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Hymn (from Gk. humnos)locked

  • Warren Anderson,
  • Thomas J. Mathiesen,
  • Susan Boynton,
  • Tom R. Ward,
  • John Caldwell,
  • Nicholas Temperley
  •  and Harry Eskew

A term of unknown origin but first used in ancient Greece and Rome to designate a poem in honour of a god. In the early Christian period the word was often, though not always, used to refer to praises sung to God, as distinct from ‘psalm’. The Western and Eastern (Byzantine) Churches developed widely differing hymn traditions. This articles discusses the ancient Greek hymn, and the Western Christian repertory (Catholic and Protestant). For the Byzantine hymn and its various genres see Byzantine chant ; Kanōn; Kontakion; Stichēron; and Troparion.

I. Ancient Greek

  • Warren Anderson, revised by Thomas J. Mathiesen

1. Nature of the hymn.

Pindar and Bacchylides connected the term humnos with huphainein, meaning ‘to weave’ or ‘to combine words artfully’ (as in the Iliad, iii.212). In the Homeric poems, however, the term itself refers to a bard’s narrative of the fall of Troy (Odyssey, viii.429, the only occurrence of the noun); in the Eumenides of Aeschylus (306, 331), it is a terrifying incantation; in Sophocles’ Antigone (815), it is a marriage song; in Aristophanes’ Birds (210), it is a lament. Moreover, the dance often formed an important element.

This imprecise and frequently elusive term can be associated, in a great many instances at least, with a liturgy, and during the early classical period the hymn came to represent a special category within a general liturgical context. No longer religious song taken generally (and freed almost wholly from its origins in magic), it became a specific type of such song. Its nature was defined negatively, however, to the extent that it lacked the particularizing characteristics of certain choral songs that also had a part in religious usage and were also called humnoi. These included several important forms, notably the paean (a propitiatory song or hymn of thanksgiving offered to Apollo and later, to other gods such as Artemis, Dionysus, Asclepius or Hygieia), the dithyramb (honouring Dionysus) and the processional. When the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus (5th century ce) defined the hymn proper (‘ho kuriōs humnos’, as he called it) as a composition ‘sung by a stationary chorus to kithara accompaniment’ (Useful Knowledge, in Photius, Bibliotheca, ed. Bekker, 320a19–20), he was attempting to differentiate it from such specialized forms as the processional, in which auletes had early replaced kithara players. The context has often been overlooked. His definition, a highly influential one, nevertheless remains inadmissible if taken to mean that the chorus remained absolutely stationary. Perhaps he intended the word ‘stationary’ in a relative sense, making allowance for the precise and limited choreography of ‘turn’ and ‘counterturn’ (strophē, antistrophē).

The positive feature of the hymn proper was its association with libation and sacrifice; further description must be directed to the broader sense of the term humnos. Taken in this way, the hymn may be said to have existed in both monodic and choral forms from the earliest period of which there is any knowledge. Hesiod referred on many occasions to the singing of hymns, and in Works and Days (654–62), he spoke of winning a prize for his solo performance of a hymn at the games of Amphidamas in Chalcis. Usually clear, the distinction between monodic and choral hymns was never absolute. In the Laws (iii, 700a8–e4), Plato noted that hymns, dirges, dithyrambs and paeans were once distinct genres, adding that over time the distinction was blurred.

Originally, the kithara accompanied the Hellenic hymn; during the early part of the 7th century bce the aulos began to claim a position of importance. The two instruments were at times used together, as in the triumphal odes of Pindar. Broadly speaking, the choice of instrument varied with the conventions and practical demands of the individual religious occasion. The orgiastic liturgies of the non-Hellenic deities honoured in Greece called for a variety of foreign instruments, very generally non-melodic: cymbals, tympana, rhomboi, and crotala or rattles of various kinds. In contrast, followers of the Greek cults usually found the melodic capacities of lyre and aulos adequate for their needs, with occasional recourse to the syrinx or the simple reed pipe (kalamos). As in secular music, until the 5th century bce all instrumental accompaniments were kept subordinate to the vocal melodic line, which is thought to have been uncomplicated.

2. Surviving hymns.

In the surviving examples of cult song, the metres display a comparable simplicity. What may well be the oldest of these songs, a processional ascribed to the Corinthian poet Eumelus (8th century bce; Campbell, frag.1), has only dactyls and spondees in the two surviving lines; the text of Eumelus’s poem would have been set to a solemn melody in the Dorian harmonia, with only one note to a syllable. The only other examples of the hymn that survive from the early period are a number of the so-called Homeric hymns. Representative of epic hymn composition, they differ markedly from the lyric type. They were composed later than the actual poems of Homer and were often used as preludes to the performance of lengthy excerpts taken from them; the metre of the hymns is the Homeric hexameter. Later sources, such as Pausanias’s Description of Greece, mention the names of hymn writers, including Olen, Pamphus, Orpheus and Musaeus, who were thought to have preceded Homer. An important truth underlies this seeming fantasy. The pre-Homeric hymn did in fact leave clear traces of its essential constituents both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey: first the god’s name, lineage, attributes and cult centres; then various deeds accomplished by the god; and finally the worshipper’s request, often preceded by a reminder of past acts of piety or divine aid granted. In varying degrees the Homeric Hymns embody this pattern, which has exerted a powerful influence on the shaping of the classical tradition in poetry.

Greek choral lyric and monody came to their full development during the 6th century bce. The encomium, praise of a living man combined with praise of a god or hero, first appeared at this time (see Ibycus). This form became increasingly common; at the very close of the Hellenic period it was exemplified in Aristotle’s Hymn to Virtue (Aretē, virtue deified), where it is actually a device for eulogizing the memory of a friend. Later writers produced works of undeniable majesty; the Hymn to Zeus by the Stoic Cleanthes (3th century bce) is justly famous. Nevertheless, the abstract and metaphysical nature of such compositions, literary productions in which music had long since ceased to have any part, reveals the vast distance separating them from the Hellenic humnos as a feature of communal worship.

