Aled Jones introduces a feast of hymns by some of today's writers, and discovers what makes a modern classic. Hymns include Christ Triumphant.
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A hymn means literally "a song of praise",
and as such, they've been around for millennia.
But hymns in the form that we recognise them today
came about in the 17th century, through Isaac Watts,
known as "the father of English hymnody".
Since then the hymn has become one of the great treasures
of the English-speaking world.
Thanks in part to organisations like the Royal School of Church Music,
based here at Sarum College in Salisbury,
the British hymn-writing tradition is still alive, well,
and thriving in the 21st century.
Tonight, join in with congregations from all over the country,
to sing traditional hymns and tunes written and arranged over the last five decades.
And some of today's distinguished hymn writers and composers share the secrets of their craft.
Our first hymn combines words by Anglican vicar Michael Saward
and a tune by schoolmaster and composer John Barnard.
They're both prolific hymn-writers,
but their most famous work is truly a triumph of their combined arts.
It sounds as fresh today as when it was written back in the 1980s.
That tune is named after the pretty Cotswold village of Guiting Power,
and in fact, you could travel round Britain
and recognise many tunes as place names.
Hymn writers are often very conscious of the community in which they live.
Very often it'll be a church that will inspire somebody to write a hymn
and then that can extend through to the village or town or wherever.
It's a wonderful feeling to be in a congregation singing a hymn.
The emotional response, the words and music, two art forms coming together.
I think it's something that's very special to me.
I think it's very important always to be encouraging new music in church,
in all its shapes and forms, and all its different styles.
There are, of course, some wonderful traditional hymns
and it's important that we keep these going and we continue to use those,
but at the same time we should be looking to new influences,
new styles, new hymn-writers to support the worship of today.
Hymn-writer Brigid Pailthorpe's 2003 hymn, Living In The Light,
was set to a tune by Peter Moger.
Now precentor of York Minster, when Pam Rhodes met Peter during Advent 2003,
he was then vicar of the Huntingdonshire town of Godmanchester.
'I try to work at integrating music with ministry.'
Earlier this year I was asked to write a tune
for a new set of hymn words - the hymn, Living In The Light.
And having sat down at the piano and written the tune,
I realised that this embodied much of what it felt like
to be in this place of Godmanchester, and so that's the name I gave the tune.
It's important that people have a sense of belonging,
that they know where they can be truly at home.
And I think the church has a lot to offer here,
in that it can be a real home, a spiritual home for people,
a place where they know they can be accepted for who they are,
and where they can be fully part of things, part of God's family of the church.
In the early 20th century, composers Ralph Vaughan Williams
and Gustav Holst went on walking tours around the English countryside.
As they travelled, they sought out and collected the traditional folk songs
which are now more famous as the tunes to some of our best-loved hymns.
Hymn-writer John Bell also sets new words
to the traditional folk music of his native Scotland.
A folk tune gives you the possibility of using language
which a formal Victorian hymn tune - or that style of music -
just does not let you use.
And the 20th, 21st centuries are full of things that never happened
in the Victorian era, whether it's nuclear war or money laundering
or that kind of stuff. These should be able to be sung about,
if God is God of the whole world, and not just the nice churchy parts of it.
Years ago, my colleague and I were working in Iona Abbey, leading a week,
and the healing service at that time was on the Wednesday night.
And we knew there weren't many hymns about healing.
There was a couple who'd lost a child, there was someone who'd been the victim of abuse,
and I suppose knowing we had a limit to the number of hymns about healing,
and realising that these people's experiences
were not caught up in the words we'd normally sing,
gave us the kind of impetus to write a new song on this subject.
John Bell is one of today's most published hymn writers.
But as well as the prolific professionals,
many people just write hymns for the love of it.
I got into hymn-writing really with the help of my wife, Elaine.
Because in retirement she took to writing poetry.
Elaine and I are members of the Methodist Church in Shepshed.
As a Methodist,
obviously have a great affection for the work of Charles Wesley,
and owe a great debt to him.
Obviously I don't presume to supplant anything of that sort,
but clearly language has moved on,
and I would hope to build on the foundation he's laid
and perhaps insert a few new ideas that more easily commends itself
to a present-day narration in the 21st century.
# Welcome truth! But little caring
# Whence it come... #
In writing hymns, I'm trying to avoid saying what's already been well said,
and probably better than I could manage.
And my aim is to use language which is clear, concise,
free of jargon, and maybe with a touch of poetry as well.
The good hymn is, in a sense, a prayer with music.
To that extent, it combines two elements,
and it has the great advantage that it involves the congregation
in a very direct way, in a user-friendly way.
