Hymns and Hymn Tunes

Hymns and hymn tunes. Hymns are poetic texts in praise of God, meant to be sung communally either in church worship or in more informal groups.

Hymns and hymn tunes

Hymns and hymn tunes. Hymns are poetic texts in praise of God, meant to be sung communally either in church worship or in more informal groups. Starting in the late 18th century, text-content broadened to include not only praise but subjective religious feelings, whether of suffering or joy, as well as didactic themes, making some hymns almost like Bible lessons in verse. The term 'tune' denotes either the main melody to which a hymn is sung or, more usually, the harmonized setting of this melody - for three, or more generally four, vocal parts. The repertoire of tunes cultivated in Canada includes examples from Reformation chorales and psalters (French, German, Dutch, English, Scottish) and from 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century English and US sources (with a sprinkling of Swiss, Russian, and German tunes, among others), to which a steady input of indigenous contributions became added.

Tunes, Tunebooks And Hymnals

The history of Canadian printed collections, with music, of hymns and metrical psalms - traditionally the grass-roots of the 'sacred music' repertoire - starts with Stephen Humbert'sUnion Harmony (Saint John, NB, 1801; later editions 1816, 1831, 1840). This is a substantial (over 300 pages) oblong-octavo volume resembling publications of US composers of the Revolutionary era such as Swan, Read, Belknap, and Billings, each of whom in fact is represented in it by several tunes. Tunes from contemporaneous English sources are also found, and there are over two dozen original works by the compiler, Humbert (hymn tunes and anthems), who often approximates the angular harmonies of his colleagues in New England and sometimes adopts their 'fuguing tune' format, whereby a crudely imitative texture is applied to the final phrase or two of a verse, as a contrast to chordal treatment of the earlier 1ines. In his introductory 'Advertisement' to the 1816 edition Humbert defends this style. 'Gagetown' and 'Singing school' (the latter to his own text) are examples. 'Halifax' with its dramatic changes of tempo and metre, and the graceful, wide-ranging 'Remembrance' well represent his non-fuguing practice.

A considerably slimmer volume entitled A Selection from the Psalms of David (Montreal 1821) exhibits an upright format and places the principal melody in the treble (rather than in the tenor, as in the US books and in Humbert). The compiler, Rev George Jenkins, was attached to the Anglican Cathedral in Montreal. The book, one of the most elegant in appearance of early Canadian publications, is acknowledged by Jenkins to be based on a specific English work, Miller and Drummond's The Psalms of David.

These two compilations establish the two main influences found in succeeding tunebooks and hymnals. The US oblong format, with melody in the tenor part, predominates in the first part of the 19th century. Only gradually does the British upright reintroduce itself after 1860. US tunes from the popular 'Yankee tunesmiths' were familiar throughout much of the 19th century in Canada, to judge from the continual reappearances of 'China' by Timothy Swan, 'Russia' by Daniel Read, and 'Lenox' by Lewis Edson, even though by the end of the century the latter two are reharmonized and divested of their original 'fuguing' character. The newer and more musically 'literate' style of tune, associated in the USA with Lowell Mason, infiltrates from the 1840s on as do Victorian favourites by Dykes, Gauntlett, and Stainer. After the mid-century, Canadian collections reflect the new appeal of the gospel style, though some do so only in separate appendices devoted to music for evangelical occasions.

Adaptations from classical music are often encountered. Canadian compilers copied the Handel and Beethoven tunes of such English arrangers as William Gardner and also made their own adaptations from Haydn, Mozart, Weber, or, again, Beethoven. For example, a sacred text is fitted to an arrangement from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (the duet of the flower girls from Act 3) in Alexander Davidson's Sacred Harmony (Toronto, 1838; at least 12 later editions 1843-6l). English 18th-century tunes such as Croft's 'St Ann's' recur frequently, and almost no collection is without those traditional standbys 'Old Hundred' and 'Martyrs,' the former from the Huguenot Psalter of 1554 and the latter from the Scottish Psalter of 1615 - though both undergo variations of metrical arrangement and harmonization. The Canadian editors reflect their environment by using local place-names for many tunes ('Halifax,' 'Chebucto,' 'Montreal' five times, 'Toronto' six times, 'Goderich,' 'Port Hope,' 'Brockville,' 'Niagara,' and 'Hamilton'; as well as 'Ontario,' whose derivation is given curiously as 'American melody' and 'Canada' five times). Many of these tunes no doubt are original, though attributions often are missing or dubious. Sometimes Canadian place-names are used for tunes by non-Canadian composers: the name 'Toronto' was given to Sullivan's 'Lux Eoi' by a Canadian editor, perhaps with the composer's permission; Lowell Mason composed both a 'Canada' and an 'Ottawa'.