3. Surviving hymns with music.

A few hymns with musical notation have survived from the Greco-Roman period and from late antiquity. The two Delphic hymns, engraved in stone, are essentially paeans in sectional form. The first is given in vocal notation, the second in instrumental. The first paean, composed in 138 bce (although the date has recently been called into question and an author proposed; see Bélis), contains three of the typical sections: an invocation to the Muses, a laudatory epithet to Attica and a description of some of the deeds of Apollo. The sections are articulated by modulations between the Phrygian and Hyperphrygian tonoi. The second section is typical in making specific musical references, in this case contrasting the sounds of the aulos and kithara, while the third section recalls the famous contest between Apollo and the python. The sequence of pitches may suggest the spondeion scale, a special type of gapped scale described in Pseudo-Plutarch’s On Music (1134f–35b and 1137b–d) and mentioned briefly by Aristides Quintilianus and Bacchius. The second paean, composed by Limenius in honour of the Artists of Dionysus (see Technitai), also comprises three large sections: an invocation, a narrative of several of the deeds of Apollo, and a final prayer to the god. The sections, subdivided into several smaller sections, modulate between the Lydian and Hypolydian tonoi. The tone of the text is elevated, as would be expected of a paean, and musical allusions abound. The correspondence between accentual and melodic pitch in this paean – as in some other late Greek musical compositions – probably reflects an archaicizing tradition. Five compositions – three short and two longer hymns – by Hadrian’s court musician Mesomedes are preserved in several manuscripts, and the so-called Berlin Paean, is preserved on a papyrus of the 2nd century ce, although the piece itself may be older. It is the most obviously archaic in metre, with an unbroken sequence of long syllables, but the choice of Hyperiastian tonos is anomalous.

Genuine aspects of the ancient style may appear in the musical inscriptions found at Delphi, where tradition was uniquely powerful. Perhaps these are the last traces, fading and all but vanished, of the Hellenic hymn.


  • F. Bellermann : Die Hymnen des Dionysius und Mesomedes (Berlin, 1840)
  • T.W. Allen, W.R. Halliday and E.E. Sikes, eds.: The Homeric Hymns (London, 1904, 2/1936)
  • T. Reinach : Les hymnes delphiques à Apollon avec notes musicales (Paris, 1912)
  • H.G. Evelyn-White, ed.: Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (London and Cambridge, MA, 1914, rev. 2/ 1943)
  • J.U. Powell, ed.: Collectanea alexandrina (Oxford, 1925), 141ff, 160–61
  • S. Eitrem, L. Amundsen and R.P. Winnington-Ingram, eds.: ‘Fragments of Unknown Greek Tragic Texts with Musical Notation’, Symbolae osloenses, 31 (1955), 1–87
  • E. Pöhlmann, ed.: Denkmäler altgriechischer Musik (Nuremberg, 1970)
  • D.A. Campbell, ed. and trans.: Greek Lyric, 2 (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1988), 290


  • T. Reinach : ‘Hymnus’, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, ed. C. Daremberg and E. Saglio (Paris, 1877–1919/R), 3, 337ff
  • H.W. Smyth : Greek Melic Poets (London and New York, 1900/R), xxv ff
  • M.G. Colin : ‘L’auteur du deuxième hymne musical de Delphes’, Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (1913), 529–32
  • E. Norden : Agnostos Theos (Berlin and Leipzig, 1913/R), 143ff
  • R. Wünsch : ‘Hymnus’, Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 9 (Stuttgart, 1914), 140–83
  • K. Horna : Die Hymnen des Mesomedes (Vienna and Leipzig, 1928)
  • P. Moens : De twee delphische hymnen met muzieknoten (Purmerend, 1930)
  • H. Meyer : Hymnische Stilelemente in der frühgriechischen Dichtung (diss., U. of Cologne,1933)
  • J.A. Haldane : ‘Musical Instruments in Greek Worship’, Greece & Rome, 13 (1966), 98–107
  • M.L. West : ‘Two Notes on Delphic Inscriptions’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 2 (1968), 176 only
  • T.B.L. Webster : The Greek Chorus (London, 1970)
  • W. Anderson : ‘Word-Accent and Melody in Ancient Greek Musical Texts’, JMT, 17 (1973), 186–202
  • A. Bélis : ‘A proposito degli “Inni delfici”’, La musica in Grecia: Urbino 1985, 205–18
  • M.L. West : Ancient Greek Music (Oxford, 1992), 288–308, 317–18
  • T.J. Mathiesen : Apollo’s Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Lincoln, NE, 1999), 29–58

For recordings see Greece.

II. Monophonic Latin

  • Susan Boynton

The Latin hymn is a strophic composition, sung in the Divine Office, with a metrical poetic text and a predominantly syllabic melody. ‘Hymn’ here designates compositions for the Office, as distinguished from other liturgical poetry. In the Middle Ages some hymns were also sung outside the Divine Office, such as Pange lingua for the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and stichic hymns for processions.

1. History of the repertory.

The strophic hymn emerged in the West in the 4th century. The earliest writer of Latin hymns was Hilary of Poitiers (d c367), whose Liber hymnorum, of which only fragments survive, consisted of long, complex narrative texts that did not remain in liturgical use. St Ambrose’s hymns for the church at Milan were more accessible, consisting of eight iambic strophes of four lines each, usually with eight syllables per line. St Augustine, in the Confessions, recounts that the custom of singing hymns and psalms ‘in the Eastern manner’ began in 386, during the siege of Ambrose’s basilica by the troops of the Arian imperial family. Exactly what Augustine meant is not clear: nothing is known of the hymn melodies at the time of Ambrose. While Ambrose’s hymns are thought to form the basis of the Milanese hymn repertory, only a few texts are attributed to him. In his critical edition (1992) Fontaine proposed that four texts are certainly authentic (Aeterne rerum conditor, Iam surgit hora tertia, Deus creator omnium, Intende qui regis Israel); four are probably authentic (Splendor paterne gloriae, Agnes beatae virginis, Victor, Nabor, Felix pii, Grates tibi, Iesu), three are possibly authentic (Amore Christi nobilis, Apostolorum passio, Aeterna Christi munera) and 3 others are probably inauthentic (Illuminans altissimus, Hic est dies verus Dei, Apostolorum supparem).

