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The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

March 13, 2012

Redressing the balance

evelyn @ 4:26 pm

After last week’s post, I’ve been told by my family that if I want to keep my Church of Scotland friends, I shouldn’t go round attacking their hymn book.  Also, that the pot is calling the kettle black, if my frequent mutterings about Catholic hymnals are anything to go by.

OK, family.  Point taken.  So let’s have a look at the hymnal perhaps most commonly found in Scottish Catholic churches – Hymns Old and New with Supplement, published by Mayhew.

Some time ago, at an organist society party, I played the company a few items from Hymns Old and New.  I played them exactly as they were written, and the audience were in hysterics.  Because the sad truth is that if you are using the ‘full music’ version of Hymns Old and New you have to be experienced enough to disregard very many un-organistic or inappropriate accompaniments and improvise your own.  In fact, this is why many organists find the melody-and-chords version easier to work with.  An additional aggravation is that these books are not cheap.  As one of my C of S friends said, ‘if you pay all this for an organ edition, you should at least be able to use it’.

Let’s take some examples.  ‘Walk with me’ (582) is perhaps the most popular Catholic funeral hymn.  But the bouncy, off-beat rhythm of the accompaniment is anything but funereal.  Most of us just replace it with chords with maybe a crotchet bass line descending by step.  Much more dignified.

My all-time non-favourite is ‘Holy Spirit of fire’ (217).  A wonderful title, which should herald a hymn reflecting the glory and power of Pentecost.  And what do we get in Hymns Old and New A trite nursery-rhyme melody in waltz time, rather aimless harmonically and with a quite pitiful accompaniment.

Another promising title with an enormous let-down is ‘Christ is our King, let the whole world rejoice’ (84).  Also in waltz time, this one has oom-pah-pahs, which give it ‘Old Bull and Bush’ overtones.  In fact, it is impossible to play it without making the organ sound like a fairground organ.  One Sunday I decided just to go along with it, in the hope that I might be asked never to play it again.  I articulated the accompaniment in the best Edwardian music-hall style, making the most of the oompah interludes between verses.  The final bar is a rather lame oom-pah-pah above a 6 4 chord, which I changed to a perfect cadence, staccato and senza rall (boom-BOOM!).  Terrific fun, but I was ready for the rebuke which must surely come.  But no, priest and people actually liked it!  Moments like these make me want to change religion.

Other Hymns Old and New delights include:

  • piano-style Alberti basses (442 ‘Peace is flowing like a river’), sometimes with a dotted ‘lonesome cowboy’ rhythm (26 ‘All over the world’).
  • banal children’s-tutor-style basses (30 ‘All the nations of the earth’ and 62 ‘Bind us together’, which, heaven help us, is now becoming popular with other denominations).
  • an abundance of the guitar-favouring keys of three and four sharps.
  • low, low melodies, even down to G below middle C.  Do they think we are a race of gorillas?
  • ‘busy’ bass lines, sometimes arpeggiated (57 ‘Be still, and know I am with you’), making it extremely difficult to include the pedalboard.
  • tango rhythms which you could do a vigorous and dramatic dance to (400 ‘O let all who thirst’, 122  ‘Do not be afraid’ – this one is also popular at funerals).

Layouts on the page can leave much to be desired. For example, the verses of ‘On eagles’ wings’ (783) have six-stave systems, the four at the top representing each verse of the hymn, and the two at the bottom the accompaniment.  It looks like an orchestral score.  Over the page, the chorus reverts to three-stave systems.  As the whole thing runs to four pages, this means endless turning back and forth, losing the place in every sense.

‘One bread, one body’ (744) has some unnecessarily long, held-on notes, which cause one system – just one! – to land on a third page.  This hymn also has a chorus, so more back and forth stuff needed.

I could go on and on – I haven’t even started on mad melody lines and text mutilation – but probably best to call a halt here.   Still, I must mention one of the biggest irritants:  the fact that the first line index is not at the very back of the book.  You really have to hunt for it.  Grrr!

One serious point.  Hymnals like this are being given to beginners and inexperienced organists, who take them at face value and try to play what’s in them.  When they fail, they blame themselves, and worse still, the congregation blames them, too.  Books like this are not helping with the problems of finding or training organists; they are actually making them worse.

So is it a question of ‘Come back, Mission Praise, all is forgiven’?   Well, no.   But I must admit to liking CH4 (Church of Scotland Hymnary Fourth Edition) very much.


  1. Oh I do so agree with this – this is the book we have, and the one I have used from the beginning of my playing, and yes there have been many ‘trip ups’ over the years.
    I can’t cope with back and forth pages – I have enough problems choosing which notes to play from over complicated bass lines and getting fingers to the right notes without further complications.
    We also have a guitar/flute ensemble – so just about ALL the hymns you mention above are ‘reserved for their use only’.
    Fortunately we have an electronic organ so sometimes we need to ‘turn up the pitch’ to cater for our lead singer, a tenor, who hates low notes.

    Comment by Gill Hogarth — March 15, 2012 @ 11:08 am

  2. Thanks, Gill. It’s nice to hear that someone else has trouble with this. It’s strange that no-one ever consults the people most concerned with using these ‘full music’ books – the poor organists. If more of us stood up and were counted, maybe it could make a difference.

    Comment by evelyn — March 20, 2012 @ 11:47 am

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