A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Hymn

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HYMN (Gr. ὕμνος; Lat. Hymnus; Ital. Imno; Germ. Kirchenlied, Kirchengesang). The first Hymn mentioned in the annals of Christianity is that sung by our Lord, and His Apostles, immediately after the institution of the Holy Eucharist. There is some ground for believing that this may have been the series of Psalms called Hallel (cxiii to cxviii of the Authorised Version), which was used, in the Second Temple, at all great festivals, and consequently at that of the Passover; and it has been supposed—though the circumstance does not admit of proof—that the melody to which the most characteristic of these Psalms, In exitu Israel, was originally sung, is the germ of that with which it has been associated, in the Christian Church, from time immemorial—the Tonus Peregrinus.

In early times, any act of praise to God was called a Hymn, provided only that it was sung. Afterwards, the use of the term became more restricted. The Psalms were eliminated from the category, and Hymns, properly so called, formed into a distinct class by themselves. φῶς ἱλαρόν, a composition attributed to Athenagenes, and still constantly sung in the Offices of the Eastern Church, is supposed to be the oldest Hymn of this description now in use. Little less venerable, in point of antiquity, is the 'Angelic Hymn,' Gloria in excelsis Deo, of which special mention is made in the Apostolic Constitutions. It was not, however, until the latter half of the 4th century, that the immense importance of the Hymn, as an element of Christian Worship, became fully understood. S. Ephrem of Edessa made many valuable contributions to the store of Hymns already in use at that period. S. Chrysostom zealously carried on the work at Constantinople, and S. Ambrose at Milan. The noblest Latin Hymn we possess—Te Deum laudamus—was long believed to be the joint production of S. Ambrose and S. Augustine. To S. Ambrose, also, is due the honour of having first introduced the true Metrical Hymn into the services of the Western Church—for the rhythm of the older examples was very distinct from actual metre. His favourite species of verse was Iambic Dimeter—the 'Long Measure' of English Hymnology—which was long regarded as the normal metre of the Latin Hymn. S. Gregory the Great first introduced Sapphics; as in Nocte surgentes vigilemus omnes. Prudentius wrote, with great effect, Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic—Corde natus ex Parentis ante mundi exordium; and also used Iambic Trimeter—O Nazarene, lux Bethlem, verbum Patris; and Iambic Dimeter Catalectic—Cultor Dei memento. One of the earliest instances of Elegiac Verse is found in the

'Crux benedicta nitet, Dominus qua carne pependit,
Atque cruore suo vulnera nostra lavat'

of Venantius Fortunatus. Other metres came into use from time to time: but, about the beginning of the 10th century, most of these were forsaken in favour of 'prose'; that is to say—paradoxical as the explanation may seem to the uninitiated—a style consisting of regular lines, containing an equal number of syllables, and often carefully rhymed, but governed, as to their rhythm, by accent instead of quantity, and therefore setting the laws of classical prosody at defiance. Many of the finest mediæval Hymns are written in this beautiful though barbarous 'Monkish Latin,' especially those intended to be sung at Mass after the Gradual and Tract: insomuch that the terms Sequence and Prose have almost come to be regarded as synonymous. [See Sequentia; Prosa.] [App. p.684 omits Prosa from reference.]

The authorship of the Plain Chaunt melodies to which these Hymns were sung is very uncertain. It seems probable, that, in many cases, the writer of the words was also the composer of the music to which they were adapted. A rich collection of such original tunes will be found in the Vesperale Romanum, and other similar Office Books. Probably the purest forms now attainable are those given in the last edition of the Vesperal published by Messrs. Pustet, of Ratisbon; but the discarded Office Books once used in particular Dioceses contain some priceless treasures: for instance, the Sarum Tune to Sanctorum meritis is one of the most perfect Mixolydian melodies in existence.[1] [See Plain Chaunt.] [App. p.684 "At end of second paragraph for Plain Chaunt read Plain Song."]

After the invention of Discant, these venerable Hymn Tunes, or phrases selected from them, were constantly used as Canti fermi for Masses and Motets. In the year 1589 Palestrina turned them to still better account in his great work entitled Hymni Totius Anni— a collection of Hymns for every Festival throughout the Ecclesiastical Year, admirably treated, in the polyphonic style, for three, four, five, and six voices, and bearing traces of the great composer's best manner on every page. From a fine tall copy of the original Roman edition of this work of Palestrina's, preserved in the British Museum, we transcribe a portion of the Hymn for Passion Sunday—Vexilla regis prodeunt[2]—the well-known melody of which is combined, throughout, with contrapuntal treatment of the most masterly description, involving clever imitations, and closely-interwoven fugal points, so carefully concealed beneath the expressive harmonies which result from them that their ingenuity is quite forgotten in the indescribable beauty of the general effect.