Hymns were sung in the cathedral Offices of Gaul and Iberia in late antiquity; the Gallican hymn repertory has been reconstructed by Huglo (see Gallican chant, §11). Apparently for the first time in the Western monastic Office, the 6th-century Rules of Caesarius of Arles and Aurelian of Arles prescribe specific hymns for each canonical hour. In these Rules (which are evidently based on the liturgical practices of the monastery of Lérins) the use of hymns seems to be an innovation, perhaps borrowed from the cathedral Office of southern Gaul. Hymns are also mentioned in the Rule of Isidore of Seville (the earliest description of the Spanish monastic Office), but not in the 6th-century Italian Rule of the Master or in the Rules of Cassian or Augustine. The singing of hymns played an important role in the liturgy of the Celtic church (see Celtic chant, §6).

The influential Rule of Benedict (c530) prescribes hymns at all the Hours, without specifying which texts. Benedict used the term ‘ambrosianum’ only for the three Hours at which authentic Ambrosian hymns were sung: Aeterne rerum conditor at Matins, Splendor paterne gloriae at Lauds, and Deus creator omnium at Vespers (Gneuss, forthcoming). For the other Hours, he used the term ‘hymnus’, contributing to the misattribution of many iambic hymns (called ‘ambrosiani’) to Ambrose in the Middle Ages.

The current historiography of the hymn repertory was established by Gneuss (1968), who named the hymn repertory of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages the ‘Old Hymnal’ (OH); this repertory is reconstructed from early Milanese sources, Bede’s De arte metrica, and the Rules of Caesarius, Aurelian and Benedict, none of which contains more than 16 hymns. A second early collection of between 20 and 26 hymns, which Gneuss (1974) called the ‘Frankish hymnal’ (FH), is preserved in six 8th-century manuscripts from north-west France and south-west Germany.

Beginning in the early 9th century, both the OH and FH were replaced (except at Milan and on the Iberian peninsula) by an expansion of the FH, the ‘New Hymnal’ (NH). The basic repertory of 41 hymns in the NH was expanded in the course of the 9th century by at least 21 texts, resulting in a variety of hymns for Vespers, Lauds and Matins, and for feasts. The core repertory in 10th-century sources numbers about 100 hymns; some 11th-century manuscripts contain between 200 and 300 hymns.

The NH is generally viewed as part of the renewal of liturgy during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–40; although Jullien, 1992, suggested a connection to Alcuin). It may be related to the reforms of Benedict of Aniane (d 821), or may have been compiled by Walahfrid Strabo, whose history of the liturgy (Libellus de exordiis … ecclesiasticis rerum, trans. with commentary by A.L. Harting-Corrêa, Leiden, 1996), written in about 829, shows his deep interest in the hymns (Bullough and Harting-Corrêa).

Many anonymous texts in the NH do not appear in earlier sources, and several were probably written in the Carolingian period. Ut queant laxis and Veni creator spiritus are generally considered to be Carolingian works, although their attributions (to Paul the Deacon and to Hrabanus Maurus, respectively) are uncertain. Other texts in the NH are by well-known authors of late antiquity such as Sedulius (A solis ortus cardine) and Venantius Fortunatus (Pange lingua … proelium, Vexilla regis). Some NH hymns are excerpts from Prudentius’s Liber cathemerinon.

The NH became the standard repertory on the Continent and in England (where it arrived with the Benedictine reform in the 10th century), except at Milan. The Hispanic hymn repertory remained distinct until the liturgical reforms of the late 11th century. The hymns were not common in cathedral liturgies between the Carolingian period and the 12th century, and in the Roman liturgy, hymns are first transmitted in the 12th-century Old Roman antiphoner I-Rvat S Pietro B 79 (Nunc sancte nobis spiritus, Te lucis ante terminum and Veni creator spiritus).

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the new religious orders compiled their own hymn repertories. In an attempt to recover the repertory of ‘ambrosiani’ prescribed by the Rule of St Benedict, the Cistercians adopted a collection of 34 hymns from the use of Milan, which was revised between 1140 and 1147 and supplemented by 18 further hymns. Peter Abelard wrote hymns for the convent of the Paraclete (where Heloise was abbess), 90 of which were used there; only one of his melodies survives.

2. Metre.

Some hymns are quantitative, with fixed patterns of long and short syllables whose quantity is determined by the rules of classical Latin versification. Others are accentual, with alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables and a fixed number of syllables in each line. Many accentual texts imitate the accent patterns and syllable groupings of quantitative metres. The three most common metres in medieval hymns are the iambic dimeter, trochaic tetrameter and the Sapphic strophe.

Most hymns are in iambic dimeter, with lines of four iambs:

Iambic dimeter, four iambs

The first and third feet in an iambic hymn could be spondees:

Spondees in iambic hymn

Conflicts of ictus and accent arose when the stressed syllables were short in quantity, or unstressed ones were long, as in the following verses from Aeterne rerum conditor:

Ictus and accent conflict in <i>Aeternus rerum conditor</i>, a)

Ictus and accent conflict in <i>Aeternus rerum conditor</i>, b)

Accentual iambic hymns imitate the stress patterns of a quantitative iambic but lack the required sequence of feet:

Accentual iambic hymn

Trochaic metres were also common, as in Ave maris stella and the following quantitative septenarius (trochaic tetrameter catalectic) of Venantius Fortunatus:

Quantitative septinarius of Venantius Fortunatus

Another frequently employed metre was the Sapphic strophe, consisting of three lesser Sapphic lines and an Adonic:

Sapphic strophe, line 1

Sapphic strophe, line 2

Sapphic strophe, line 3

Sapphic strophe, line 4 (Adonic)

In the 16th and 17th centuries the hymns were revised to fit the standards of classical prosody, producing the altered versions of the texts in modern printed liturgical books.

3. Melodies.

Hymn melodies typically consist of four lines of equal length, corresponding to the lines of text; the last strophe paraphrases the doxology, followed by ‘Amen’. Within strophes, patterns of melodic organization vary; the most common form is ABCD, and other frequent ones numbered as in MMMA, i, 1956 are ABAB (131, 135), AABA (22), AABB (768), ABCA (71; 126; see ex.1 and AA′BA (2). Most hymn melodies are predominantly syllabic, but many are neumatic and some have long melismas.

