Brian Brindley can't help enjoying a schmaltzy book about 'well-loved' hymns Lead Kindly Light: This England's book of Wellloved Hymns and their Writers, This England Books £14.95 This is a difficult book to review. It is certain to give great pleasure to those who buy it, attracted by its cover picture of choristers holding candles, or who receive it as a gift. Yet I am slightly ashamed of myself for liking it — it is so sclunaltzy.
The publishers have deliberately adopted a distinctly oldfashioned format, that of the parish-magazine insert of a hundred years ago, though with all the resources of modern colour printing. There is much use of a collection of luridly hand-coloured pious cards, but there is a very "sepia" feel to the whole enterprise. All Things Bright and Beautiful is set in a pasteltinted frame of kiddies with bunnies; Eternal Father; Strong to Save is illustrated by a series of coloured magiclantern slides designed to be shown while it is sung; and Nearet; My God, to Thee by framed portraits of the gallant orchestra who played the melody as Titanic went down.
This last example illustrates one of the difficulties for a book about hymns: the fact that the. same words are sung to quite different tunes by different Churches and in different countries. If I had been on the 7itanic, the band might as well have played Alexander's Ragtime Band as far as I was concerned: it is accompanied here by one line of the "American" tune, while 1, in 1912, would have known only the tune that had appeared in the English Hymnal six years earlier.
There are four hymn-tunes to Praise to the Holiest in the Height — two Catholic and two Protestant — as well as Eigar's lovely setting in The Dream of Gerontius. Anybody who is confronted with an unfamiliar tune to such a favourite hymn will feel indignant — as would Newman on seeing his beloved Trinity College illustrated by a snapshot of Balliol, about the biggest insult you could offer a Trinity man. There is a lengthy discussion of the many tunes to which 0, Valiant Hearts has been sung, ending with the conclusion that they "are forgotten now, and eagily surpassed by the famous melody that has mainly been associated with it".
But what melody is that I had to wrack my memory, until I was carried back to aly prep school, where we sang it, from printed sheets, to a tune of extreme sentimentafity, which I suppose sounds well played by the local Silver Band at the War Memorial.
This would have been a much more useful book if the music of the tune which each of the contributors associates with the chosen words were printed — but then it would be a different book. There is a long and learned essay on the remarkable life of John Newton, the slave-trader turned convert and then parson. This accompanies the words of Amazing Grdce (highly-coloured photo"of sunset at sea); but the popularity of that hymn is due not t6 the words, which are thcii'oughly 18th century in thlir theology, but to the swooning tune, which is wholly alien'to them.
The book consists' of 27 essays, each written by a specialist, and each devoted to an individual author. Catholic writers are Newman, Faber, Dorothy Gurney, Chesterton, and Eleanor Farjeon — converts all. Most of the other hymns surveyed are those which have become familiar to Catholic congregations in the past 40 years. The most recent hymn is Morning Has Broken; if you want to find out about God of Concrete, God of Steel, or Kum ba yah, this is not the place to look.
The typical entry is headed by an art-nouveau frame with a vignette of an open Bible on an altar, or a flock. of doves, or whatnot; it wiTh be adorned with portraits in rival frames of luxuriantly bewhiskered divines, and photographs of old churches and crumbling rectorie's. While some essays are more detailed than others, they all seem to be free from errors, and will certainly help to place well-known words in context.
As I say, I can't help liking the book. If you too would like it, buy it. Enjoy!