Markham Lee’s Lecture on “Hymns and Hymn Singing”

The singing of hymns, chants, responses and amens in church, chapel or school constitutes what is called “congregational” singing, that is to say, it is that part of the service in which the general mass of the congregation is supposed to uplift its voice, as opposed to such parts as are said or sun, by the priest alone, or such parts as anthems and special settings, which should be, left to the trained choir.

It is but a few of us who ever take part as members of trained choirs in public worship, but we should all of us make some attempt to participate in congregational singing. And what is more, this attempt should be an intelligent one. How very often in a congregation one hears most gruesome noises, proceeding from such persons as the lady who makes amateur attempts at a second treble, the man who growls throughout on one sepulchral note, or worse still, he who “fancies” himself at inserting a tenor or a bass part, which is usually of his own invention and not at all in accord with what is sung by the choir.

Congregational singing should not be like this, it should be singing in unison, i.e., a singing of the melody only, at the same pitch, or in the case of the male voice, at a pitch one octave below. Unfortunately, hymns and chants are often pitched so high that the ordinary member of the congregation cannot, reach this melodic singing, and resorts to the distressing attempts I have mentioned. This is a matter the remedy for which lies with those who edit our hymn books and chant books; it is not in the power of the ordinary layman. But on the other hand it is not one which very often affects the female voice, and can usually with little trouble reach all the notes of most hymns and chants; when they cannot be reached let us remember the maxim, “Silence is golden.”

Let it be assumed, therefore, that so far as your own singing, is concerned, what you are given to sing lies well within your powers the problem, then, is to sing intelligently. First of all let us remember, however, that a hymn is a part of the service well worth taking trouble over; it is of very ancient origin. The Psalms of David, who lived about 1055 B.C., were hymns; the Odes of Confucius (500 B.C.) where Chinese hymns; the Carmen Sacculare of Horace were hymns; and you will remember that touching sentence, “And when they had sung an hymn they went unto the Mount of Olives.” That was in the very early days of Christianity, and all down through the ages the practice of hymn-singing has gone on since then, the Latin hymns of the Western Church, the Lutheran Chorales (noble and dignified, a relic of a great Germany of past days), our own psalters and hymn book, for English and Scotch use-it is impossible to enumerate them all. It is not so long ago that the only form of hymns in use in this country was a metrical version of the Psalms. Perhaps the words, even in the garbled version of English poetry, were better on the whole than are those of some of our modern hymns, but it was only about the year 1860 that the hymn as we understand it, introduced in 1708 by Watts, became general. Now we sing our Psalms in the glorious prose translation of the Hebrew, our hymns in verse, which varies in merit, as does also the music to which it is set.

It is not my purpose, however, to talk to you about the merits or demerits of words and music, but to say a little about the difficulties and dangers which beset the singing of psalms and hymns.

The greatest, because the most ever-present danger, is the dulling effect which rises from oft repetition. You know how a rowing man may be “over trained,” you know how an athlete or a horse may be exercised beyond a desirable degree. To come more nearly to musical matters, you know how you may practise and practise at a pianoforte piece, or a violin piece, or a part song until on each occasion it seems to get, and actually does get, worse instead of better. This is because we have gone over its parts so often that the mental impression becomes more dulled on each repetition, until it becomes practically nil, we lose the habit of attention, and our performance deteriorates. In our practising we have a remedy for this: to put the piece aside until the impression which has been so dulled becomes keen and sharp once more. In our hymn-singing, in common worship generally, we have no remedy; an increased effort is necessitated from us, and this effort is at times difficult to make. If you go to service twice or three times on a Sunday you may say the Lord’s Prayer seven or eight times, and with each repetition it becomes more and more difficult to fix the attention, to prevent the mind from wandering, to concentrate upon the words we are singing. Our psalms and hymns are not repeated as often as this, but the danger still exists, for oft-repetition of the same words to the same tune has undoubtedly a torpifying effect. Inattention to words and music result in bad hymn singing; let us try hard to overcome, by constant mental application, the persistent danger.

Now for more purely musical difficulties. In hymns there are many verses to one repeated tune. If every verse had a different musical setting its proper rendering would be much easier; but then it would be an anthem and net a hymn. Since the tune is however, the same, the differences in the words must be brought out by differences in phrasing and expression. This kind of musical setting is not confined to hymns, many of the songs of Schubert and other of the older masters have the same music for every verse. Most of you have sung folk-songs and will know that the most varied sentiments in the words may be allied to the same tune; but I have heard you sing folk-songs admirably. An attempt is made in some books of hymns to insert expression marks. If these are placed in the tune some verse or other is sure to be wrong, for hymn writers are often at fault in this and other respects. If they are placed against the words they are certainly different for each verse, but are often exaggerated and overdone. In your own public school hymn book I am glad to see there are none at all, it is left to your intelligence, and will therefore be better done.