Ex.1 B. Stäblein, ed., MMMA, i, no.126

While most hymn melodies exhibit conventional modal features, some modally ambiguous hymns lack a clear tonal centre and have a final cadence on an unexpected pitch. Occasionally, a melody with an unusual final, such as a, does not fit any of the modes, as in ex.1 .

Ex.2 B. Stäblein, MMMA, i, no.7

The highest notes often occur in the third line of the strophe, as in ex.2 .

Ex.3 A. Durán, R. Moragas and J. Villareal, eds., Hymnarium oscense, ii, 113

Many hymn melodies have narrow ranges spanning a 5th or less in each line, and a few melodies resemble recitation tones, as in ex.3 .

Ex.4 C. Waddell, ed., The Twelfth-Century Cistercian Hymnal, ii, 101

Ex.4 shows a well-known melody whose first line fills the entire octave range of mode 1, while subsequent lines focus on the 5th from ad.

Ex.5 B. Stäblein, MMMA, i, no.56

Variation and repetition of short phrases within one line or between different lines of a melody are common. In ex.5 , the end of the first line is repeated at the beginning of the third, and the end of the second line is echoed in the third and fourth lines. Inexact resemblances (between the two halves of the fifth line, and between the beginnings of the first and fifth lines) reinforce the structure of the melody.

The relationship between words and music in hymns is flexible; different texts with the same liturgical function or metre may be sung to the same melody. Some manuscripts (such as I-VEcap CIX (102)) assign one melody to all hymns for ferial Matins, another to those for ferial Lauds, and a third to those for ferial Vespers. E-H 1 employs both this grouping by liturgical function and a similar grouping of iambic and Sapphic texts. Repertorial organization like that in I-VEcap CIX (102) and E-H 1 would have made it unnecessary to notate a melody more than once in a manuscript, suggesting that the hymn texts without notation in many early notated sources were sung to melodies that appear with another text in the same manuscript. Conversely, many hymn texts are associated with a variety of different melodies. Texts used on multiple occasions (such as Iam lucis orto sidere for Prime) had melodies for different days of the week or for feasts. Some melodies reflect the metrical construction of the corresponding texts, with melismas on accented syllables and cadences on caesuras.

No reliable criteria have yet been developed for dating hymn melodies, partly because the notated sources are so late in the textual tradition. Melismatic, wide-ranging melodies can be found in early manuscripts, and syllabic, highly repetitive melodies are found in late ones. The rich diversity of the hymn repertory hinders attempts such as Stäblein’s to assign characteristics to the different chronological layers of the Milanese hymn repertory. Stäblein identified simplicity, repetition and narrow modal range as archaic features (in contrast to a focus on the final and recitation tone and the use of the full modal range), but these criteria do not provide an adequate basis for dating melodies to the period before the earliest notated manuscripts (Möller in Haug, forthcoming).

The medieval performing practice of hymns is mostly a matter of speculation. Bede (d 735) wrote that hymns were sung by alternating choirs, and monastic customaries of the 10th–12th centuries indicate either solo or choral performance. It is not known how medieval singers rendered the metre of the hymns, but some manuscripts from the later Middle Ages suggest performance in mensural rhythm.

4. Hymn sources and transmission.

Office hymns were transmitted in independent hymnaries, in separate sections of Office books (such as psalters), and in breviaries and antiphoners; before the 12th century they are found primarily in monastic sources (Jullien, 1989).

Hymn texts were copied without notation beginning in the 7th century; the earliest surviving notated hymns are in manuscripts from the 10th century (the oldest known example is Pange lingua in CH-SGs 359, c900). The first hymnaries with extensive notation were copied in the 11th century, and among these sources only a few indicate melodies for all the hymns: the most extensive collections are CH-Zz Rh.83 (the earliest, dating from c1000), E-H 1, I-VEcap CIX (102), and Rvat Rossi 205. Many hymn melodies were transmitted internationally, while others were of limited local usage. The wide variation between sources sometimes makes it difficult to identify concordances.

Usually only the first strophe of a hymn is notated. In some exceptional manuscripts, however, notation is supplied for entire hymn texts, as in I-Rvat S Pietro B 79, I-FRa A.209 (Farfa, 11th century) and E-H 1 (southern France, 11th century). In E-H 1, many hymns have different melodies for different strophes; this unusual feature may be a way to indicate multiple melodies without recopying the entire text. Two melodies for different strophes of a hymn also appear in the Moissac hymnary (I-Rvat Rossi 205, f.21r).

5. Influence.

Hymns influenced other genres of liturgical poetry, particularly tropes and sequences. Many introit tropes were written in the form of hymn strophes, and some tropes are derived from specific hymns (Björkvall and Haug, forthcoming). Both the text and melody of some late sequences were modelled on hymns; for instance, O Maria stella maris is based on Ave maris stella. Hymns were important texts in theological tradition and in the teaching of grammar and versification, as shown by Bede’s De arte metrica, Alberic of Monte Cassino’s De rithmis, and in gloss and commentary traditions from the 11th to the 16th centuries (Gneuss, 1968; Milfull, ed., 1996; Boynton, forthcoming).


    (1) Texts. Critical editions of hymn texts include those by Walpole (1922), Bulst (1956) and Fontaine (1992); the volumes of Analecta hymnica dedicated to hymns (ii, iv, xi, xiv, xvi, xix, xxii, xxiii, xxvii, xli, xliii, l–lii, 1888–1909) are considered to be less reliable. Stäblein (MMMA, i, 1956), printed 92 previously unpublished texts.

    (2) Melodies. Stäblein edited 557 melodies from over 500 manuscripts and printed books from the 10th to the 18th centuries; the edition contains complete transcriptions of many important early sources, including CH-E 366 (see also B. Ebel, Einsiedeln, 1930), CH-Zz Rh.83, F-Pn n.a. lat.1235 (12th century), I-Rvat Rossi 205, VEcap CIX (102) and Rc 1574 (12th century). His edition is complemented by several later publications, including a transcription of E-H 1 (ed. A. Durán, R. Moragas and J. Villareal, 1987) and Waddell’s critical editions of the Cistercian hymnal (1984) and the Paraclete hymn repertory (1987–9). Moberg and Nilsson’s critical edition of 129 melodies from Swedish sources (1991) is the second part of the text edition published by Moberg (1947); almost all the melodies are also found in Stäblein. Lagnier (1991) and Mele (1994) edited local Italian repertories; Gutiérrez (1993) edited hymn melodies using 131 notated manuscripts from Spain (10th–14th centuries). Milfull (1996) gave concordances in Anglo-Saxon sources for melodies in Stäblein’s edition.

