From the collection


For World Book Day 2015 I have been asked to make a choice from the Congregational Library’s hymn collection. I have selected our copy of The Scottish Psalter: being the Psalms of David in Metre, with the Standard Melodies as used in Worship by the Churches in Scotland (Glasgow and London: W. R. M‘Phun, Publisher to his Royal Highness the Prince Consort, 1857). It is a split-page (or “Dutch door”) psalter, arranged so that the top half of the book (the words of the metrical psalms) can move independently of the bottom half (the tunes). This enables any psalm to be sung to any tune, provided they have the same metrical structure. Many readers of this notice will not have seen such a book before, and those who have will (like me) remember their wonderment on first coming across one.


On the physical level, one of the few things with which such a publication can be compared is that type of children’s book which is split into three, so that the heads, bodies and legs of different characters can be matched and mis-matched with amusing effect. Intellectually, however, the split-page psalter is a very thorough-going and logical Scottish application of the principle that any piece of verse can be sung to any tune of a matching shape. This is an essentially pre-romantic concept, with its focus on the technical matter of fitting metre to metre, and its lack of concern for the emotional business of matching mood to mood. The more romantic idea of matching verbal feeling to musical atmosphere has found lasting expression in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) and all its successors. In these every hymn has its carefully-matched tune, though the system has never been applied rigidly, and all modern congregations are familiar with hymns that possess more than one tune, and tunes that are attached to more than one hymn. My father was fond of telling the story of how, when the Spring Bank Cemetery, Hull (a much-loved haunt of Philip Larkin), was re-opened after having fallen into wild disrepair, there was a ceremony attended by a crowd predominantly Methodist, but with the Salvation Army band in attendance. When a hymn was announced, and the brass instruments began what the Methodists regarded as the wrong tune, they launched into the tune of their own preference, and out-sang the band.

Having been involved for some years with country dancing of various types (English historical, English folkie, and Scottish), I cannot help noticing that the shifting aesthetics just described were not confined to the religious sphere, but also operated in the ballroom. At Quadrille Club my revered teacher Ellis Rogers often points out that in country dancing the modern habit of associating dances with particular tunes, and then calling the dance by the name of the tune, was not necessarily the practice during the Georgian heyday of country dancing. Any dance could be done to any tune that fitted it, and often was. But here again our modern romanticism favours the matching of a suitable tune to what we feel is the mood of a particular dance, with a name that covers both.

In country dancing, however, there has been one contrary tendency which has not, so far as I know, manifested itself in the world of hymn-singing. In the Georgian assembly room, dancers seem to have been willing to dance for twenty minutes to the same tune over and over again. Modern dancers, however, even when re-creating the historical experience, are more easily bored, and (even though they only dance for five minutes) like to have changes of tune. It is also kinder to the band, who don’t have the choreography to distract them from the endless repetition. So if, for example, a dance is done seven times through, its eponymous tune will be played twice, followed by two alternative tunes played twice each, and one final resumption of the original strain. In the hymn books, it is difficult to find more than slight parallels to this. In the twentieth century, hymns were often cut, and verses parcelled out between different sections of the congregation. But the tunes, although often re-harmonized, overwhelmed by descants, and drowned by last-verse organ accompaniments that sounded like all hell let loose, were not normally abandoned altogether. I don’t know when the country dance habit of varying the tune first took hold, but it goes back at least to the 1870s and Kerr’s Merry Melodies. As that enormous assemblage of tunes emanated, like our Scottish Psalter, from Glasgow, home of the music-publishing firm of J. S. Kerr, we have come full circle, and it is time to stop.

David Powell