Words or Music?

Sometimes I get into arguments with people about the words of hymns. This happened the other day, when I objected to the choice of a particular hymn because there’s a double negative in the first verse. ‘Just sing it’, they said, ‘and stop fussing about it.’

But I can’t just sing it, because that’s not how I was brung up.

I know all the words of most of the common hymns by heart. Sometimes I get myself to sleep by reciting a hymn for every letter of the alphabet. Amazing Grace, Brightest and Best, City of God, Dear Lord and Father, and so on. Of course, the system breaks down round about Q, but I’m usually asleep before that, anyway.

It’s all due to Doc Smith. He was our organist and choirmaster when I was at school, and I sang under his command for ten years.  The Doc was an amazing musician. He was, indeed, a Doctor of Music, which is in itself a rare distinction and caused some pain to the rest of the staff on speech day, when all masters were expected to turn up in full academicals. For some reason, musicians get fancier gowns than artists and scientists. Even the lowliest music graduate gets a gown smothered in black-on-black embroidery (they must cost the earth). and when this finery is transmuted into the scarlet of a Doctor’s gown, the result dazzles. Eventually, the Headmaster, a mere MA, had to ask the Doc not to wear the scarlet gown except for the speech day organ recital; too many people were taking the Doc for the Boss.

Obviously, I needed to know the words of hymns once my voice broke and I had to start sight-reading harmonies. There are people who can read a line of music at the same time as a line of words on the opposite page, but I am not among them. Under the Doc even the trebles, who just sing the tune, had to mug up the words. ‘Why are you looking at the book, boy? You should be looking at ME!’ This is a command that must be obeyed, coming as it does from a large man who is liable at a moment’s notice to clip you round the back of a head with a hymn-book. And not a feeble little book as issued to congregations, but a good, hefty tune book.

He also wanted us to know the words because, surprisingly for a musician, he always taught us that the most important thing about a hymn is the words. We were expected to phrase our singing, not according to the strict dictates of the tune, but according to the sense of the words. He was quite musician enough to adjust his organ playing to the demanding nuances of each separate verse, and in rehearsal at the piano to conduct at the same time, so he had to be watched.

We were not allowed, for example, to take a breath at the end of a line unless there was a comma there, and not always then if the sense ran on. So we developed lungs big enough to sing two or even three lines in a single breath. If he wanted the sound continuous for more than three lines, he allowed us to breathe in turns.

Boy, did we practise our breathing! For example, do you know the old rhyme, ‘There was an old man called Michael Finnegan, he grew whiskers on his chinnegan; the wind came out and blew then in again, poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again, there was … ? At my peak, I could sing that seven times in a single breath.

We also had to look out for moments when the tune could be adjusted to the words. The Doc loathed putting emphasis on unimportant words like pronouns and conjunctions. I still find it hard to sing the Old Hundredth along with a congregation. The second verse is a minefield:

THE Lord, ye know, is God indeed,
WITHout our aid he did us make …

No, no, no, boys; you must miss a beat before the line, like this:

(one) The Lord, ye know, is God indeed:
(one) Without our aid he did us make  …

and so on. But (and here’s the catch) not on every line. The second line of the hymn, for example, is ‘Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’, and the word ‘Sing’ must be given its full allowance. No wonder we had to watch the Doc like a hawk in rehearsal. Forget the missed beat, and the hymn-book came into play.

The result of all this (and, I’m sure, the result the man wanted) was to make us think carefully about the rhythm and meaning of every hymn. Which is why I find myself pointing out little flaws and problems which seem to worry nobody else.

The question is, should I be apologetic about this, or should I stand up for the Doc’s principle? All hymns are poems, many are prayers, some are sermons. Which is more important to you, the tune or the words? I am thankful that a great musician taught me that the words, always the words, are what matters.