  • G.M. Dreves, C. Blume and H.M. Bannister, eds.: Analecta hymnica medii aevi (Leipzig, 1886–1922/R)
  • C. Weinmann, ed.: Hymnarium parisiense; das Hymnar des zistercienser Abtei Pairis im Elsass (Regensburg, 1905) [facs.]
  • A.S. Walpole, ed.: Early Latin Hymns (Cambridge, 1922/R) [text edn]
  • B. Ebel, ed.: Das älteste alemannische Hymnar mit Noten: Kodex 366 (472) Einsiedeln (XII. Jh.) (Einsiedeln, 1930)
  • C.-A. Moberg and A.-M. Nilsson, eds.: Die liturgischen Hymnen in Schweden, 1 (Copenhagen, 1947) [text]; (Uppsala, 1991) [music]
  • W. Bulst, ed.: Hymni latini antiquissimi lxxv, psalmi iii (Heidelberg, 1956) [text]
  • B. Stäblein, ed.: Hymnen I, MMMA, 1 (1956, 2/1995)
  • C. Waddell, ed.: The Twelfth-Century Cistercian Hymnal (Trappist, KY, 1984)
  • A. Dúran, R. Moragas and J. Villareal, eds.: Hymnarium oscense (s. XI) (Zaragoza, 1987)
  • C. Waddell, ed.: Hymn Collections from the Paraclete (Trappist, KY, 1987–9)
  • R. Amiet : Corpus hymnologicum augustanum (Aosta, 1989)
  • E. Lagnier, ed.: Corpus musicae hymnorum augustanum (Aosta, 1991)
  • J. Fontaine and others, eds.: Ambroise de Milan: hymnes (Paris, 1992)
  • G. Mele, ed.: Psalterium-Hymnarium arborense: il manoscritto P. XIII della cattedrale di Oristano (secolo XIV/XV) (Rome, 1994)
  • I. Milfull, ed.: The Hymns of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Study and Edition of the Durham Hymnal (Cambridge, 1996)
  • C. Gutiérrez, ed.: Hymnen II: Spanien, MMMA, 10 (forthcoming)
  • D. Hiley, ed.: Hymnen III: England, MMMA, 10 (in preparation)


  • MGG1 (B. Stäblein);
  • MGG2 (K. Schlager; ‘Liturgische Gesangbücher’, M. Huglo)
  • J. Mearns : Early Latin Hymnaries (Cambridge, 1913/R)
  • J. Szövérffy : Die Annalen der lateinischen Hymnendichtung (Berlin, 1964–5)
  • P. Mittler : Melodieuntersuchung zu den dorischen Hymnen der lateinischen Liturgie im Mittelalter (Siegburg,1965)
  • E. Werner : Die Hymnen in der Choraltradition des Stiftes St Kunibert zu Köln (Cologne, 1966)
  • W. Lipphardt : ‘Das Hymnar der Metzer Kathedrale um 1200’, Festschrift Bruno Stäblein, ed. M. Ruhnke (Kassel, 1967), 160–77
  • H. Gneuss : Hymnar und Hymnen im englischen Mittelalter (Tübingen, 1968)
  • H. Gneuss : ‘Latin Hymns in Medieval England: Future Research’, Chaucer and Middle England: Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbins, ed. B. Rowland (London, 1974), 407–24
  • J. Perez de Urbel : ‘Los himnos mozárabes’, Liturgia y música mozárabes: Toledo 1975 (Toledo, 1978), 135–62
  • W. Lipphardt : ‘Mensurale Hymnenaufzeichnungen in einem Hymnar des 15. Jahrhunderts aus St. Peter, Salzburg (Michaelbeuern Ms. Cart. 1)’, Ut mens concordet voci: Festschrift Eugène Cardine, ed. J.B. Göschl (St Ottilien,1980), 458–87
  • A. Martimort : ‘La place des hymnes à l’office dans les liturgies d’occident’, Studi ambrosiani in onore di Mons. Pietro Borella, ed. C. Alzati and E. Majo (Milan, 1982), 138–53
  • C. Gutiérrez : ‘El himnario de Huesca: nueva aproximación’, AnM, 44 (1989), 23–60
  • M. Jullien : ‘Les sources de la tradition ancienne des quatorze Hymnes attribuées à saint Ambroise de Milan’, Revue d’histoire des textes, 19 (1989), 57–189
  • J. Szövérffy : Latin Hymns (Turnhout, 1989)
  • D. Bullough and A. Harting-Corrêa : ‘Texts, Chant and the Imperial Chapel of Louis the Pious’, Charlemagne’s Heir: New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814–840), ed. P. Godman and R. Collins (Oxford, 1990), 489–508
  • A. Nilsson : On Liturgical Hymn Melodies in Sweden during the Middle Ages (Göteborg,1991)
  • M. Jullien : ‘Les hymnes dans le milieu alcuinien’, De Tertullien aux mozarabes: antiquité tardive et christianisme ancien: mélanges offerts à Jacques Fontaine, ed. L. Holtz and J.-C. Fredouille (Paris, 1992), 2, 171–82
  • S. Boynton : ‘Recent Research on Latin Hymns’, PMM, 3 (1994), 103–12
  • A. Franz : Tageslauf und Heilsgeschichte: Untersuchungen zum literarischen Text und liturgischen Kontext der Tagzeitenhymnen des Ambrosius von Mailand (St Ottilien, 1994)
  • J. Stevenson : ‘Irish Hymns, Venantius Fortunatus and Poitiers’, Aquitaine and Ireland in the Middle Ages, ed. J.-M. Picard (Dublin, 1995), 81–110
  • S. Boynton : Glossed Hymns in Eleventh-Century Continental Hymnaries (diss., Brandeis U., 1997)
  • A. Haug, ed.: Der Lateinische Hymnus im Mittelalter: Überlieferung – Ästhetik – Ausstrahlung (Kassel, forthcoming) [incl. S. Boynton: ‘The Didactic Function and Context of Eleventh-Century Glossed Hymnaries’; G. Björkvall and A. Haug: ‘Verstechnische and versgeschichtliche Voraussetzungen der melodischen Analyse’; H. Gneuss: ‘Zur Geschichte des Hymnars’; A. Haug: ‘Hymnus und Tropus’; D. Hiley: ‘Zur englischen Hymnen-Überlieferung’; I. Milfull: ‘Spuren kontinentaler Einflüsse in spätangelsächsischen Hymnartypen und deren Neumbestand’; H. Möller: ‘Fragen zu Bruno Stäbleins zeitlich-stilistischer Schichtung der Mailänder Hymnen-Melodien’]

