The physical, psychological, social, musical and educational benefits of singing are enormous. In terms of promoting social inclusion, mental wellbeing and confidence, there are few better activities than the singing of hymns. It is not for nothing that many of our leading independent schools have retained the seemingly archaic tradition of ‘Congers’. By its very nature, congregational singing is a collegiate and collective act. It promotes a sense of ‘togetherness’ and hard-wires us to the cultural and spiritual inheritance of our school community. It embodies the very best of traditions. Stirring words and rousing melodies supported by luscious harmonies provide nourishment for the soul. However, the joy of hymnody has little to do with the strength of one’s faith although religious devotion has inspired some of the world’s most beautiful music. For many of us, it is through music rather than words that we explore our spirituality.
The hymns that we sing in school should be fun to sing. Boring harmonic progressions, depressing words and ponderous homophonic writing can lead to turgid dirges that deaden the senses rather than elevating the soul. One of my enduring memories of reception class was singing (or perhaps shouting) to the accompaniment of the cassette recorder as it blasted out such classics as ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ or ‘I am the lord of the dance said he’. It was not until many years later that I realised that it was ‘said he’ and not ‘settee’. Even now, the sound of those songs makes me think of the smell of floor polish and milk.
The Lord of the Dance Settee
I have long since stopped trying to understand the enduring popularity of ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ though I think that much of its appeal can be attributed to the physicality of that explosive burst of clapping that occurs just before the chorus. From the opening chord, it has an affirming and unashamedly evangelical vibe. It makes me think of loud shirts, outdoor festivals, drum kits and a faith that is felt rather than learned. It’s composer Graham Kendrick observes:
“This song is a prayer for revival. A songwriter can give people words to voice something which is already in their hearts but which they don’t have the words or the tune to express, and I think ‘Shine Jesus shine’ caught a moment when people were beginning to believe once again that an impact could be made on a whole nation.”
It should come as no surprise that some of the very best composers of hymn tunes were school music teachers. Walter Greatorex (1877-1949) was Director of Music at Gresham’s School for many years. His pupils included Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden although they did not rate him unduly. These days he is best remembered for his hymn tune ‘Woodlands’ which is most commonly used with Timothy Dudley-Smith’s ‘Tell out my Soul’. One of my personal favourites is the hymn tune ‘Coe Fen’ which was composed by Ken Naylor (1931-1991). Ken was Director of Music at the Leys School in Cambridge. The then headmaster asked him to write a stirring hymn tune that the boys could really enjoy singing.
Ken happily obliged and he was clearly at the peak of his creative powers on the day that he wrote this hymn tune. Musicians will appreciate the scrumptious harmonic progression above. To my mind, it constitutes perfection and it is so satisfying to belt it out. If you are coming to the Prize Day service tomorrow morning then I hope that you enjoy this absolute gem.
Hymns often remind us of the past. Sometimes, they remind us of unbearably sad times. I still struggle to hear the hymn tune ‘Crimond’. The sound of its opening line transports me back to my father’s funeral some forty years ago this month. Other hymn tunes remind me of happy times with one of my father’s best friends. Reg and I used to sit in the room behind his garage playing through Methodist hymn tunes on his electric organ. The room was an Aladdin’s cave of manuscripts, reel-to-reel recording equipment and circuit boards. The smell of dust and cigar smoke was not unpleasant and Reg’s enthusiasm for organ music still inspires me to this day. Certain tunes such as S.S. Wesley’s ‘Air and Gavotte’ brings a lump to my throat because it takes me right back to that place. It takes me back to about 1988 and a house full of music somewhere on the Selby Road in Leeds.
Herbert Howells (1892-983 and his family)
One of the greatest hymn tunes of all time is Herbert Howells’ ‘Michael’. The hymn ‘All my hope on God is founded’ is usually set to this tune. It is a beautiful sweeping melody that is both purposeful and optimistic. It is named after Herbert Howell’s nine year old son who died from polio whilst on a family vacation in 1935. Howells never recovered from this monumental loss. His faith was not of an orthodox nature but he loved the traditions of the Church, and the Bible as a work of literature. Indeed, his daughter Ursula suggested that ‘he was never more than an agnostic who veered toward belief’. Some of our most beloved sacred music has been written by decidedly secular musicians. Leonard Bernstein was not a man known for his religiosity but ‘The Chichester Psalms’ seems to offer us a glimpse of the divine.
The singing of hymns and traditions such as Congers are part of life here at Rossall. We come to Chapel with open hearts and open minds. Regardless of the strength of one’s faith, it is a place where we are inspired to reflect upon the metaphysical world and the spiritual dimension of our lives. The value of this might not be immediately apparent but it does tend to be appreciated in retrospect. As our Year 13 leavers contemplate the world beyond Rossall, there is much that they will take forward with them as they journey through life. I do not doubt that, every so often, a familiar melody will evoke emotions that connect them once again to this time and this place.
Headmaster of Rossall School