>Today is the Feast Day of the Roman martyr St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians; I have written previously about the remarkable sculptural memorial of her at her shrine. So today it would seem appropriate to name a couple of the hymns I hold dear, in the hope that my readers may take the time to mention some of theirs in the comments section herein. In my experience, sometimes it is the music, sometimes the words, sometimes the combination of both, and sometimes no apparent reason whatsoever as to why I take to a particular song we sing at mass, and I daresay this is true for many of my readers as well. Taste and indeed idiosyncrasies are left to the individual.
Friends of mine are well-aware that my favorite hymn is “Crown Him with Many Crowns”, and that the Feast of Christ the King is also one of my favorite celebrations of the Church. I love the Feast for its imagery, which not only looks forward to the Second Coming but also reminds us that we all have a place in this world, and to be conscious of it. However I also love this particular Sunday because it is almost guaranteed that we will end up singing my favorite hymn.
Both my Catholic and Protestant readers are probably very much aware of this piece. However, hymn books rarely give us much insight into the history of what we are singing. Oftentimes we will get a couple of footnotes indicating the names and dates of the lyricist and composer, or perhaps the original name of the piece in a different language, and that is pretty much it. In the case of this particular hymn, however, its history is very much worth knowing, for it can be argued that it is the musical high point of the Oxford Movement.
As Blessed Cardinal Newman and his friends were encouraging a reconsideration of the Anglican Church’s split with Catholicism, they faced many detractors. One of them, Matthew Bridges, was a poet and essayist who published a book bashing the Catholic Church. Newman of course, crossed the Tiber in 1845 and, no doubt to his own surprise, Bridges did the same in 1848. Those of their contemporaries interested in the Oxford Movement who remained in the Anglican Church often pushed for more pomp and ceremony in the Protestant liturgy of the Church of England, resulting in a so-called “smells and bells” or “High-Church” Anglicanism.
In 1851 the now-Catholic Bridges published the first set of lyrics to “Crown Him with Many Crowns”. What these lyrics were originally set to, I am not aware. What we do know is that in 1868 they were set to a tune called “Diademata”, composed by Sir George Elvey, organist to the Royal Family at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. That same year, the hymn was published in the great “Hymns Ancient and Modern”, a supremely important compendium of High Church Anglican hymns that was a direct outgrowth of the Oxford Movement.
Not long after its publication however, Anglicans began to complain that the hymn made them uncomfortable, for one of Bridges’ verses made both direct and symbolic reference to the Virgin Mary. This was a problem for many:
Crown Him the Virgin’s Son, the God incarnate born,
Whose arm those crimson trophies won which now His brow adorn;
Fruit of the mystic rose, as of that rose the stem;
The root whence mercy ever flows, the Babe of Bethlehem.
Frankly, I do not see what the big deal is. Bridges is hardly getting into Marian dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception or Assumption with this verse, but then I am not a Protestant so there you are. In any case, in reaction to this hub-bub, Anglican minister Godfey Thring published new verses to the hymn in a hymnbook of 1874, to replace those of Bridges. Depending on the hymnal used at your parish, the verses you sing today may be Bridges’, Thring’s, a combination of both, or bits of each with some additional things thrown in by a more recent lyricist.
Another example from the Anglican world, and another Top 5 favorite of mine, is the hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”. The lyrics were composed in 1779 by an Anglican minister, John Newton (distant relation); Newton is perhaps best known as the lyricist of “Amazing Grace”. Traditionally the hymn has been set most frequently to “Austria”, a musical section of the great Franz Josef Haydn’s magnificent “Emperor” String Quartet. Chances are this is the combination that appears in your parish hymnal today.
Unfortunately, as my readers may be aware, “Austria” is in fact the same tune used for the German national anthem, the “Deutschlandlied”. Despite the tremendous popularity of Newton’s verses over the centuries, among the British in particular, the performance of this particular combination of words and music became something of a patriotic problem. While Haydn himself was certainly no Nazi (let alone a German), and in fact loved the many years he spent in England where he was revered by the English people, such subtleties of history are often lost in the day-to-day realities of what is going on around us. Thus, singing what sounded like “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” in an English church in 1939 was probably not felt to be in the best of taste.
In 1941 British composer Cyril Taylor came up with new music for the hymn, which unfortunately does not seem to be sung frequently enough in this country with Newton’s lyrics. At the time Taylor worked for the religious programming department on the BBC, which would broadcast sermons, hymns, etc. Complaints began to roll in about “Glorious Things”, not because of the verses, but because of the music. The BBC found themselves in a rather difficult position since they could hardly play the hymn to “Austria” over their radio waves at the height of World War II.
When the Blitz began, most BBC employees had been moved out of London to the comparative safety of Bristol, where they could continue working and broadcasting. Taylor himself lived in a small village known as Abbot’s Leigh, a few miles outside the city. One Sunday morning Taylor went for a walk through the village and the woods which surround it, admiring what he saw, and a tune came to him which he rushed home to put to paper. This was the music which the BBC used to replace the tune of “Austria” for “Glorious Things”, and it was later published as “Abbot’s Leigh”. It is sometimes used for other hymn verses, though frankly to my ears sounds much better with Newton’s.