Now we come to difficulties of tempo, that is, the pace at which hymns should be sung. This varies much with the sentiment of the hymn, and also with its date. Most triple tune hymns are sung much too slowly (Rockingham, 84); there seems something in the feminine rhythm which causes a drag. This must be carefully guarded against. Most of the older hymns should be sung at a slow pace, more especially the German chorales. Here, however, the notation is not always quite adequate. The chorale, the Protestant hymn tune of the Reformation period, was often sung with long breaks between each line of words, filled in by an extemporisation on the organ (the Choral Prelude of Bach and others). Although no extension of the time is indicated, in such a tune as 318 (Ein Feste Burg) there should certainly be a pause at the end of each of the first four lines. A suggestion would be to make each note a dotted minim, as in the succeeding lines of the tune, otherwise a breathless effect would be produced.

This leads to another consideration-how and where to breathe. The music of all hymn tunes looks as if they were to be sung without taking breath, for the time values of each are complete. The double bars indicate the ends of a line in the words, and usually (though not always) breath can be taken here. This must be done by cutting short the last note of the line that is just finished, and certainly not by delaying the first note of the next line. Even if this procedure be adopted, however, Ein Feste Burg would sound hurried if we turned the last note of each of its first four  into a crotchet. Better to make it, as with the other (later) lines, a semibreve tied to it crotchet.

Most modern tunes can, however, be sung in strict time by shortening the last note of each line (Hymn 190, “Eternal Father”, where the rhythm is quite destroyed if strict time be not kept).


The Endings of Verses. Although the last note of each as a rule be shortened in order to obtain the breath, the final note of each verse should be held its complete value. This is often difficult, as the breath is apt to be exhausted, but nothing is so slovenly as for the voices to leave off one after the other and unless the full time is given to the note there will always be indecision as to the ending. In some hymns where the last note is a short one (one must remember that the unit of measurement is a minim and not a crotchet) it may with advantage be doubled to make a satisfactory conclusion. But in such a hymn as 24 (“Saviour, again to Thy dear Name”) the full four beats should be allotted.

Beginnings. Although it is difficult to end a verse well, it is still more difficult to begin the next. There is always a great lack of unanimity about this, and singers always appear to await the lead of either organ or the choir, or of one strong voice. The only satisfactory solution of this is to count a certain number of beats between the end of one verse and the beginning of the next, then all can be together. This may be illustrated by such a hymn as 63 (“Jesu, lover of my soul”), where four, three, or two beats can be interpolated (according to the size of church and of congregation) between the verses.


Where the time changes during the course of a tune (as in 341 “We saw Thee not”), it is not easy when the new verse begins to pick up the original tempo; the tendency is to go on at a slower pace at which the last two lines finished. This must be very carefully guarded against, and a good idea of the original tempo must be retained. Such hymns are always difficult to sing well.

In most hymns the tendency to get a rallentando in the last line of each verse should be strenuously resisted; its effect is enervating, unmusical, and poor.


It would seem almost unnecessary to speak of the observance of commas and stops in the words were it not that one often hears such absurdities as “Jesus lives no longer now,” or “Our blest Redeemer ere He breathed.” Intelligent singing demands, for the management of the breath, similar devices to intelligent reading; and there are many who would be ashamed in reading to make a stop at the end of every line of words who think it no solecism to make one at the end of every line of the music. The sense of the words must be just as carefully considered in singing as in reading, and breath, or half breath, only taken where nonsense will not result.


Every hymn has its appropriate mood or atmosphere, this being, of course, more widely perceptible in some cases than in others. The mood of worship, if such a term can be used, should of course permeate all, but in some cases the words take on more of the expression of praise, in others the utterance of penitence; others, again, that of supplication or prayer. What may be called the “pictorial” hymn, when the musical setting is able to reinforce the sentiment of the words, presents the earnest realisation of atmosphere. Hence the popularity and the singableness of such tunes as “Fierce raged the tempest”, or “Lead, kindly Light”, really a part song and of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Where the mood is less evident the greater care is needed on the part of the exponents for the proper rendering of the singing, and for a full realisation of the hymn.