HE OLD WESTMINSTER HYMNAL was the only collection of hymns authorized by the hierarchy of England and Wales back in 1912. Coming out of years of suppression the Catholic Church in England was still finding her feet.
Persecution can make saints, but can also foster a ghetto mentality where intellectual virtues are disparaged. After surviving on cut down devotions, the prospect of full, sacred liturgical worship may have appeared too strong or foreign.
R. R. Terry burst onto the scene with the drive to revive Gregorian chant and polyphony. Then, as now, hymns were more popular – as R R Terry writes:
“Of all forms of Church music, the one which seems to have wielded an influence out of all proportion to its intrinsic worth is the vernacular hymn.” – On music’s borders by R R Terry (Unwin 1927)
His Westminster Hymnal marked a more scholarly approach to hymnody. The compiler searched out the authentic tunes for each piece, sometimes giving a range of tunes to choose from. The Musical Editor’s Preface goes through a few of the more glaring examples of the decay of hymn tunes. It is well worth reading even just as a snapshot of music in England at the time.
Maybe the last word can go to the Right Reverend Bishop of Newport who wrote the main preface. After noting the number of hymns included is 250, he continues:
The tunes have been in part selected and in part composed by Mr R R Terry, Mus.D., Organist and Choirmaster of Westminster Cathedral, who has also written and edited the harmonies. This eminent musician has here presented the public with a work of great originality and distinction, for which he is entitled to the thanks of the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries. The Hymns are what we have been accustomed to, but the musical setting is, on the whole, far more scientific and satisfying than anything that has hitherto appeared. There can be no doubt that it will conduce very much to the devotion and decorum of extra-liturgical worship and popular services to have one common manual of Hymns, which at once offers a suitable variety and prevents the undesirable introduction of amateur efforts and unedifying novelties.
* * Old Westminster Hymnal in paperback (crown quarto, 432 pages)
* * Spiral bound (letter, 432 pages)