The books often were produced for a particular denomination, but throughout the middle- and late-19th century the contents, whether Anglican, Presbyterian, or Methodist, characteristically have 50 to 60 per cent of their music in common. Canadian Baptists and Lutherans, with their different traditions for the use of music, often imported their hymnbooks. The 'Amen,' sung in formal worship at the end of the last verse of a hymn was a standard inclusion for several generations, but appeared in print only at the very end of the 19th century. By the end of the 20th, this custom was disappearing.

To the music of the traditional psalters and the 18th-century Handelian inheritance some tunebooks add folk hymns - some of whose melodies, often reminiscent in their modality and phrasing of Anglo-Celtic, German, and French folk songs, derive from an influential New England collection, Jeremiah Ingalls' The Christian Harmony (Exeter, NH 1805). Such incorporations suggest the existence of an improvised-hymnody practice in early Canada comparable to that found in some US regions - a point which in 1991 had yet to be thoroughly explored by scholars.

The earliest books provided, besides tunes and at least partial texts, virtually the only contact of Canadians in small communities or rural areas with the principles of musical notation and sight-singing - except for those infrequent occasions when singing masters visited to hold classes (see Singing schools). Like their US prototypes, early Canadian tunebooks usually start with a section (often 20 pages or more in length) called 'Introductory lessons and exercises,' 'Elements of music,' or 'Introduction to the science of music'.

Some pre-Confederation collections contain original tunes and characteristic harmonizations that deserve revival. Such sources are Mark Burnham's Colonial Harmonist (Port Hope, Ont 1832 - the preface says 'no musical treatise has hitherto been published in this Colony'), the large and anonymously edited Harmonicon (Pictou, NS 1836; later editions 1841, 1855), J.P. Clarke'sCanadian Church Psalmody (Toronto 1845), Davidson's Sacred Harmony already noted, and George Linton's The Vocalist (Toronto 1865 or 1867). Notable individual tunes are Burnham's modal 'Hermitage,' a tune called 'Toronto' attributable to Davidson, 'York New Church' by W.H. Warren, and Clarke's 'Christ Church,' with its quotation of a phrase from Haydn's Creation.

Though US collections in this period, especially in the midwestern and southern states, cultivate the 'shape-note' notation style (whereby a different shape of note-head corresponds to each sol-fa syllable for greater ease in sight-singing), this does not seem to have caught on extensively in Canada. Some editions of Davidson in the 1840s were published in two styles, standard and 'patent-note' (ie, shape-note), but the later editions of this book revert to standard notation only. Chants évangéliques, a hymnbook for French-speaking Canadians, was published first in 1862 by Lovell of Montreal; through many subsequent editions (1875 to at least 1914), each of increased size, it continued in use well into the mid-20th century. Popular 19th-century tunes such as Mason's 'Bethany' ('Nearer, my God, to Thee') appear with French translations of their texts. Some original tunes by the compiler, L.E. Rivard, are included.

Not all publications contain music. Two subtypes surprisingly prevalent in the mid-l9th century sometimes includ tunes but more often consisted of texts only: these are hymn collections for children or for Sunday school use and hymnbooks employing languages of the various Native peoples (Cree, Iroquois, etc.). An example of the former (with tunes) is L.C. Everett's The Canadian Warbler (Toronto and Montreal 1863); an example of the latter (without) is A Collection of Ojibway and English Hymns (edited and translated by Peter Jones, Boston ca 1830, later reprinted in Toronto). The increasing popularity of the catchy evangelical songs after ca 1875 brought a reaction under which the hymnals came to be prepared by advisory committees within the various sects rather than by individual editors, and gradually a more scholarly, more historically correct, and more 'elevating' publication resulted, although sometimes creative and indigenous expressions were lost in the process.