III. Polyphonic Latin

  • Tom R. Ward, assisted by John Caldwell

Polyphonic settings of Latin hymns have been a regular feature of Vespers of major feasts in most important centres since the 15th century. This section is concerned exclusively with those that seem designed for use in the Divine Office and does not include motets that make use of all or part of a hymn text. The two criteria are the use of a cantus firmus commonly associated with the hymn text in the monophonic practice (in those periods in which cantus firmus techniques are common) and the setting of single stanzas of the hymn text as separate entities. This forces the omission of such works as the settings in the Ambrosian motetti missales repertory of texts made up of fragments of hymn stanzas and of works like the Ave maris stella attributed to Josquin des Prez fin which all the stanzas are set continuously. (For keyboard settings of hymn melodies see Organ hymn.)

1. 15th century.

Ex.6 (F-APT 16bis)

Except for a few isolated examples, such as the famous voice-exchange hymn found with a number of texts in sources up to 1400 (Stäblein, 1956, pp.532ff), the history of the polyphonic hymn properly begins with the group of ten settings for three voices in the Apt manuscript (F-APT 16bis). These are undoubtedly only a small part of a substantial collection intended to supply settings for all the major feasts of the year and were probably composed for the papal court at Avignon during the last quarter of the 14th century. Rather small in scale, they established the basic principle of polyphonic hymn writing followed during the next 200 years: each has the melody traditionally associated with the hymn text in one voice in ornamented form (the superius in all but one instance). Except for cadential ornaments, the style is note-against-note. The setting of Iste confessor (ex.6 ) is of particular interest in that its rhythms are clearly related to the accents of the Sapphic stanza.

The next important collections of polyphonic hymns are in two early 15th-century manuscripts at Bologna (I-Bc Q15) and Modena (I-MOe α.X.1.11). These contain a complete cycle by Du Fay for every feast of the liturgical year that is of a semi-duplex rank or higher, with additional settings by Johannes de Lymburgia in the former and Benoit in the latter. Almost all the hymns follow the same pattern, generally providing a single polyphonic setting for all the even-numbered stanzas; the chant melody is given in chant notation and is underlaid with the odd-numbered stanzas. This alternation of chant and polyphony was common throughout the Renaissance (see Alternatim), the principal change in the 16th century being that composers generally wrote separate settings for each of the odd- or even-numbered stanzas (a procedure that also appears in I-Bc Q15 in Johannes de Lymburgia’s settings of Ad cenam agni providi and Christe redemptor omnium/Ex Patre).

Ex.7 Du Fay: Conditor alme siderum, verse 2

The Du Fay cycle was probably composed in Savoy in the years 1433–5; according to Besseler it was composed in Rome before 1433, but the melodies Du Fay used do not conform to the monophonic tradition of the papal court. The settings, some of which use Fauxbourdon, are all for three voices. With one exception, the hymn tune is present in the superius in ornamented form (ex.7 ), and in general it is only this voice that is provided with a complete text. In two cases (Conditor alme siderum and Vexilla regis prodeunt) the chants are presented in I-MOe α.X.1.11 in mensural form, this being retained more or less closely in the polyphonic setting. Evidently these melodies served as models for later composers; in some cases a Du Fay superius was simply borrowed and two or more lower voices composed to fit it, or two new voices appear with an indication that a Du Fay superius is to be used with them. Du Fay’s settings and adaptations of them remained in use (as manuscript copies show) until the 1490s, when they were replaced by settings for four voices.

The trend in collections for the rest of the 15th century was to include settings for Vespers of all feasts of semi-duplex or higher rank. This meant that each collection shared a basic corpus of texts with others from the same region (texts commonly found in settings in Italian sources are listed in Table 1 ), but it also meant that each collection included one or more settings that were not found elsewhere, since they reflected local rather than regional liturgical practices (e.g. hymns for the patron of a church, city or diocese). Regional differences are also apparent in the melodic tradition, and different melodies or significant melodic variants can often identify the place of origin of a setting. Generally the hymn collections seem to have been composed or compiled for purely local needs. The hymns themselves are rather brief, functional pieces; many survive in only one source without attribution, which may indicate that they are the work of a local figure. Occasionally a composer of the stature of Du Fay wrote settings that spread throughout Europe, but this was exceptional.




Sundays of Advent

Conditor alme siderum


Christe redemptor omnium/Ex



Hostis Herodes impie

Weekdays of Lent

Audi benigne conditor

Sundays of Lent

Aures ad nostras

Passion Sunday

Vexilla Regis prodeunt

Easter (or its octave)

Ad cenam agni providi


Jesu nostra redemptio


Veni Creator Spiritus

Corpus Christi

Pange lingua

Trinity Sunday

O lux beata Trinitas

Sundays throughout the year

Lucis Creator optime

Marian feasts

Ave maris stella

St John the Baptist

Ut queant laxis

SS Peter and Paul

Aurea luce

St Michael

Tibi Christe

All Saints

Christe redemptor


Dedication of a church

Urbs beata Jerusalem

Common of Apostles

Exultet caelum laudibus

Common of One Martyr

Deus tuorum militum

Common of Many Martyrs

Sanctorum meritis

Common of Confessor

Iste confessor

Common of Virgins

Jesu corona virginum

The period 1450–1500 is the earliest from which enough hymn settings survive from different parts of Europe to exemplify clearly the differences in regional traditions. In this period in Italy the hymn tune most frequently appears in an ornamented version in the superius. Du Fay’s hymns were included in two major Italian collections (I-Mc 871N and Vc St Peter B80) along with more recent works by Johannes de Quadris, Damianus and Gaffurius, whose settings incorporate the most obvious innovation – the use of four voices. An important pair of choirbooks (I-MOe α.M.1.11–12) includes hymns by Johannes Martini and Johannes Brebis in which the alternation between chant and polyphony is dispensed with; one setting is provided for the odd-numbered stanzas and another for the even-numbered ones. The collection appears to have been part of the repertory of the Este chapel in Ferrara in about 1479, and is the earliest source to contain polyphonic hymns for antiphonal choirs.