So, as a tool for worship, it's very important indeed.
For more than 250 years,
Charles Wesley's immortal words "love divine, all loves excelling"
have inspired many musical settings, and, of course, we all have a favourite.
There's his own choice of tune, by his contemporary, Henry Purcell,
and the 19th-century one by John Stainer, called Love Divine.
And of course the early 20th-century classic, Blaenwern.
So here's a new arrangement of all three of them,
by the 21st-century composer, Malcolm Archer.
Malcolm Archer has been director of music
at several of England's great cathedrals.
And his talent for arranging pieces for young singers is put to good use
in his present role, at Winchester College.
There's always new texts being written,
and there's always new music to be written.
One should never stifle that flow of inspiration.
And you never know when a new gem is going to be composed,
and each generation will produce its great music,
as it has for years and years and years.
In a sense, there shouldn't be a battle between ancient and modern,
if all composers are writing music which is accessible
and which people enjoy singing.
I think that's a very important starting point for me.
I always want to write music which I feel will stand the test of time, hopefully,
and which people will want to perform and want to sing.
And Malcolm's tune to our next hymn is rapidly becoming a favourite.
As well as being home to the Royal School of Church Music,
Sarum College is also a Christian ecumenical centre,
where people of all faith backgrounds can research and study.
Despite its Anglican roots,
the Royal School of Church Music is an ecumenical organisation,
and we work very closely with a range of different traditions.
I suppose we've exemplified this in our Sing Praise, a new hymn book,
which tries to draw in on all those different traditions.
When Methodism began, hymn singing was very important.
Also, in the Roman Catholic Church, there are some very important hymn-writers.
Bernadette Farrell does a tremendous job
in writing music and hymns for the Roman Catholic Church.
# There's someone who knows me... #
'Sometimes people say to me, "I didn't know you were still alive!"
'Sometimes they say, "I was expecting an older lady with white hair in a bun!"
'For me, music is a language of faith.
'We've all got the reign of God inside us.'
We all want to see a world
where people no longer die of hunger and war,
where everyone has an equal chance.
But do we wait for someone else to make that happen?
Writing is part of my response to the Scriptures
and the Scriptures are full of the reign of God.
We need all the gifts that God's given us to bring that reign about.
There's one 21st-century composer whose music is everywhere at Christmas time.
John Rutter and his fellow Cambridge-based composer,
Sir David Willcocks, edited Carols For Choirs,
one of the best-loved resources for churches and schools
to learn both new and old words and music.
I think that the institutions
and tradition of the Christian Church have inspired far more people
than those who would just call themselves card-carrying Christians.
In England, our worshipping history
is one that goes back to, for goodness' sake, 597 or earlier.
It's woven into the fabric of our lives and our thinking.
I was one of actually the last generations to have a morning assembly at school,
so knocking around in my mind
is a repertoire of, I suppose, 200 or 300 hymns, psalms, prayers,
passages from the Bible, which are just part of my mental furniture
which will only be erased by senility or death.
They're just there, they're part of me.
The churches that are everywhere to be seen in our landscape
are just part of my life.
And nothing seemed more natural to me than to write for the church
that I was baptised into, and that I grew up in.
I wanted to write music that would reach out.
Music that even might now and again have a tune in it!
And that's something that's now far, far easier to do
in the concert world, in the 21st century.
I think composers starting out now have a much more favourable climate,
if they want to be accessible and approachable.
It was not so when I started out,
and so most of my working life has been devoted to writing music,
a lot of it vocal and choral, that can be done by non-professionals.
And that's fine.
Although John Rutter is known in some circles as Mr Christmas,
pieces such as this timeless blessing delight choirs, audiences
and congregations alike, at any time of year.
# Amen. #
It's only right that we leave the last word
to one of the greatest hymn-writers of the 21st century -
that's retired bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith, who now lives here in Salisbury.
He's responsible for more than 300 hymns,
including Lord Of The Years, and one of my favourites, Tell Out, My Soul.
When Mary had been told by the angel that, though unmarried,
she was going to be the mother of the saviour,
she bursts into this song or meditation,
in which she glorifies God
and thanks him for this, and accepts the privilege that she's been given,
and meditates on how God is choosing the humble people of the Earth
to bring the saviour of mankind.
Next week, my special guest is keyboard legend Rick Wakeman.
Rick tells me how his faith has survived the ups and downs
of a rock'n'roll life, and performs some of his favourite hymns,
including his famous arrangement of Morning Has Broken.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Aled Jones introduces a feast of traditional hymns by some of today's hymn writers, and discovers what makes a modern classic. Hymns include Christ Triumphant and Tell Out, My Soul.