The Rev Alexander MacMillan 's long career as an adviser on Presbyterian and later United Church hymn-editing policies began with the production of the Presbyterial Book of Praise (Oxford and London 1904, revised 1918; preface dated 'Toronto 1897'). In this book historical perspective of choice, scholarly attributions, and a rather severe style of musical arrangement set a new standard for Canadian compilers.

The Methodist Hymn and Tune Book (Toronto 1917) includes an unusually large number (49) of originally composed tunes by W.H. Hewlett, Alfred Whitehead, A.S. Vogt, G.D. Atkinson, H.C. Perrin, and others. One member of the musical editorial committee, Herbert Sanders, wrote nearly half of them himself, of which a strong example is 'Dominion Church'. Hewlett's tunes are harmonically and melodically the most adventurous of the group (eg, his 'Carlton Street' with its shift from minor to major). Notably in the first Hymnary of the newly formed United Church of Canada (Toronto 1930) a more 'universal' approach (in effect both more scholarly and more European) is in evidence, the original tunes disappear, and newly composed tunes are de-emphasized, though there are five by Hewlett, two by Healey Willan, and one by Whitehead. The chief editorial adviser was Alexander MacMillan.

MacMillan collaborated with Edward J. Moore in editing a hymnal for Ukrainian-Canadian protestants: Knyha Khvaly (Toronto 1922), based in part on Methodist and Presbyterian volumes then in use, but containing items from Ukrainian folk traditions. From the second decade of the 20th century Canadian Mennonites have developed a unique hymn-singing tradition largely based on the use of collections imported from Russia, Germany, or (recently almost exclusively) the USA; but a body of originally-composed tunes by Aram Sawatzky (fl Sask 1903-20) and others has achieved wide circulation among Mennonite groups.

James Edmund Jones was largely responsible for tune selection and editing for the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Common Praise both in 1908 and on its revision in 1938. For both editions he published historical annotations in a separate volume. Tunes composed by him are included, and some of these (eg, 'Walden') also turn up in the hymnals of other denominations. Willan was an adviser for the 1938 Book of Common Praise. Ulrich S. Leupold, who directed church music studies at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary 1945-70, was the foremost hymnologist among Canadian Lutherans in his day. The published commentaries of Stanley L. Osborne (a member of the compilation committees for several hymnals) deal with backgrounds of both texts and tunes.

The popular Roman Catholic tradition of the cantique is represented in a remarkable early publication, Jean-Denis Daulé'sNouveau receuil de cantiques (Quebec City 1819). T.F. Molt'sLyre sainte (2 vols, Quebec City, 1844 and 1845), the anglophone St. Basil's Hymnal (Toronto 1889; various later editions 1890-7), and Louis Bouhier'sTrois cents cantiques, anciens et nouveaux (Montreal, 1905; several later editions, to at least 1931) are later examples. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-4), congregational singing in the vernacular became a more standard feature of Roman Catholic worship than formerly in Canada.

In 1971 precedent was created in a jointly issued and handsomely designed volume The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. F.R.C. Clarke, Derek Holman, Godfrey Ridout, and others contributed new melodies to this collection, which however did not attempt to encourage revival of Canadian-composed tunes, by that time numbering at least 800, published in older hymnals. By 1991 the 'red book' (as The Hymn Book has been popularly called) was losing favour even among parishes which had adopted it with enthusiasm. The quarter-century of life often assigned to hymnals and the appearance in 1985 of an Anglican Book of Alternative Services would point to a likely new replacement of the 'red book' some time in the mid-1990s.

Besides those noted above, early 20th-century tunes of special character include 'Benedicite, omnia opera' by the young Ernest MacMillan, Albert Ham's setting of Tennyson's poem 'Crossing the Bar,' Whitehead's 'Mount Allison' and 'Montreal,' Jones' 'Rice Lake,' G. Jennings Burnett's 'By Christ Redeemed,' and several tunes of the Rev (later Bishop) Charles Venn Pilcher, eg, 'Haworth' and 'Hermon'.

