we have one? Note the United Church of Christ keeps up four. We could do better on these shore. The other is the 1985 “green” Hymns for Living. I have both and will refer to them as HFF and HFL respectively.)
I like HFF because of its incomperable indices, but it shares that pecuilarity I find in a lot of British hymnals: it is words-only. (Many British denominational hymnals come in words-only and melody-only editions. Fine for compact bookcases, but terrible if you sing the harmony as Hubby and I do.) The accompanyist is supposed to add the tune in — again, there’s an index with recommendations — from another hymnal.
This should be a boon, theoretically. If a tune is funereal, change it. But that rarely happens in practice, and even less often I imagine with full-music hymnals. Consider “The Day Thou Gave Us Lord Has Ended.” In the two British hymnals, it is matched to the tune St. Clement. In the US Hymns of the Spirit, it is matched to Les Commandmens. Neither does much for me.
Now, my rule of thumb is that — if all else fails — go to one of these sources for better tunes:
- The Welsh, generally
- Particularly, Ralph Vaughn-Williams
- German chorales
- Shape-note tunes, especially from Appalachia
- Genevan “jigs” (psalm tunes)
I make a point of avoiding anything from the Gospel music tradition, which tends to be painfully Victorian and, well, either funereal or like something out of a period dance hall. Ironically, it is my understanding — correct me if I’m wrong — that it was Ralph’s doing that we so firmly fix certain texts and tunes together, through his editorship of the landmark New English Hymnal.
Take, for instance, the much-loved hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” It was still very new when the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit came out. The editors matched it to Regent Square, better known for its match to “Angels from the Realm of Glory” — and that’s how I know it viscerally — while most people now sing it to Cwm Rhondda, also know for its older match to “Guide Me Now Thou Great Jehovah.” Try them both, choose your favorite.
That said, if someone really wanted to keep “The Day Thou Gave Us Lord Has Ended” I would pick a punchier tune like Eucharistic Hymn (see #121 in Hymns of the Spirit) or cream off the first two verses and sing them together as a single verse of “Rendez Ã Dieu” a remarkable, solemn but pliant Louis Bourgeois (Genevan) tune.
In short, if we don’t like or can’t sing our hymns, we should look first to the tunes.