Publication of Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The English Hymnal, a collaborative project undertaken by a team of clerics, scholars, and musicians led by the liturgical scholar Percy Dearmer and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, reintroduced some of England’s most ancient sacred music. The hymnal was widely adopted throughout the Church of England and became a key element in the Anglo-Catholic revival.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the 1900’s, there was a fundamental difference of opinion among members of the Church of England Church of England concerning the relative importance of ritual and the value of England’s musical heritage. The Anglo-Catholic movement advocated the preservation and reestablishment of formal ritual, while adherents to the evangelical trend were willing to adapt to the popular tastes of the Victorian era and were less interested in ritual. Within the Anglo-Catholic community, there was a further division between those who favored the Roman style of liturgy and a few who still practiced the ancient Sarum rite that had been utilized in England before the Reformation. English Hymnal, The (Dearmer et al.) Anglo-Catholic revival[Anglocatholic revival] Music;sacred [kw]Publication of The English Hymnal (1906) [kw]English Hymnal, Publication of The (1906) [kw]Hymnal, Publication of The English (1906) English Hymnal, The (Dearmer et al.) Anglo-Catholic revival[Anglocatholic revival] Music;sacred [g]England;1906: Publication of The English Hymnal[01530] [c]Music;1906: Publication of The English Hymnal[01530] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1906: Publication of The English Hymnal[01530] [c]Publishing and journalism;1906: Publication of The English Hymnal[01530] Dearmer, Percy Vaughan Williams, Ralph Sharp, Cecil Birkbeck, William John

In 1901, Percy Dearmer, an influential clergyman, prolific writer, and political activist whose views combined a passion for traditional English liturgy with liberal social ideals, became vicar for the Church of St. Mary-the-Virgin in Primrose Hill, London. Two years before that, he had published The Parson’s Handbook (1899), a detailed guide to liturgical practice. Dearmer’s interests encompassed all of the arts, including fabrics, vestments, painting, architecture, and music. He felt that liturgy should be beautiful and that consistent guidelines should be followed.

At this time, the most popular hymnal of the time was Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). Some of the hymns in this book had been set to sentimental melodies in a popular Victorian style, in keeping with trends that appealed to simpler tastes. Although he shared a desire to communicate with people of all classes and sympathized with victims of economic inequities, Dearmer was greatly dissatisfied with the old hymnal, and he felt that believers should have access to great music from a much wider range of time periods and traditions, including the rich heritage of the British Isles. He set about assembling a team of scholars, theologians, and musicians to compile and create a new hymnal.

One of Percy Dearmer’s associates was Cecil Sharp, a musician who shared Dearmer’s love of tradition. Sharp collected folk songs and dances, and he had already published A Book of British Songs for Home and School in 1902. Among Sharp’s friends was Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composer who was also interested in folk songs from the British Isles. As part of his lifelong search for a distinctly English musical voice, Vaughan Williams had collected several folk songs on his own, and he had some experience as a church organist and choir director, although he was an agnostic. Sharp recommended Vaughan Williams as the new hymnal’s music editor, and Dearmer engaged him in the project.

Although Vaughan Williams did not consider himself a believer, he and Dearmer held common social and aesthetic views. Both were interested in historical accuracy and in the roots of English religious music, held liberal political views, and sought to influence the nation’s culture. Vaughan Williams was as conscious of England’s elite musical traditions as he was of its folk songs, and he had studied the music of William Byrd and other great English Renaissance composers. Although he worked on the project for two years, Vaughan Williams did not regret the time away from his classical compositions and regarded the study and composition of hymns as a highly rewarding activity.

Another important member of the team was William John Birkbeck, who collected and edited the hymnal’s many plainsong melodies and helped with both the translation of texts and the interpretation of medieval music notation. A scholar as well as a musician, Birkbeck spoke and read many languages. He admired the ritual practices and historical continuity of the Eastern churches and even wanted to unite the Church of England with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Like Dearmer, Birkbeck was interested in the restoration of High Church features such as the use of incense.

Dearmer and his carefully selected group made sure that their hymnal would be a significant scholarly work as well as a functional one. Often a melody that had changed over time was restored to its originally published form, and there were profuse notes that identified musical sources and composers, with one important exception: Vaughan Williams set some of the hymn lyrics to his own melodies and listed the composer as anonymous. Many other musicians and scholars also contributed to The English Hymnal and were mentioned in its prefaces. The texts of the hymns were equally well documented and had notes and information about authors and sources.

The range of material in The English Hymnal represented an exceptionally diverse group of time periods and geographic areas. Along with melodies from Germany, France, and other European nations, the British Isles were well represented in the collection, which included tunes from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Most of the chant-based melodies were derived from the pre-Reformation Sarum rite, and rather than copying them onto a modern staff, Birkbeck presented them in medieval plainsong notation. In doing so, he made a very direct statement on the value of Great Britain’s musical heritage.

After the hymnal was published, there was some disagreement from those who challenged Dearmer’s authority to dictate aesthetic taste. He did not hesitate to use his office to defend that authority and wrote a great deal about the theological basis for his views. Some of the popular hymns from the Victorian era were also included in the 1906 hymnal, and there was enough of this material so that congregations that favored nineteenth century musical styles could still utilize the book. Dearmer eventually prevailed over most of his critics, and the hymnal was widely adopted.


The preparation and publication of The English Hymnal was an important chapter in the evolution of relations among the fine arts, religious faith, and cultural awareness. Aside from a few minor changes, the hymnal remained in use for more than three-quarters of a century, and it helped to affirm the value of tradition in both a religious and national sense. Beyond England, the hymnal found use in many English-speaking countries.

In the broader context of the collaborators’ works, the hymnal affirmed Vaughan Williams’s assertion of an English musical identity and Dearmer’s belief in the value of ritual and historical consciousness to faith. Vaughan Williams’s setting of “For All the Saints” and other melodies first introduced in the 1906 hymnal eventually found their way into hymnals around the world. Dearmer encouraged the rigorous application of historical musicology, and the work of Cecil Sharp and other early twentieth century folk music collectors in Dearmer’s circle contributed to developments in the field of ethnomusicology. English Hymnal, The (Dearmer et al.) Anglo-Catholic revival[Anglocatholic revival] Music;sacred

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradley, Ian. Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. London: Trinity Press, 1997. Includes many anecdotes and considers the hymnal’s social and political significance. Emphasizes lyrics rather than music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dearmer, Percy, ed. The English Hymnal. London: Oxford University Press, 1906. Includes many alternate settings, extensive documentation of musical adaptations and texts (other than Vaughan Williams’s own melodies), and indexes of first lines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heffer, Simon. Vaughan Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001. A comprehensive biography that includes details of the composer’s relationships with Dearmer and other members of the Church of England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Ralph Vaughan. National Music, and Other Essays. 1934. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Essays by the composer, including mention of his work on The English Hymnal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yates, Nigel. Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A comparative, highly detailed study of ritualism that includes the Church of England as well as other Christian denominations during the period just before and during the publication of The English Hymnal. Appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zon, Bennett. The English Plainchant Revival. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Describes an important movement in Anglican Church music that preceded and influenced the content of The English Hymnal.

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Categories: History