Book Review: Next We Shall Sing by Tony Jasper

Posted: June 14, 2012 by Peter J in book review, historical, non-fiction
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Cornish stage writer and theatrical director inter alia, Tony Jasper, has had a distinguished career based in London but touring the UK and further afield with his Jasperian Theatre Company. Now based back in Ludgvan, he is, when not still touring, frequently found in Cornish chapels and, recently, Gwennap pit, leading services or community hymn singing. For yes, you’ve guessed it from the title, this book is all about hymns – with a somewhat Cornish bias.

Many people find the marriage of poetry and harmony, in addition to its nature as form of worship, to be an art form of sophistication which bears in-depth analysis. No faith is required to appreciate the interlocking skill with which verses (usually rhyming) are either inspired or jockeyed into form, nor to admire the skill with which some tunes have been assembled into harmonies fitting the metre and sense of the words. Indeed the final bolting-together of poetry and harmony into a product (as we’ll see, they can easily be unbolted and swapped for some other combination . . .) is a choice whose pros and cons are explored in Next We Shall Sing.

Any musically literate person with a couple of hymn books to hand can follow the author’s arguments. There is no musical notation, although readers’ unfamiliarity with tunes alluded to can easily be remedied by a delve into said hymnals. An analysis by music consultant David Rumsey can be found here of the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book (half a century older than its, arguably inferior, replacement – Hymns & Psalms), which features large in the autobiographical part of Tony’s book – this analysis covers many of the hymns mentioned in Next We Shall Sing, and includes examination of their musical harmonies and metre. The compendious 1988 Companion to Hymns and Psalms is, as Tony writes, also full of pertinent facts and history which wouldn’t fit into his book.

Chapter 2, in particular, details Tony Jasper’s youth and its musical element in Cornish chapels and churches (and schools) around Penzance in the ’40s-’60s – I’ll concentrate mostly on that chapter in this review. Subsequent chapters take a view of religious music in the UK, including hymns for children, Afro-Caribbean contributions and late 20th C praise music, with a digression into the US scene. (I’m musically not illiterate but don’t feel myself qualified to comment in detail on these chapters, beyond remarking on a sense of them.) This important fact should not be overlooked: the chapels of Cornwall have been so successfully self-effacing, self-erasing and now relatively invisible, and yet were a hugely influential oral and word-based cultural influence on a vast number of Cornish people’s minds – the 24 pages of this chapter 2, well-informed and balanced as it is, are an insightful and rare scan.

Tony’s eclectic ecclesiastical upbringing, (which reminds of A L Rowse as in his Cornish Childhood) by his own will, afforded him a breadth of experience of in various denominations (Anglican -> Congregationalist -> Methodist, with visits and sojourns in an illuminating variety of the other vibrant chapels and churches existing at that time). Readers used only to contemporary choral mores may find his observations of time and place surprising in comparison; for example, opposition to choruses and repeated lines, were significant factors in hymnody at that time, simultaneous with, perhaps, a much more committed and accomplished musical culture. Which tune to use: Kingsfold or Vox Dilecti ? And Cwm Rhondda – so that was not the setting originally used by the Welsh for William Williams’ Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah ?? Fascinating stuff, casually and briefly passed on. There is, ahem, reference made to ‘ranting tunes’ – presumably partisans of these tunes would not so call them, but such disparagement, couched as it is in affectionately dry humour, is eminently forgivable :-). The influence of the BBC religious broadcasts of the 50s, in a sign of things to come, on a hitherto source of influence – the chapel hymn board – is recorded. I would, of course, have been glad of such a chapter twice or thrice as great in local content; but clearly in the remaining chapters Tony had more ground to cover. At a later point in time, a recapitulation and expansion of this chapter in some form, for readers interested in hymn-singing specifically in Cornwall, would be good.

The text will stimulate and provoke disagreement !” warns the preface. Having read this caveat, I expected a polemic testament for or against kinds of music, and in that I was pleasantly disappointed. In fact, the book’s view is both measured and catholic in taste – the ongoing dialectic throughout (put crudely, “old vs. new”), being umpired and commentated on fairly and in very well-informed and up-to-date manner (with only a sidelong, anonymous reference to the Nine O’Clock Service). Readers of the book won’t find themselves bogged down by intrusively laboured opinions – the final words are an eloquent appeal for understanding and mutual cooperation on music in the Church. Where I was provoked into disagreement was in this very chapter 2, viz “Diadem is a tune that slowly works itself up into a frenzy, to hit an almost orgasmic flourish at the end as the ‘Crown Him’s came into play, and the bass reverberates from sweating men“. Now this tune Diadem is, as he points out, not Cornish in origin, but it became such an icon of tribal and spiritual values that I scramble to defend it from any implication of profanity. Used for “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name“, it has the same sort of robust and confident runs (particularly in the bass) with staccato counterpoint in the chorus as in the much-loved carol tune Seraphic Minstrels. Tis not to everyone’s liking (particularly for treble parts – even as a tenor I somewhat envy the basses’ fortunate duty in this tune, but it’s too magnificent a work to grudge over :-)) – nevertheless tis valid and of value. I’ll briefly quote from The Long Winter Ends, a novel written by Cornish emigré Newton G. Thomas in Chicago, published in 1941 and telling the immigration of Cornish mining families to the Keweenaw’s mines in Upper Peninsula, Michigan – in the first few pages, we have this, sung by miners from the 18th level of the bal – ascending de profundis for the last time – passing their comrades on the levels above – upon the night of the closure of their mine near Kit Hill:

Suddenly, breaking the silence of the waiting plats came the familiar sound from below, not one but many bound into a harmonious whole. It smote the silence with magic and filled the place it had occupied – a pianissimo as faint as an echo on a distant hill. Slowly it grew into a moderato, increasing in power until in a bursting crescendo made perfect by the approaching cage, it matured to its fullest strength as the singers dashed by each listening, waiting drift. As perfectly it faded away – from crescendo to moderato, to pianissimo, until, as echoes die, it died – died as it was born.

“Diadem,” said a listener when silence had returned. “A brave tune.”

And with that I respectfully rest my case on Diadem‘s behalf. With that also I hope that my earlier point, about the crucial nature of chapel song in the lives of ordinary Cornish people, is taken – details such as these ventured by Tony are invaluable should anyone try to recreate the milieu of, say, the Jack Clemo novels, because details like these conditioned much of the texture of people’s behaviour and values. As I say though, for an emotive subject (since quarrels over sacred music are disturbingly common) the book treads a wide and middle way, helped by a good-natured and light touch in criticism. My only gripe, and not a grave one, with the bulk of the book: there are too many quotes for my liking from musicologists such as Erik Routley; I’d rather have had space lent to more practical observations and conclusions from Tony himself. Overall: both reverent and relevant, a sincere and informed study into offering both straightforward church/chapel music and the numinous by human voice – ‘tis mystery all – is this book.

All this means that you grow up with choirs and quartets who sing of life’s hardness, of death’s nearness, and that means you hear Lead Kindly Light or visualise local boats and crews, as the words of Eternal Father Strong To Save drive their way home to your consciousness . . . How was he to know that when we sang Eternal Father Strong To Save he would be part of a crew swallowed like by Jonah’s whale, but in this case never to find dry land, for the Eternal Father never answered that day in the way that was desired.

Next We Shall Sing is published by Highland Books Ltd, Godalming, 2008.

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