Vaughan Williams and The English Hymnal

Vaughan Williams and The English Hymnal

Simon Wright explores the role of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in selecting and arranging the music for The English Hymnal

Roots, conception, and content

‘It must have been in 1904 that I was sitting in my study in Barton Street, Westminster, when a cab drove up to the door and ‘Mr. Dearmer’ was announced. I just knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing-room; but he had not come to see me about tramps. He went straight to the point and asked me to edit the music of a hymn book.’ Thus the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) recalled the commencement of his involvement in a hymnal which was shortly to overturn Victorian hymnody’s threadbare reputation and become one of the finest collections of hymns and hymn tunes ever assembled, widely used in churches, schools, and colleges the world over, and to remain in print for more than one hundred years.

Vaughan Williams’s visitor was Percy Dearmer (1867–1936) who, in 1901, had been appointed vicar of St Mary-the-Virgin, Primrose Hill in London. Dearmer, devoted to the establishment of sound liturgical practices, to accord with both the texts and principles of the Book of Common Prayer, saw music and hymn singing as integral to worship, but had determined that the bulk of materials in circulation fell short of his ideals. Hundreds of hymnals were in circulation by 1890, and in them some 400,000 different hymns, many stilted and mediocre. The Anglican Church had never promulgated an ‘official’ hymn book, but by default Hymns Ancient & Modern, first published in 1861, became almost that. Various revisions appeared over coming years, but a completely new edition in 1904 fell down on alterations to texts, changes to numbering, and by discarding well-loved tunes. 

It was the 1904 Ancient & Modern’s failure which prompted Dearmer and a group of like-minded churchmen to plan a ‘local’ supplement for Primrose Hill, entitled English Hymns, but this rapidly became a large-scale publishing project with Oxford University Press. The book was eventually to contain more than 700 hymns with matching tunes, and the title changed to The English Hymnal. ‘THE ENGLISH HYMNAL is a collection of the best hymns in the English language’, proclaimed Dearmer’s Preface, ‘and is offered as a humble companion to the Book of Common Prayer for use in the Church.’ The book provides material not only for Sundays but also for ‘all those other Holy-days’ in the Prayer Book. Office Hymns for Saints’ Days are therefore included, as well as texts for Minor Saints’ Days. Dearmer ensured ‘complete provision for the liturgical requirements of Churchmen’ while at the same time ‘adding many modern hymns of the first rank’. Dearmer’s selection, like the Prayer Book, was suited ‘for all sorts and conditions of men’.

Vaughan Williams, aged 32 in 1904, was still at the outset of his composing career. In 1895 he had been appointed to what he called his ‘first and last organ post’, at St Barnabas Church, South Lambeth. The appointment, he said, had given him an insight into good and bad church music. Dearmer, hearing of Vaughan Williams from the folk song collector Cecil Sharp, had decided that this all-round, practical musician was the man he required as Music Editor for The English Hymnal. The work, Dearmer had intimated, would take about two months. In the event, it took Vaughan Williams two years.         

Publication and 1907 edition

The English Hymnal

Ralph Vaughan Williams (Musical Editor): The English Hymnal with Tunes, C.566.pp.

Ralph Vaughan Williams selected and edited the music for the hymnbook The English Hymnal, which was conceived and overseen by Percy Dearmer.

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Usage terms CRANHAM (Gustav Holst), FOREST GREEN (Vaughan Williams), YORK and SINE NOMINE from The English Hymnal by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © Oxford University Press

The Words Edition of The English Hymnal was published by Oxford University Press on Ascension Day 1906, and the Tunes Edition some weeks later. The collection stirred immediate controversy, with some bishops objecting to the inclusion of hymns to the Virgin Mary, other saints, and to the Faithful Departed. The Diocese of Bristol banned the book, immediately causing outrage in newspapers, and the hymnal was eventually censured by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dearmer stood firm, refusing to sanction revision, and Oxford University Press became alarmed, fearing that the fuss would damage sales and its reputation. A compromise was reached: the original edition remained untouched, but a parallel ‘Abridged Edition’ was prepared and issued in 1907, removing the offending material. A note expressed hope that this version ‘may be found useful by those who desire an alternative to the complete edition’. 

Hymn books were shortly to be displaced from newspaper leaders by unfolding world events and, as the original edition of The English Hymnal gained ground, the 1907 abridgment fell by the wayside and was never reprinted. The original book was rapidly and widely adopted, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Besides minor corrections during regular reprints, the book’s original text continued essentially unchanged until 1933, when Vaughan Williams undertook a revision to the Tunes Edition (the Words Edition was unaffected). It is that edition of 1933 which remains in print today.