Hymn Texts And Hymnology

Indigenous writing of hymn texts begins in the 17th century with 'Jesous Ahatonhia', more properly termed a carol. The hymns of the Nova Scotian 'New Light' preacher Henry Alline (1748-84) drew increased attention in the 1980s. David Willson, patriarch of the Children of Peace sect in mid-l9th century Ontario, wrote over 1,400 hymn verses, some surviving only in manuscript, but at least 1,000 published in two volumes, without tunes. They have a clarity, sincerity, and found-poetry charm comparable to the naive painted banners of the sect's Temple. In 1827, William Bullock (1798-1874), an ordained clergyman of the Church of England, wrote 'We love the place, O God' and had it sung from manuscript at Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. It had to wait 27 years before it was published. Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1819-86) wrote a number of texts, among them the much-loved 'What a friend we have in Jesus'. The Rev Robert Murray (1832-1910) wrote the words for the well-known 'From ocean unto ocean,' while 'We hail thee now, O Jesu,' by The Rev Canon F.G. Scott (1861-1944) has also been widely used. Gena Branscombe wrote both words and music for 'Arms that have sheltered us,' adopted by the RCN in 1960. The 1908 Book of Common Praise (Anglican), with nearly 800 hymns, had 20 texts and nearly twice as many tunes by Canadian authors and composers. In The Hymn Book (1971) the proportion of Canadian content rose to approximately 10 per cent; again, composers appeared to have been more active than authors.

Hymnology - especially research in Canadian hymnody, ie, in the repertoire of tunes and texts produced in Canada - has become increasingly emphasized. Wesley Berg and Peter Letkemann have investigated the music of the Mennonite hymns, and ethnomusicologists such as Beverley Diamond have studied hymns as a factor in native cultures. A conference convened by the Institute for Canadian Music at the University of Toronto, 7-8 Feb 1986, brought together scholars from various centres representing several disciplines (music, church history, cultural studies); the proceedings were published as Sing Out the Glad News, borrowing the title of a Canadian gospel-song collection of 1885. The same year, 1986, saw publication of CMH, vol 5, an historical anthology of 310 tunes, some in several versions, drawn from over 60 tunebooks and hymnals published in Canada before the middle of the 20th century.

Libraries with strong representation of historical tunebooks and hymnals include the Emmanuel College and Edward Johnson Music Libraries, University of Toronto; the National Library of Canada; and the Lande Collection, McGill University Library, Montreal. The noted hymnologist, Stanley L. Osborne, holds an important private collection of post-1900 English hymnals.

Hymn Singing

The singing of hymns in Canada goes back to the 17th century when Récollet and Jesuit missionaries (see Missionaries) arrived from France to plant the Christian gospel in the new land. They employed the hymn not only as a vehicle of worship, but also as an evangelical tool, a means of spreading the faith. According to the Jesuit Relations their training must have been considerable, for they not only led the singing at worship but they also instructed their converts on the best mode of singing. 'All the savages,' it states, 'have much aptitude and inclination for singing the hymns of the Church, which have been rendered into their language' (vol 60, p 145). Antiphonal singing between men and women was employed frequently. Native melodies with a minimum of alteration supplemented French songs. Four-part singing at Quebec in 1646 is documented. Accompaniment was provided by viols or violins brought from France and probably also by flutes and recorders. After the middle of the 17th century an organ was in use in Quebec City to support the singing. Up to the time of the British era in Canada the singing of hymns was as a rule confined to religious instruction. Hymns were sung at Mass, but not by the congregation, whose participation was limited to certain liturgical responses.

With the arrival of the protestant settlers in the Maritimes and the Canadas came considerable diversity. The tradition of metrical psalms was cultivated especially by the Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Methodists, and gradually these groups, and to a limited extent the Baptists and Congregationalists, assimilated the new reflective and instructional hymns (including texts by Watts, Newton, and the Wesleys) to their repertoires. Prior to the early 19th century hymnbooks and psalters were imported, and most were without music. The use of a precentor to lead the singing, and the device of 'lining-out' - the singers repeating each line of a hymn after a precentor or teacher - are frequently mentioned. The same tune could be sung to a variety of different hymns, since metrical patterns were few. Through the use of sight-singing methods found in the imported collections and in the earliest locally-published tunebooks, aided sometimes by the singing school movement, many adults and children acquired familiarity with a basic fund of tunes and texts, participating in them not just in church but in social and home groups as well.