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A few Latin Hymns, such as those to be found among the works of Hassler, Tallis, Byrd, and some other great composers, have been set, for 4 or more voices, in a similar manner: but, as a whole, Palestrina's magnificent Hymnal stands quite alone—too great to admit the possibility of rivalry. The delight with which it was received was unbounded. Indeed, long before the middle of the 16th century, the Science of Hymnology had already begun to attract an immense amount of attention, in widely different directions. Hymns, or rather [3]Carols, of a somewhat lighter character than those we have been considering, had been sung, for ages past, between the scenes of the Mysteries and Miracle Plays which form so conspicuous a feature in the religious history of the middle ages. Many of these—notably such as set forth the Glad Tidings commemorated at Christmas-tide—became, from time to time, extremely popular, and obtained a firm hold on the affections of rich and poor alike. [See Noël.] Well knowing the effect of songs upon popular feeling, and fully appreciating the beauty of the Latin hymns to which he had been accustomed from his earliest youth, Luther turned these circumstances to account by producing a vast amount of German Kirchenlieder, which, adapted to the most favourite melodies of the day, both sacred and sæcular, and set for four, five, and six voices, (with the Plain Chaunt in the Tenor,) by Johannes Walther, were first published, at Wittenberg, in 1524, and re-issued, in the following year, with a special preface by Luther himself. Innumerable other works of a similar description followed in rapid succession. The vernacular Hymn found its way more readily than ever to the inmost heart of the German people. The Chorale was sung, far and wide; and, at last, under the treatment of John Sebastian Bach, its beauties were developed, with a depth of insight into its melodic and harmonic resources which is not likely ever to be surpassed. Even the simplest settings of this great master bear tokens of a certain individuality which will render them household words, in the land of their birth, as long as true musical expression shall continue to be valued at its true worth: and, perhaps, in these gentle inspirations, Bach speaks more plainly to the outer world than in some cases where he has subjected the melody to more elaborate treatment. [See Chorale.]

Nun ruhen alle Wälder.

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In France, the Metrical Psalms of Clement Marot, and Theodore Beza, were no less enthusiastically received than the Hymns of Luther in Germany, though their popularity was less lasting. They were originally sung to the most familiar ditties of the time, which were adapted to them, probably by Guillaume Franc, in the Psalter first published by Calvin at Geneva in 1543. In 1561, Louis Bourgeois published a volume, at Lyons, containing 83 of these Tunes, set for four, five, and six voices; and, in 1565, Adrian Le Roy printed, at Paris, an entire Psalter, in which the melodies were treated, after the manner of Motets, by Claude Goudimel. This last-named work was reprinted, in Holland, in 1607: but Goudimel's polyphonic settings were found too difficult for general use, and were supplanted, after a time, by some less elaborate arrangements—with the melody, as usual, in the Tenor—by Claudin le Jeune, whose collection was published at Leyden in 1633.


The Hundredth Psalm Tune.[4]

