15 August 2022, The Tablet

The art of choosing hymns for Mass

The reason many Victorian hymns survive is that the sentiment is genuine, even if expressed a little floridly.

The art of choosing hymns for Mass

The London Ukrainian Choir sing Ukrainian hymns at the statue of St Volodymyr to raise funds for the charity British Ukrainian Aid.
Penelope Barritt/Alamy

I am so lucky: I get to choose the hymns for the congregation to sing on Sundays, and I don’t even play the organ. My friend James does that, but he doesn’t feel confident about choosing the hymns, because he’s a convert. He’s a little unsure about what will be familiar to the congregation. So he asked me to do it, and it’s a job I enjoy every week.

I can remember having to play the piano for the hymn at school assembly, but I don’t remember being the person who selected which hymn. I think that was down to the headmistress, a tall and fearsome nun. We had one hymn per day, on a large flipchart at the front of the room, and I remember them being a fairly uninspiring selection (both in words and tune). We sang To Christ, the Prince of peace quite a lot, and also Praise to the Holiest, Firmly I believe and truly, Glory be to Jesus and Immaculate Mary. Four-line hymns all, with lots of verses, all of which we sang. I can still sing these off by heart, though they are far from being my favourites. I think we sang The baker woman in her humble lodge once or twice, regarded as modern and daring, but I thought it was a bit gloomy.

I will have already given away my age by now. Those are all regarded as old-fashioned hymns nowadays. As a student at university, I learned the newer and trendier hymns – Gentle as silence, Turning the world upside down, Colours of day, Seek ye first and so on. We were even allowed an occasional Protestant hymn (Shine, Jesus, shine; Amazing grace), especially as Taizé was breaking down the wall between Catholic and Protestant services, even though Anglican hymns (bafflingly) still seemed a bridge too far. No Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer, no Abide with me, no Lead, kindly Light; I know Newman converted to Catholicism, but he wrote that hymn several years before, with his Anglican hat on. Thank goodness times have changed.

I had another large stroke of luck when I joined a choir which stood in for the official choirs at different (Anglican) cathedrals, so that they could have a break after Easter or in the summer. This was a wonderful learning experience, and the hymns were not the smallest part of it. Great words to great tunes, it was wonderful to learn Lutheran, Wesleyan and classic Church of England hymns, as well as various anthems and different sets of Responses. It was always fascinating to see how the services were done in the different cathedrals, and then my husband and I would rush off to the local Catholic church for Mass if the timing could be made to work. Evensong was our favourite.

An unfortunate limitation on what hymns you can choose is the available hymnbook in your parish. Hymnbooks are very expensive, so most parishes have only one in sufficient numbers for the congregation. They are bulky, so older versions tend to get thrown out or recycled; and (as I said) expensive, so changing them is not a popular idea. The one in current use in my parish was donated in memory of a previous parishioner, so it would be tactless publicly to criticise let alone reject it.

But it’s not what I would have chosen. It spends huge amounts of space on things which we are most unlikely to sing, like many versions of the Mass which can’t be used any more because the words are all wrong, and leaves out several of my favourite hymns, like the wonderful God moves in a mysterious way, which was a great hymn even before Benjamin Britten used it at the end of his Saint Nicolas. However, you have to work with what you’ve got, and one thing which that hymnal does have is some good modern versions of hymns made out of psalms, for which it uses old German hymn tunes, which I love. It also modernises the words in old favourites, which I am not so happy about, because (especially if I am conducting) I tend to sing the words from memory, and this can lead to divergence between me and the choir, let alone the congregation. 

It’s very important that the congregation feels confident and safe in what it’s singing. Its members don’t like to feel exposed, so when I’m choosing hymns, I try to be sure that at least the choir will know them well enough to make a confident sound. But I don’t want to sing the same hymns every week, so I sneak in a less familiar one now and again. If we give them a solid lead, most people will have grasped the tune well enough by the third verse to join in properly. Then I need to remember to use that hymn again within the month, so that it sticks in the collective memory.

Some hymn tunes are much easier to pick up than others. Some fit their words better, but many modern composers don’t worry enough about this. The words really do matter; I find it baffling that while we have some of the most ornate and infelicitous prayers in the collects and other parts of the Mass, along with an insistence on “oblation” and “vouchsafe”, so many of our modern hymns are shaped by inane repetition. Luckily we seem to be moving on from these. Congregations don’t like long pauses in the tune at the ends of lines; even if they are meant to be holding on to a note, once their breath gives out, they try to hide the fact by launching into the next line, but that can really mess up the rhythm. Some hymns are properly guitar hymns; they work well with their pauses because you can fill them with guitar chords, but they don’t work so well with an organ or keyboard, which doesn’t lend itself so easily to boom chikachika to fill the gaps, without sounding slightly out of place. 