By the mid-19th century, melodeons and organs were being introduced into the churches, displacing the flutes and the bass viols, and choirs were being formed to lead the singing. The role of the precentor declined as that of the organist and choirmaster expanded.

In Old-Time Primitive Methodism in Canada 1829-84 (Toronto 1894) Mrs R.F. Hopper described the singing in Bay Street Methodist Church in Toronto: 'George McCluskey played the bass viol... while Henry Harrison played the flute and Robert Walker the melodeon. George McCluskey was never so happy as when praising God on "strings and pipes," accompanied by "loud-sounding" cymbals;' and commenting upon the singing in Carlton Street Church ca 1890 she remarked that it 'is considered equal to that of any church in Toronto, and while sweet and artistic, is devotional'.

During the last half of the 19th century several factors combined to lend a stimulus to hymn singing. Most important were the arrival of trained musicians from England, Scotland, and the USA and the formation of music schools. Nearly all churches in the cities and towns had organs; melodeons and pianos were to be found in country churches. In devout homes families would often gather around the melodeon or follow the lead of a flute or another instrument to sing hymns. Mrs Hopper refers to her own home: 'My father loved singing: he had a flute and played by note; so we generally spent all Sunday afternoon in sacred song... Mother never could sing. She said herself, the only tune she knew was "Balerma," and she sang it to "Oh, for that tenderness of heart." She thought she sang "Balerma," but I do not know even now whether it was the words or the music, that stood for "Balerma" in her mind. It was like no tune on earth'.

Methodists and Lutherans were adjured to promote singing vigorously. In The Doctrines and Disciplines of the Methodist Church (Toronto 1884) directions are clear and unequivocal:

i Choose such hymns as are proper for the occasion, and do not sing too much at once; seldom more than five or six verses.

ii Let the tune be suited to the words, and do not suffer the people to sing too slowly. Exhort every person in the congregation to sing.

iii Frequently remind the people of the importance of this part of religious worship, and exhort them to 'sing with the spirit and with the understanding also'.

iv Recommend our tune book, and appoint some suitable person to conduct the singing.

The book in question was probably the Methodist Tune Book (Toronto, 1881).

Singing occurred at least three times in every service 'on the Lord's Day' (it was the duty of the superintendent to exercise control in these matters throughout his circuit) and a good deal more often than that in the Methodist's daily life. Not everyone was charmed by the ubiquity of Methodist singing. In It Blows, It Snows (Dublin 1845) a traveller through Canada who identifies himself as C.H.C. complains that

The inconsiderate habit... of singing hymns and psalms on almost every occasion... is practised among almost every religious persuasion; though I find by the methodistical part of the community its observance is appropriated to a larger share... than by any other. The stranger... must not take it for granted that... such is practised either for the express purpose of communing with the spiritual Author of all consolation, or sounding the depth of His praises on high, for such is not in anywise the case; the music appertains solely to... the lessening of bodily inconveniences... compelling the resources of the mind to take share in the burthen of the operations. The furrowed frill that binds the neck of the lady cannot be laid across the symmetrical restrictions of the Italian iron without an hymn. The gesticulations of the churn-dash are ineffectual without an incantation. And the querulous sigh of the bellows resigns its claim upon ignition bereft of doxology.

Whether C.H.C. enjoyed the custom or not, clearly hymn-singing was broadly integrated in the day-to-day life of Canadians.

After the advent of the organ the accompaniment to the hymn became the prerogative of the organist. In nearly all protestant churches the organist played the tune over once, after which the people would rise and sing - it was exceptional for a congregation to remain seated - while the organist repeated the same music for all the stanzas. Once in a while a brave organist would dispense with the mandatory 'once through' and improvise a brief phrase in the style of the tune, claiming that to be enough to set the tempo and the pitch for singing.

By the end of the 19th century the influence of gospel music had made itself felt. Denominational hymn-and-tune collections of the early 20th century incorporated some of the best-known US and Canadian gospel songs, sometimes with misgivings over their affront to traditional ideas of appropriateness and good taste. These developments however proved a mere hint of the popularization of hymn singing brought about through the advent of radio and recordings and later through the pop revolution of the 1960s.