Musical selection and scope

On his musical choice, Vaughan Williams was unequivocal. ‘It ought no longer to be true anywhere’, he proclaimed in his Preface, ‘that the most exalted moments of a church-goer’s week are associated with music that would not be tolerated in any place of secular entertainment.’ His vision was that The English Hymnal should become a thesaurus of the world’s finest hymn tunes. The music, Vaughan Williams said, was designed to be essentially congregational in character. Unsuitable ‘modern’ or ‘enervating’ tunes were rejected, replaced with a rich and varied selection made from sources hitherto unimagined for a hymn book.

Vaughan Williams, in his ‘classified list’ of sources, made clear the breadth and depth of the materials through which he had worked. Lutheran chorales and tunes by Bach sit alongside French and Swiss traditional melodies; tunes from the American Ira D. Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos, melodies from 16th- and 17th-century Scottish Psalters and Welsh hymn tunes share their space with Italian, Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch ecclesiastical melodies; Richard Wagner and Orlando Gibbons appear to be staring at one another across directly opposite pages in the book’s Holy Communion sequence; and, from England, traditional melodies, and hymn tunes by ‘twentieth-century composers’, stamp an authentic ‘Englishness’ on The English Hymnal.

Dearmer and Vaughan Williams had each worked with an earlier precedent in mind, the privately published Yattendon Hymnal, which the poet Robert Bridges had assembled between 1895 and 1899 while Precentor at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Yattendon, Berkshire. The book’s starting point (elegantly printed using ancient music types by the University Press, Oxford) was to encourage unaccompanied singing. Bridges matched one hundred of the best tunes known to him to what he judged as equally fine hymn text; where no suitable words could be found, he wrote or translated them himself. Dearmer, for The English Hymnal, selected thirteen hymns written or translated by Bridges, and for all but one of these Vaughan Williams allocated the same tunes, but always in versions re-harmonized by him, or by others.

The Yattendon Hymnal

Robert Bridges, The Yattendon Hymnal, K.10.c.2.

Compiled by Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death, The Yattendon Hymnal was a particularly luxurious statement of intent in hymn reform.  

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Set within Vaughan Williams’s selection of tunes were plainsong melodies, for use with the Office Hymns. These were neither chosen nor harmonized by Vaughan Williams. ‘On this subject I was really ignorant’, he said, ‘so I refused to touch it’. Instead, the selection for The English Hymnal’s 1906 edition was made by the ecclesiologist William John Birkbeck. The Yattendon Hymnal had also included plainsong, and many of its collocations were taken over for The English Hymnal.

Vaughan Williams wondered whether he had been wasting time on hymn tunes while adding ‘nothing to the sum of my musical invention’. But he concluded that his two years of work, sifting through some of the best (as well as the worst) tunes in the world, was ‘a better musical education than any amount of sonatas and fugues’ could ever have been.

Folk songs in The English Hymnal

Vaughan Williams’s appropriation of English folk songs as the basis for hymn tunes seemed disturbing for some: critics bemoaned the ‘atmosphere of secularity’ which such melodies engendered. Vaughan Williams robustly defended his process. Referring later to Cecil Sharp’s ‘epoch-making discovery of the beautiful melody hidden in the countryside’, Vaughan Williams (also at the forefront of the movement of collecting English folk songs at the century’s turn) questioned why that inheritance should not benefit church as well as concert room. ‘Bushes and Briars’, the first song that he had encountered in the field, at Ingrave in Essex on 4 December 1904, changed Vaughan Williams profoundly – ‘this is the music for me’, he said. A decade earlier, he had encountered, in a collection entitled English County Songs the folk song ‘Dives and Lazarus’: ‘here’s something which I have known all my life – only I didn’t know it!’.

From the material gathered by Sharp, himself, and others, Vaughan Williams drew deeply for The English Hymnal (31 English folk songs appear as hymn tunes in the 1906 edition). The tune called INGRAVE (used for Albert Midlane’s hymn ‘There’s a Friend for little children’) was, for example, based on the song ‘In Jessie’s city’, sung by a servant at Ingrave Rectory at the time that Vaughan Williams collected ‘Bushes and Briars’. In November 1905, Vaughan Williams, transcribed in Sussex a song called ‘The Royal George’ from a Mr and Mrs Verrall which, named SUSSEX, became the tune for ‘Father, hear the prayer we offer’. The ‘folk tunes as hymns’ do not appear as replications of the monodic originals. In all cases Vaughan Williams made discreet harmonizations and, for most, smoothed out melodic quirks and rhythms in order to accommodate hymn text meters. Comparison between Vaughan Williams’s transcription of ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’ (collected in December 1903 at Forest Green near Leith Hill, Surrey) and its The English Hymnal incarnation as FOREST GREEN, for ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, shows this process in action. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Folksong collection

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Folk Song Collections, Add MS 54188

This manuscript contains a collection of folk tunes transcribed by Ralph Vaughan Williams on his forays to rural villages in England.