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It was not to be supposed that the movement which had spread thus rapidly in France and Germany, would be suffered to pass unheeded in England, where the study of the Madrigal had already brought part-singing to a high degree of perfection. [Madrigal.] Here, as in France, the first incentive to popular Hymnody seems to have been the rendering of the Psalms into verse in the mother tongue. Sternhold's fifty-one Psalms first saw the light in 1549: but the 'Whole Booke of Psalmes,' 'by T. Sternhold, J. Hopkins, and others,' did not appear until 1562, when it was 'imprinted' by John Daye, 'with apt notes to sing them withal': the 'apt notes' being simply the melodies, as sung in France, and Germany, without bass, or any other part. In 1563, the same John Daye 'imprinted' the 'whole Psalmes, in foure parts,' harmonised, in the simplest possible manner, by Thomas Talys, Richard Brimle, William Parsons, Thomas Causton, J. Hake, and Richard Edwards. This was the first collection of Hymn Tunes ever published in England for four voices. Neither Burney nor Hawkins seem to have been aware of its existence. A perfect copy is, however, preserved in the library of Brasenose College, Oxford; and one, containing the Medius and Tenor parts only, in that of the British Museum. It was followed, in 1567, by another invaluable volume, also 'imprinted,' but not published, by John Daye, viz. 'The first Quinquagene' of Archbishop Parker's metrical version of the Psalms—a work which has only been preserved through the medium of a few copies given away by Mistress Parker, and so scarce that Strype 'could never get a sight of it.' At the end of this precious volume—a copy of which is happily preserved in the British Museum—we find, printed in four parts, eight Tunes, set, by Talys, in plain counterpoint, with the melody in the Tenor. Each of these Tunes is written in one of the first eight Modes; the eighth, or Hypomixolydian Tune, being the well-known Canon now universally adapted to the words of Bishop Ken's Evening Hymn. A larger collection[5] was published, in 1579, by Guilielmo Damon, whose harmony is clear and good, and—as it always should be, when intended for congregational use—extremely simple. In 1591, another collection appeared, by the same author, in two books, in the second of which 'the highest part singeth the Church Tune'—probably for the first time. In 1585, six years before the publication of Damon's second work, John Cosyns had put forth sixty Psalms, with the Tunes first printed by Daye, set for five and six voices: but, by far the most important volume which appeared before the close of the century was the complete Psalter printed by Thomas Este in 1594 [App. p.684 "1592"], and containing Tunes skilfully harmonised, for four voices, by John Dowland, E. Blancks, E. Hooper, J. Farmer, R. Allison, G. Kirbye, W. Cobbold, E. Johnson, and G. Farnaby—composers of no mean reputation, and generally reckoned among the best of the period. A far inferior volume was published, by John Mundy, in the same year; and, in 1599, a collection appeared, by Richard Allison, with accompaniments 'to be plaide upon the lute, orpharion, citterne, or base violl, severally or together': but all these works were superseded in 1621 by 'The Whole Booke of Psalmes,' edited, and in great part arranged, by Thomas Ravenscroft. This famous volume contains settings, for four voices, of the best German, French, and English Tunes, by Tallis, Dowland, Morley, Bennet, Stubbs, Farnaby, the editor himself, and fourteen other noted musicians of the day. The melody, according to custom, is always given to the Tenor. The counterpoint throughout is admirable, and every Tune may fairly be regarded as a masterpiece. The Bass and Tenor proceed, for the most part, nota contra notam, while the Treble, and Alto, though by no means written in a florid style, exhibit a little more variety of treatment. The effect of this arrangement, when the Tenor is sung by a large body of voices, in unison, and the harmony by a select Choir, is exceedingly impressive. The finest Tune in the collection—John Dowland's setting of the Hundredth Psalm—may still be frequently heard in Salisbury Cathedral; and there is no possible reason why many others should not be brought into almost universal use.

'French tune,' from Ravenscroft's 'Booke of Psalmes,' 1621.

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A second edition of Ravenscroft's Psalter was published in 1633. William and Henry Lawes set the Psalms of Mr. George Sandys, in three parts, in 1648. In 1671, John Playford printed his 'Psalms and Hymns in solemn Musicke of foure parts;' followed, in 1677, by his more widely known 'Whole Book of Psalms' for three voices—a work, the popularity of which was so extended, that, by the year 1757, it had run through no less than twenty editions. But these later works show a lamentable deterioration both of technical skill and artistic feeling. English Hymnody was not destined to remain for any length of time in the high state of cultivation indicated by the collections of Este and Ravenscroft. Step by step the decadence of the Hymn Tune kept pace with that of the Madrigal, which had once done so much towards preparing the way for its more perfect development. Had any hope of a revival existed, it would have been dispelled by the Great Rebellion. The Restoration did nothing towards the resuscitation of the failing Art. The vigorous treatment of the old Masters faded gradually into vague inanity. The Tunes of Hayes, Wainwright, Carey, Tans'ur, and other more modern writers, are as far inferior to those of their predecessors as those of their followers are to them. The popular taste grew daily more and more corrupt; until, about the beginning of the present century, it reached a pitch of degradation beneath which it would seem impossible that it could ever sink. At that hopeless level it remained for many years. Not a few of us can remember when the most popular Hymn Tune in England—that known as 'Helmsley,' set to the hymn 'Lo, he comes with clouds descending'—was an air of so sæcular a character, that it had probably been composed to some amatory verses, beginning

'Guardian Angels, now protect me,
Send me back the youth I love'—

sung by Mistress Anne Catley, in 'The Golden Pippin'; and danced, as a hornpipe, at Sadlers' Wells. [See Lo, he comes.]

In O'Hara's burletta, 'The Golden Pippen,' Covent Garden.

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'Miss Catley's Hornpipe.' Danced at Sadlers' Wells.

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The Advent Hymn. (Helmsley Tune.)