The CBC broadcasts of W.H. Anderson'sChoristers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and of Sunday services from leading Canadian churches with good choirs, disseminated high standards in hymn singing, and these were carried forward - in programs with an increasing pop admixture - into the TV era by Eric Wild's (later Winnifred Sim's) 'CBC Hymn Sing' which began in October 1965. In the 1970s the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under Elmer Iseler gave several successful concerts devoted entirely to hymns. Church music courses in denominational universities and colleges, and choral workshops organized by such institutions and by the provincial choral federations (see also Choral singing) which sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s concerned themselves with the hymn literature, as did special church congresses for organists and choirmasters, and some competition-festival syllabi offered hymn classes. The secularization of public education made hymn singing in schools a rarity, but rising school-music standards had a beneficial indirect effect on hymn singing in other situations.

In the Roman Catholic church hymn singing in the vernacular used to be encouraged only for private devotions and extraliturgical functions, although it was heard in mission churches on the frontier and in the churches of the new Canadians, especially the Ukrainian Catholics and other followers of the Eastern rite. But a notable change ocurred at Vatican II: hymn singing officially became the privilege of the congregation. Subsequently the participation of the people in the church's song came to be promoted actively.

Among anglophone Roman Catholics in Canada, the chief hymnals used after Vatican II was the Catholic Book of Worship (Toronto 1972). Of several hymnals used by francophones, Livret des fidèles (Montreal 1966) was the most common. Home-made hymnals also could be found. Living with Christ, An Aid to Personal and Family Devotions, edited by Father Stephen Somerville and published six times a year by Novalis in Ottawa, has offered much encouragement to hymn singing. Not only does it provide hymns, both new and old, for use in the home, but it also presents new music responses for the liturgy.


Further Reading

  • McMurrich, W. Barclay. Historical Sketch of the Hymnal Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (London, Toronto 1905)

    Mahon, A.W. Canadian Hymns and Hymn Writers (St Andrews, NB 1908)

    Cook, Donald. 'A Survey of hymnody in the Church of England in eastern Canada,' J of the Canadian Church Historical Society, vol 8, no. 3,1965

    Osborne, Stanley L. If Such Holy Song: The Story of the Hymns in 'The Hymn Book, 197l' (Whitby, Ont 1976)

    McMillan, Barclay. 'Tune-book imprints in Canada to 1867: a descriptive bibliography,' Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, vol 16, 1977

    Osborne, Stanley L. 'Recent Canadian hymnody,' The Hymn, vol 29, Jul 1978

    Blum, Stephen, and Hadeed, Henry. 'Folk hymnody among English-speaking Canadians, 1776-1870,' unpublished paper, 1979

    Osborne, Stanley L. On Singing and Playing the Hymns in 'The Hymn Book': A Guide to Performance (Whitby, Ont 1980-5)

    Filshie, Margaret A. 'Sacred harmonies: the congregational voice in Canadian Protestant worship, 1750-1850,' Association of Canadian Studies Proceedings, 1984

    Berg, Wesley. From Russia with Music: A Study of the Mennonite Choral Singing Tradition in Canada (Winnipeg 1985)

    Beckwith, John, ed. The Canadian Musical Heritage, Vol 5: Hymn Tunes (Ottawa 1986)

    Berg, Wesley. 'The Music of the Mennonite Brethren of Saskatchewan to 1923,' American Music, vol 4, Winter 1986

    McKellar, Hugh D. 'Hymn writers of Canada,' 'Hymnody of Canada,' articles prepared for The Dictionary of American Hymnology and circulated in pamphlet form at the annual meeting of the Hymn Society of America, Toronto, 1986

    Beckwith, John, ed. Sing Out the Glad News: Hymn Tunes in Canada, CanMus Documents 1 (Toronto 1987)

    -. 'Tunebooks and hymnals in Canada 1801-1938,' American Music, vol 6, Summer 1988

    Banovitz, Dawn Helen. 'The development of the Canadian national Catholic hymnal: Catholic Book of Worship (1972), Catholic Book of Worship II (1980) and Catholic Book of Worship III (1994),' PhD thesis, U. of Iowa 1994