Two important sources were copied in Verona in the last two decades of the 15th century. The earlier one (I-VEc 759) contains settings for three voices and a few settings for four that are also found in the later manuscript (I-VEc 758). The two collections differ primarily in the number of voices used in the settings; those for four voices are also slightly more complex. Another northern collection, probably from Venice or nearby, is found as a manuscript addition to a copy of Petrucci’s Motetti de la Corona (F-Pc Rés.862). By far the largest and most interesting collection is that found in I-Rvat C.S.15. The hymn section of the manuscript, probably copied in the mid-1490s, is the first in which the alternation between chant and different polyphonic settings is used systematically. The settings are diverse, ranging from the works of Du Fay to compositions by Marbrianus de Orto and Josquin that probably date from about 1490. The Du Fay settings are found in their original form and in more recent adaptations. The adaptations incorporate either the Du Fay superius or the superius and tenor with newly composed voices to make a three- or four-voice composition. Unlike the earlier versions, all the voices are underlaid in an obvious attempt to update the archaic but venerable settings of Du Fay. The collection seems to have been compiled from materials at hand with new compositions added only when needed. The adaptations of Du Fay’s settings occur chiefly in the settings for the Common of the Saints, among the less important feasts in the collection; they are also the last works in the manuscript, and the adaptations may have been made simply to complete the cycle. One other important Italian source extant from this period is a small collection of hymns in Milan (I-Mcap 2269) that may be by Gaffurius. These settings differ from all the others only in liturgical matters: they were composed for use in the Ambrosian liturgy.

Ex.8 Veni redemptor gentium, verse 2 (I-TRmp 89, 303v–304)

German manuscript sources of polyphonic hymns of the period 1400–1520 are numerous. The largest number of hymns is in the Trent manuscripts, which contain nearly 150 settings; the repertory is mixed, ranging from Du Fay settings and settings originating in Italy to more recent German settings, some as late as 1470. The most interesting compositions are those of German origin. A number of them use a technique that was very common in Germany by 1500 and in all parts of Europe during the 16th century: the cantus firmus is stated in one voice in equal values, usually of one or two beats’ duration. The origin of the cantus firmus is emphasized in some of these settings by the use of chant notation in the voice carrying it (generally the superius or tenor). Against this slowly moving part the other voices weave a very active contrapuntal background; the technique is at times imaginative, as in Veni redemptor gentium, where the chant melody is stated in equal values in the tenor and each phrase is preceded by an ornamented statement in the bass (ex.8 ). The other settings in the Trent manuscripts usually have the chant melody in the tenor or superius in an ornamented form. Similar settings can be found in the manuscripts CZ-Ps D.G.IV.47, the Glogauer Liederbuch and in the first few fascicles of D-Mbs 3154.

The major German sources from the end of the 15th century are D-B 40021, LEu 1494, Mbs 3154 and PL-WRu 2016, which contain a large repertory of settings by such composers as Adam von Fulda and Heinrich Finck as well as less familiar ones like Egidius Rossely and Flordigal. The cantus firmus techniques are similar to those of the latest settings in the Trent manuscripts with the chant melody stated in either the superius or tenor in ornamented form or in equal values. The Nikolaus Apel Manuscript D-LEu 1494 contains the largest number of settings and shows the variety possible within this genre.

Later German sources include the two choirbooks (now in Dresden) from the St Annen-Kirche in Annaberg, the smaller of which contains a complete cycle for the liturgical year that occasionally employs the alternation of chant with two polyphonic settings. The manuscript D-Ju 34 contains a very interesting cycle in which the settings are absolutely uniform in style; the cantus firmus is stated in the tenor in equal values and is written throughout in Hufnagelschrift. Each text has a number of stanzas individually set to be used in alternation with the chant melody. Where one setting is used for more than one stanza it is copied twice, and a small number of minor changes have been made in one of the settings either to improve the text declamation or to incorporate a hypermetric syllable. These hymns were probably composed for the court of Frederick the Wise; all are anonymous and all are unica.

An unusual trait, found only in a small group of hymns from German sources of about 1500, is the use of a second cantus firmus with its own text, which is taken from various sources. In some cases both cantus firmi belong to the same feast, the added text usually being an antiphon or sequence. Other settings incorporate a secular text and melody which are almost always symbolically related to the hymn text or to the feast on which the hymn would be sung. The German collections are notable for the individuality of their liturgical implications. Since Germany lacked a centre like Rome to set liturgical precedents in this genre, it is impossible to make a chart like Table 1 for German hymnody; however, a number of texts and melodies appear only in German settings and distinguish the German tradition from others.

The first hymn settings representing the Spanish tradition are found in a group of manuscripts copied just after 1500. E-Tc 2 contains 20 settings by Pedro de Escobar, Dalva, Juan de Sanabria, Juan de Peñalosa and Urede. The setting of Pange lingua by Urede became one of the most popular compositions of the 16th century, appearing in over a dozen sources and serving as a model for keyboard works and a cyclic Mass Ordinary. Most of the Spanish settings use melodies of a local tradition as cantus firmi. These can be found in the Intonarium toletanum, one of the liturgical books published as a result of the activities of Cardinal Ximenes Cisneros. The Spanish monophonic tradition used a system of explicitly notated durations which were taken over into the polyphonic settings, unlike other traditions (with exceptions noted above), which apparently assumed equal duration for each sign in the chant notation.