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The real objection to such melodies as this lies, less in their origin, than in their esoteric unfitness for the purpose to which they are so inappropriately applied. The one may, in time, be forgotten—the other, never. Few people, nowadays, are acquainted with the source of 'Helmsley': but no one who has seen a Hornpipe danced can mistake its Terpsichorean animus—and, surely, no possible animus could be less fitted to harmonise with the feelings which should be excited by a Hymn on the Last Judgment. Nun ruhen alle Wälder, and O Welt, ich muss Dich lassen, were originally saecular airs: but, how different their character!

Vigorous efforts have recently been made, and are made still, to introduce something better. But public taste seems scarcely leading in a hopeful direction. Where Plain Chaunt is affected, the melodies are too frequently tortured beyond all possibility of recognition; while they are invariably accompanied by harmonies which utterly destroy their distinctive character—passionate dissonances, unblushingly stolen from the theatre, and only fitted to illustrate the romance of Der Freischütz or the deep tragedy of Lucia di Lammermoor. Palestrina's exquisite settings are undoubtedly too difficult for general use; though they lie quite within the compass of an ordinary Cathedral Choir. But, apart from these, few things in music are more beautiful than a Plain Chaunt melody, diatonically accompanied in simple counterpoint: and, surely, the art of so accompanying it is not beyond the power of an average organist! The settings of John Dowland, and Claudin le Jeune, may be sung by almost any Choir, however modest its pretensions. Ravenscroft's work has been reprinted, of late years, at a price which places it within the reach of every one. But, before the sterling Tunes contained in these still easily accessible volumes can be brought into general use, something must be done to counteract the vicious effect of the 'original' melodies which are now universally preferred to them—sentimental effusions, mostly the work of amateurs, and written always in imitation of the lowest grade of popular partsong, without one single characteristic which can fit them for association with the solemn and often extremely beautiful words, the sense of which they are commonly supposed not only to illustrate but to intensify.

[ W. S. R. ]

Among the more important and typical collections of metrical hymns and tunes, published in this country for use in Divine worship during the last quarter of a century, the following may be named:—

National Psalmody, [6]B. Jacob (Novello); another edition, called 'Surrey Chapel Music.' V. Novello (Novello). The Psalter with appropriate Tunes, John Hullah, 1843 (J. W. Parker). Church of England Psalmody. Rev. H. Parr, with List of Composers and Authorities, 1846–77 (Novello). The Standard Psalm-tune Book, H. E. Dibdin, 1852 (Shaw). The Union Tune Book, J. I. Cobbin, 1854 (Sunday School Union), with Supplement by John Hullah, 1879. The Hymnal Noted, Rev. T. Helmore, 1853 (Novello). The Church Psalter and Hymn Book (Mercer's), John Goss, 1857 (Nisbet). Hymns Ancient and Modern, W. H. Monk, 1861–75 (Clowes). The Congregational Psalmist, Dr. Gauntlett, 1862 (Hodder & Stoughton). The Chorale-book for England, W. S. Bennett and Otto Goldschmidt, 1863 (Longmans). The Bristol Tune Book, 1863 (Novello). A Hymnal, chiefly from the Book of Praise, J. Hullah, 1868 (Macmillans). The Hymnary, J. Barnby, 1872 (Novello). The Church Hymnal [for Ireland], Sir R. P. Stewart, 1873–78, with excellent Biographical Index by Major Crawford (Dublin, S.P.C.K.). Church Hymns with Tunes, A. Sullivan, 1874 (London, S.P.C.K.). Wesley's Hymns and New Supplement, John [App. p.684 "George"] Cooper and E. J. Hopkins, 1877 (Wesleyan Conference Office). Scottish Psalmody, etc., authorised by the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, 1878 (Nelsons). The Book of Psalms and Scottish Hymnal, by authority of the General Assembly, W. H. Monk, 1879 (Edinburgh, Nelsons). The Presbyterian Hymnal of the U. P. Church, Henry Smart (A. Elliot). The Office of Praise [Baptist] (Hamilton, Adams, & Co.). The Psalter and Hymn Book of the Presbyterian Church (Nisbet). The Christian Hymnal (Shaw). America:—Hymns and Songs of Praise, John K. Paine, U. C. Burnap, and James Flint, 1874 (New York, Randolph).

  1. See 'The Hymnal Noted,' by the Rev. T. Helmore (Novello).
  2. Sung also, as a Processional Hymn, on the morning of Good Friday. See Improperia.
  3. Ital. Carola; from carolare, to sing songs of joy. Balley, however, suggests a Saxon etymon; ceorl, rustle—whence 'churl.'
  4. Set to the 134th Psalm of the French translation.
  5. Burney erroneously describes this as the first collection, in four parts, published in England.
  6. The name given in each case is that of the Editor of the tunes.