Saturday, 26 March 2016

Without a city wall: the ‘little towns' that inspired Passiontide and Easter hymn-tunes

'Hymn-tunes that are named after places' is a bit of a mouthful to say and a handful to type, so I've been trying to think of a single word that I can use instead. 'Toponhymn' suggests itself, but perhaps looks a little like a character from Gulliver's Travels. Do any readers have a suggestion? Assuming, of course, that there are some readers out there...

A journey to the places that inspired the tunes is, I suppose, a 'hymnodyssey'. My journey this week must, of course, take in the little towns whose names are enshrined in Passiontide and Easter hymns. 


Without thinking I set out (in my imagination, at least) for Horsley in Gloucestershire, hoping to find there some trace of the tune HORSLEY, which is used for C F Alexander's There is a green hill far away. The hill referred to in the hymn is, of course, Calvary, and the city wall is that of Jerusalem; but Mrs Alexander had the hills of Northern Ireland before her when she wrote the well-known words, and the city walls of Derry/Londonderry. Before I got too far along the road to Horsley I found that the tune is not, in fact, named after the place, but after its composer William Horsley.

William Horsley, composer of the tune for There is a green hill far away
By Richard James Lane -, Public Domain,


Let us go instead to Rockingham in Northamptonshire. Rockingham Castle, not far from Corby, was the seat of a very distinguished family, the Watsons (later Watson-Wentworth), who at different times in their history were Earls, Barons and Marquesses of Rockingham. One of the most distinguished members of this family was Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), who was Prime Minister from 1765 to 1766 and then again in 1782, the year of his death. 
Rockingham Castle, Northamptonshire
By Brian Coleman, CC BY-SA 2.0,

One of his first acts on taking office for the second time was to argue in favour of recognising the independence of the USA. The war came to an end in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, but unfortunately Rockingham did not live to see this. He also worked hard to bring in legislation to help relieve the suffering of the poor. 
The 2nd Marquess of Rockingham
After Joshua Reynolds -, Public Domain,

Rockingham was also a supporter of the arts, and was a patron of the composer Edward Miller (1735-1807). Miller's most enduring composition is the hymn-tune ROCKINGHAM, used for When I survey the wondrous Cross, and named in honour of his patron. 


Herongate is a village in Essex, about five miles west of Basildon. Just along the road from the village is Ingrave, and it was here, in 1903, that Ralph Vaughan Williams first heard a shepherd called Mr Pottipher singing the folk-song Bushes and Briars. This sparked a life-long interest in folk music which influenced Vaughan Williams' music profoundly. It also had an important impact on hymn music: as Music Editor of The English Hymnal Vaughan Williams introduced or adapted many folk-songs for use as hymns. I have written about some of these already in earlier posts (see Forest Green and Sussex hymn-tunes parts I and II.) 

Ingrave was also the place where Vaughan Williams collected a song called In Jessie's City, sung to him by a maid at the rectory. He adapted this tune for the hymn It is a thing most wonderful, with words by W Walsham How, and named the tune HERONGATE after the nearby village.

In Jessie's City, collected by Vaughan Williams
The source of the tune HERONGATE

Here is the hymn being sung by Trinity College Choir, Cambridge:


Judging by their website, the people of Bow Brickhill are proud of their village and its history. It is in Buckinghamshire and is now effectively part of Milton Keynes. Church music has thrived there for a long time: the church and its choir feature in a painting by Thomas Webster that now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A Village Choir by Thomas Webster The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 26400, Public Domain,
The tune called BOW BRICKHILL is sung to the Passiontide hymn We sing the praise of him who died, by Thomas Kelly. The tune is by Sir Sydney Nicholson (1875-1947). Nicholson studied composition under Stanford at the Royal College of Music and subsequently served as organist in Carlisle Cathedral, Manchester Cathedral and finally Westminster Abbey. In 1927 he founded the School of English Church Music, which would later become the Royal School of Church Music. Among his achievements is editing the Parish Psalter (1928), a standard collection of chants for the Psalms, which is still very much in use today.

Nicholson's association with the village of Bow Brickhill dates from his time at Westminster Abbey. In 1923 he brought a group of choirboys to the village for a summer camp, where they delighted the locals with their singing. The tune that he named after the village is probably the best-known of his hymn-tunes.

And finally

This is supposed to be a post about Passiontide or Easter hymns, but I hope you will forgive me if I make a brief reference to the Ascension hymn Hail the day that sees him rise, with words by Charles Wesley. The tune is by Robert Williams (1781-1821) and is called LLANFAIR after a well-known little town on the Welsh island of Anglesey. It is mainly the name of the village that makes it well-known. It was originally simply Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, and it was not till the 1860s that someone had the bright idea of attracting more visitors to the village by changing its name to the preposterously long Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.