About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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When you consider that the greatest hymns ever written—the plainchant hymns—are pushing the age of eight hundred and that the noble chorale hymn tunes of Bach date from the early eighteenth century, then what is the significance of the word “old” applied to “Mother at Thy Feet Is Kneeling”? Most of the old St. Basil hymns date from the Victorian era, particularly the 1870s and 1880s.
— Paul Hume (1956)

The English And Their Hymns
published 28 May 2013 by Jeff Ostrowski

RECENTLY SENT the following question to several experts in “English hymnody.” After you read my question, you can scroll down and read the answers I received:

I have noticed that the “English method” of hymnody prints the musical notes on one page and the words on another. Do I assume correctly that there are three reasons for this? (A) It makes it so much easier to read and understand the poetry; (B) It allows for greater ease in the sharing of tunes; (C) It is much more attractive than the “American” method with words placed under notes. How does this work in practice singing SATB? Is it necessary for the singers to memorize their line, and then simply read the texts?

ELLO — it’s funny you should say this – I had to prepare a hymn for a choir recently and I put the words under the notes so it was absolutely fool-proof – someone commented on how 'American’ it looked!

I think your reasons are right, in particular the ability to change melodies. I always tell singers to either memorise each line of text or each line of melody and then follow the other whilst singing, scooping up the next bit of text at the end of each line. It takes a bit of practise but it’s what everyone does so nobody grumbles.

HE FULSOME ANSWER would involve a mini-treatise on English cultural life in the 19th and 20th centuries. So let’s see if I can condense it to a few bullet points.

Your (A) is correct that poetic meter is primary. There is a strong conviction that the visual impact of 'seeing’ the poetry in the hymn stanzas is destroyed by interlinear printing. This seeing is considered inseparable from truly receiving the aural impact of the poetry.

The tunes were simply a basic element of culture and learning in the British Isles (and eventually the Empire for that matter). So much so that many churches have books with words only, even today. It was/is assumed that everyone who matters – i.e., regular attendees – already knew/knows the tunes (melodies).

Your reason B is a by-product of the above bullet, but not unimportant. Different groups have a passionate emotional attachment to one tune or another for the same texts.

Printing was also a (minor) factor, though obviously less and less as time brought improved printing technology. When the words were always on a separate page, one could use the printing plates for all the editions.

SATB isn’t really much of a concern. Most choir singers knew/know the words as well as the tunes and the harmonization well enough to require only an occasional glance at one or the other. The cost of hymnals increases with the amount of music included, so Full Choir edition is most expensive. Only a few copies are usually available for choir singers. It’s very common to hear people in the pews singing various parts even when holding the Words Only edition that is commonly found in CoE pews, particularly outside of London.

And besides all that, as is the case with the chant repertory, you really aren’t singing it in a masterful way until you’re singing it from memory. You can’t watch the choirmaster and the page at the same time. (Forgive me, but the Solesmes scholar in me can’t fail to mention that. ;)

Dr. [Erik] Routley had strong views on this. It must be decades now since I read his masterwork on English hymnals, but it’s in there – or one of his other books – somewhere.

ES, YOU’RE CORRECT, I believe, about the reasons, though it seems it is primarily for hymn tune sharing. In regards the singing of SATB, even the congregation/pew versions of the most popular of English hymnals- The ENGLISH HYMNAL, THE NEW ENGLISH HYMNAL, and HYMNS ANCIENT & MODERN have SATB for the congregation! Yes, even non-musicians are able to read the harmony and then sing the text separate from the hymn-tune, though often, the hymns are sung in unison as the organists like to re-harmonise many of the verses (we do this at St Stephen’s). It really depends on the parish, there can be a mixture of both- trebles in unison for one verse, men in unison for another tutti on other verses with parts or without, as the hymn is thought of as a prayer, ALL the verses are sung, not just two or three as in many U.S. Catholic parishes. It is possible to sing SATB, and eventually easy, but I don’t think most choirs on this side of the pond want to make the effort as it appears difficult, and congregations here aren’t as musically literate as their English counterparts due to all the singing and music the British have from a very young age in the schools there. As for the actual practice of singing parts in English hymnals, I would say it depends- some harmonies are well known due to the popularity of the hymn for example, other times one might glance back and forth at words and part.

I hope this answers your questions- let me know if I am not being precise enough.

HIS IS AN INTERESTING question and I will be honest and admit I don’t know the answer. However, it seems to me that this method of layout you refer to is one that has been used for many years in England. There are some hymn books that follow the “American” way, but not many. It never seems to have become popular.

I think your suggested reasons are right ones. There is no single one among them that seems to me to predominate.

as for the last q. on singing, I can only say that singers here are accustomed to deal with this layout. the same thing happens, for instance, with Anglican chant. Singers certainly don’t memorize the music, but glance back and forth (or at least I do!) Sometimes even plainchant will be laid out in either way: english or american… compare the Liber Hymnarius and the Usualis…

HE ENGLISH have a great tradition of hymnody and they sing their hymns enthusiastically. Their hymnals contain a wide variety of hymns, but the secret is that they do sing them mostly by memory, at least the music, and they sing quite a few texts to the SAME tune. Thus it is convenient to have the text separate from the music, since it may well be sung to a different tune. I remember attending a service at Salisbury cathedral and seeing in the program: sing Hymn 57 in the Green Book to the tune of hymn 358 in the Red Book.

It was that occasion that suggested my attitude toward hymn singing: during the entrance procession, I struggled to balance two hymnals and the program, and to look back and forth between the hymnals; it was a pontifical liturgy, so the procession was extensive, with choir and quite a variety of ministers with the bishop coming at the end. At a certain point toward the end of the hymn I realized, “Oh no, the procession has passed, and I have not seen it at all.” I concluded that it is the role of the congregation to witness the procession and to be moved by its beauty, which should be enhanced by music which accompanies it. It probably should not be the role of the congregation to provide that music, but rather to witness the procession as well as the incensation of the altar, which is an important initial rite, emphasizing the sacredness of the focal point of the liturgy, and to be moved by it. The role of the congregation’s singing should then be fulfilled by singing the Kyrie and Gloria.