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Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.


Held by © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Congregations singing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ were for the large part unaware that they were merely substituting Bishop Phillips Brooks’ American Christmas words for an altogether earthier English text. But, in a subliminal way, the essentially familiar English character of this, and of the other folk melodies chosen, quickly endeared itself, with most now irrevocably wedded to the chosen texts in the public consciousness. In this, Vaughan Williams was fulfilling Percy Dearmer’s offering of The English Hymnal as a book for ‘all broad-minded men’, actually at one with the commonality of The Book of Common Prayer.     

Tunes and words commissioned for The English Hymnal

Vaughan Williams’s ‘twentieth-century composers’, each approached to provide new tunes especially for hymns of unusual or irregular meter in The English Hymnal, included John Ireland, Sir Walter Parratt, and Gustav Holst. Of the tunes contributed by Holst it was CRANHAM, for Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ (a ‘carol’ in the book’s Christmas sequence), which endured. Like the collocation of FOREST GREEN and ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, CRANHAM and the words for which it was crafted swiftly became an integral element in the celebration of Christmas: the music’s quiet poise provides the perfect backlight for Rossetti’s exquisite nativity tableau.

Aside from his folk song adaptations, Vaughan Williams himself provided original tunes for both the 1906 and 1933 editions. The triumphant chain of ‘Alleluyas’ at the end of each verse of his SINE NOMINE, pointing up the pre-Raphaelite imagery of Bishop William Walsham How’s ‘For all the Saints who from their labours rest’ prefigures in a remarkable way the arrival of Pilgrim at the Celestial City in the closing pages of Vaughan Williams’s ‘Morality’ of 45 years hence, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

In a few cases, new words were commissioned to fit specific tunes. Athelstan Riley’s ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’, for example, was written for Vaughan Williams’s harmonization of the 17th-century German melody LASST UNS ERFREUEN: together, the music and these words became one of The English Hymnal’s finest set pieces – like SINE NOMINE, with a peroration of ‘Alleluyas’.

The English Hymnal : revisions and influence

The 1933 revision of the Tunes Edition allowed Vaughan Williams opportunity for ‘the enrichment of the music’, omitting none the 1906 tunes but adding over one hundred newly selected items, including new Vaughan Williams tunes, and material from Songs of Praise, a hymnal compiled by Dearmer, Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw in 1925. The English Hymnal continued to be available in a comprehensive portfolio of sizes and formats, affordable by all classes of broad-minded men. A New English Hymnal was issued in 1986, but the original book remained in print simultaneously with its successor, such was its stature and status. As a compendium of the world’s finest hymn tunes (and hymns), The English Hymnal was hugely influential: a prime source for compilers of other collections, and extensively used in worship.

The English Hymnal shaped and influenced Vaughan Williams, as a composer. For the remainder of his life he drew regularly upon its materials. The ‘theme’ in his 1910 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was Tallis’s THIRD MODE MELODY, which Vaughan Williams had chosen for the hymn ‘When, rising from the bed of death’. The Scottish Psalter hymn tune YORK (‘Pray that Jerusalem may have / Peace and felicity’) was used consistently within the various musical Pilgrim’s Progress projects undertaken by Vaughan Williams, reaching an apotheosis in The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Morality of 1951.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'The Pilgrim's Progress'

This is a manuscript in Vaughan William’s hand of music composed for a dramatization of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Held by © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Disagreeing retrospectively with his own predecessor of one hundred years, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at the book’s centenary in 2006, declared The English Hymnal ‘a triumph’. Dearmer himself, looking back, realized The English Hymnal had shown that the present generation ‘desires to enter into the heritage of noble religious verse which is ours’. That this was so was due very largely to the musical content assembled for that verse by Ralph Vaughan Williams. As architect of The English Hymnal’s rich and adventurous soundscape, Vaughan Williams shaped the book’s ideology and created an icon – a thesaurus, a source, a companion.

  • Simon Wright
  • Simon Wright read music at University College, Cardiff, and is Head of Rights & Contracts in the Music Department of Oxford University Press – he contributed the chapters on music publishing to The History of Oxford University Press (2013, 2017). His research has focussed on the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (his 1992 book Villa-Lobos is an evaluation of the composer’s music), and he has also written and delivered talks on William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

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