In our parish we have two Sunday Masses with music, one called the Folk Mass and one called the Traditional Choir, so we have to work within our congregations’ expectations. And they do come across at the end of Mass and tell us what they think. I help with the Traditional one, which is our family’s Mass for historical reasons anyway. I am very jealous of the Folk Mass’s variety of instruments, but we do have a wider choice of hymns. And I have a lot of favourites to choose from.

To start my choosing, I read through the Sunday readings, and I also try to remember to check the calendar slightly more widely, just in case there’s a particular feast day or a saint we could tip our hat to. Where we are month by month also makes a difference, with May, October and Advent all encouraging the inclusion of a Mary hymn. If there is a hymn which echoes the words of one of the readings, we try to use it, because the fabric of the Mass is more interesting when there are patterns to be seen (so we did, for example, sing Seek ye first on Seventeenth Sunday OTC, because the words are part of the Gospel, even though it’s not a Traditional hymn). There are special hymns for nearly every major feast, and of course Advent, Christmas and Easter have too many appropriate hymns and you often have to leave a favourite out.

The first hymn and the last one need to bring the congregation in and send them out in all senses, so I never try to introduce an unfamiliar hymn in either position. Very occasionally I am surprised to discover that some people don’t know a hymn that I thought would be familiar, but that’s surely better than always using only a tiny subset of the hymns available. With the Offertory hymn I can be a bit more flexible, but nowadays it needs to be shorter than in pre-Covid days, as the collection is now mainly on-line, so we are covering only the time for the offertory procession. Similarly, Communion used to need a short piece and then a hymn, but currently we don’t have the parts for a motet and there are fewer communicants, so we only need the hymn, though it should be carefully chosen. Not everyone wants to join in with a Communion hymn, so it needs to be able to act as a prayerful background for others as well as a prayer in its own right. 

Three verses is really the minimum for a satisfactory hymn. It also gives anyone unfamiliar with the words or tune a sporting chance to catch up: one verse to listen, one verse to have a go, one verse to correct any mistakes. Many hymns have a lot more verses than this, so you can choose to split a hymn and sing half at the beginning and half at the end of Mass. This works well, especially if it’s a great hymn like O worship the King (six verses, none of which is easily left out). 

Some longer hymns work very well at Communion, when there is a little more time, especially if the words are a meditation and a prayer (O Godhead hid, whichever version most appeals to you, but don’t leave out the pelican verse;  O Bread of heaven, and so on). Soul of my Saviour has only three verses, and might be just a bit short (four or five is good for Communion), but you can spin it out by playing a verse without any singing, and doodling with the melody; and our congregation also likes Sweet Sacrament divine, Hail, Queen of heaven, and O purest of creatures, which all have more verses. Sentimental is not always bad. The reason many Victorian hymns survive is that the sentiment is genuine, even if expressed a little floridly. God is big enough to cope with florid.

I don’t like hymns that can’t stand up as prayers in their own right. The words should be strong enough and interesting enough to read or pray even without the tune. This means that on the whole my favourite hymns are older, where the words have been written as a poem and then set to music. Of course the music is very important, and when the combination is perfect, a hymn can be amazingly powerful; you have only to look at people’s reactions to Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer or Abide with me, to see this in action. This is why King David made the psalms.

My close attention to the words means that there are some hymns I will not choose (but when I’m away someone else does, so they might get aired occasionally). I won’t sing hymns about Our Lady being “undefiled”, because I think it’s insulting to every mother in the congregation. I won’t sing hymns where the words don’t make sense, even if they are supposed to be translations from Celtic originals, and I don’t like vigorously non-inclusive language, though some of it unfortunately comes with the territory in Victorian hymns. But like the Hollywood actress who declared “I ain’t gonna marry anybody’s sword”, I’m not going to sing with conviction about being anybody’s son, even God’s. Luckily, even if I take against the words of a hymn, there is such a treasury available that I can find another set of words to that tune.

The more you find out about hymns and their authors (and translators), the more fascinating they are. Some are amazingly old, dating from the very early Church (often translated by Edward Caswall or John Mason Neale). I recently found a remarkable hymn The God of Abraham praise, which is based on a Jewish prayer and has a tune from the eighteenth century described as “adapted from the singing” of the then Cantor at the London Great Synagogue. It’s a fine tune (Leoni) with great words, and I need to include it again fairly soon so that the choir remembers it enough to lead the congregation. Four verses, and really uplifting words: it will make a fine first or last hymn once enough people know it. Singing the hymns is what counts. Every time you sing a hymn, you bring it to life, and you can remember all those who have sung it before you. The Communion of Saints, set to music.  We should take hymns seriously, but they should never be just gloomy, that’s a waste.

More or less every hymn has a story. Sometimes you even come across an in-joke. Lord of all hopefulness was written by Jan Struther, who also wrote the (very successful) wartime novel Mrs Miniver (later made into a film with Greer Garson). We usually sing it to the tune Slane, but it has another tune, specially written for it. It’s called Miniver.

Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Comment by: eulipious
Posted: 05/09/2022 00:43:00
We find our hymn book too modern by half and the hymns - Stuck in the 70's
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