For me, possibly the saddest part of The Faith of Generation Y, a Church of England-produced book that came out last week which details how little most people born after 1980 know about Christianity, was this. Pop songs are now increasingly played at funerals, it says, “because the young congregation did not know any hymns”.
Historically, English music has been slightly embarrassed about its failure to produce a world class classical composer – a Beethoven, a Verdi, a Debussy, or a Liszt, say – on a par with those our continental cousins can boast. The closest we come is Elgar, and magnificent though much of his oeuvre is, the whiff of imperial bombast about him has made us ambiguous advocates of the great Edwardian.
Where we are almost unmatched, however, is in our church choral tradition. Going back to William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, right up to John Taverner and John Rutter today, the glories of our cathedral, college and many parish choirs have more than made up for the lack of – perhaps diverted the energies that might otherwise have gone into – the opera house culture common in Germany and Italy.
If the anthems of the choristers are the sophisticated high-end, the hymns are the sturdy yeomen that bear the weight of this tradition. Not only do Hymns Ancient and Modern or the Methodist Hymnal contain many fine, lusty tunes (especially compared to the Teutonic stodge of Lutheran chorales), but also superbly stirring words, such as John Bunyan’s “Who Would True Valour See” – “Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit, he knows he at the end shall life inherit” – as well as the almost hilariously militaristic: “Christian dost thou see them, On the holy ground? How the hosts of Midian, prowl and prowl around. Christian up and smite them” etc.Continue Reading on www.newstatesman.com