Two 15th-century English sources contain polyphonic hymns (GB-Cmc Pepys 1236 and Lbl 5665); they use the techniques of cantus firmus treatment discussed above and add another that is not known elsewhere and marks them as English. Some of the settings in the Pepys manuscript seem to use a faburden to the chant melody as the cantus firmus rather than the chant melody itself; since in these cases the faburden is in the lowest of three parts, however, the top part is effectively a paraphrase of the chant and the outcome is analogous to fauxbourdon though with a free contratenor. The paucity of 15th-century sources makes a complete understanding of English polyphonic hymn practices very difficult.

2. 16th century.

The most important development of the 16th century was the appearance of a number of cycles for the year by individual composers. No copies have survived of the first printed hymn collection, Johannes Martini’s Hymnorum liber primus (Venice, 1507), although Martini’s hymns can be found in 15th-century manuscripts. The implied second book seems never to have appeared.

After a break of nearly three decades a number of cycles appeared in quick succession. Each of the first two, the collections of Costanzo Festa and Francesco Corteccia, appears complete in one central manuscript source and individual settings were copied in a number of other manuscripts. The Corteccia cycle is in a manuscript that was probably a presentation copy; the preface states that the composer has followed the usages of Florence and of Rome. The Festa cycle survives complete in a manuscript from the Cappella Sistina and was composed in 1539 for use in Rome.

The printed cycles undoubtedly reached a much larger audience. The cycle by Carpentras was printed in Avignon about 1535 with some other collections by the same composer, but may have been composed, at least in part, in Rome. The fact that it includes settings for the feasts of St Margaret and St Anne, two saints who were particularly venerated in the Avignon region, may indicate that at least this part of the collection was composed there. Jacquet of Mantua’s cycle was probably composed between 1539 and 1542, but it did not appear until 1566. In addition two of his works are included in Willaert’s hymn collection, the Hymnorum musica (Venice, 1542). However, some hymn settings by Willaert are extant in manuscripts from the cathedrals of Piacenza and Treviso that were copied before 1542, which may indicate that the collection was compiled from existing works and not composed expressly for publication. The hymns of these cycles formed the basis for the numerous manuscript collections copied in various Italian centres: the extant cathedral repertories suggest that each chapel put together a cycle to meet its own needs from both printed and manuscript settings. Any settings of purely local significance were generally composed by a local figure, often in imitation of the settings in the printed collections. The result is a very large number of manuscript copies of the hymns in these printed collections.

Ex.9 Corteccia: Veni creator spiritus, verse 6

The style of the settings in all these cycles is similar. The composers set either all odd- or all even-numbered stanzas, the other stanzas being sung in unison to the chant melody. The cantus firmus is present in one voice, usually the tenor or superius, in values that are often somewhat longer than those in the other parts, at least at the beginning of each phrase. Motifs from the cantus firmus appear in all the voices in points of imitation (ex.9 ) and in some settings the cantus firmus voice is canonically duplicated. Generally two to six voices are used, a smaller number for internal stanzas and the larger number for the last.

Two important collections were printed in Germany during this period at the Wittenberg press of Georg Rhau; although they were intended for use by Lutheran establishments, they include the traditional Latin texts. Some of the works included in the first, the Sacrorum hymnorum liber primus (1542), must have been composed for use in the Catholic liturgy since they appear in manuscript sources as early as 1500. Alternative settings are frequently provided, some using different cantus firmi. The print seems to have been intended as a repertory from which works could be selected rather than a fixed, liturgically correct cycle: the composers include Thomas Stoltzer, Heinrich Finck, Wilhelm Breitengraser, Arnold von Bruck, Balthasar Resinarius, Virgilius Haugk, Thomas Pöpel, Adam Rener and Johann Walter (i). Rhau’s second publication, the Novum opus musicum tres tomos sacrorum hymnorum of Sixt Dietrich (1545) is a complete cycle providing settings for all important feasts. Hymns are also included in the Vesperarum precum officia (1540). A collection of hymns for the liturgical year composed for the Heidelberg chapel by Benedictus Ducis, which has not survived, is listed in a chapel inventory with a number of other collections by the same composer.

An important characteristic of the settings in these 16th-century cycles is the attempt to achieve proper text declamation. Hymns present unique problems in that, although they are strophic with each stanza supposedly in the same metric scheme, variations in accent patterns and hypermetric syllables are not uncommon. This makes the use of the same setting for different stanzas difficult, as Corteccia mentioned in the preface to his collection. In some of these collections the same setting is used with more than one text. In the collection in D-Ju 34, the second setting is often revised just enough to allow for a hypermetric syllable or to correct the declamation.

An extremely large number of cycles appeared in Italy in the late 16th century, including those by Jacobus de Kerle (1558, lost; 2/1560), Giovanni Contino (1561), Diego Ortiz (1565), Paolo Aretino (1565), Michele Varotto (1568), Lassus (c1580, manuscript), Victoria (1581), Ippolito Sabino (1582), Francesco Guerrero (1584), Giammateo Asola (1585) and Palestrina (1589). Each contains 30 or more hymns, one to three stanzas being set polyphonically in each hymn. Victoria usually set the even-numbered stanzas and used no more than four voices, the internal stanzas having only three; he did not use canon or five- to six-voice culminating stanzas. Palestrina departed from the more common practices in that he consistently set odd-numbered stanzas and left the first line of the first stanza to be sung to the chant melody, beginning his setting at the second line.

The last of the polyphonic cycles appeared in the 1590s and the early 17th century; they include the works of Giaches de Wert (I-MOd 167–8), Pietro Pontio (1596), Orfeo Vecchi (1600), Costanzo Porta (1602), Orazio Vecchi (1604), Giovanni Cavaccio (1605), M.A. Ingegneri (1606), Girolamo Giacobbi (before 1629) and Filippo Vitali (1636). These collections continue the traditions of the early 16th-century cycles. The collection of Wert is remarkable for its size and its emphasis on St Barbara.

Although the majority of the 16th-century hymn collections originated in Italy, a few came from other places, such as the Hymni sacri by Cosmas Alder (1553) and the cycle by W. Perckhaimer (1564) in Germany. A large manuscript collection compiled in the Munich chapel during Ludwig Senfl’s tenure has yet to be fully investigated. Jacobus de Kerle composed a cycle for Augsburg (c1577) which in its marked differences from his Orvieto cycle demonstrates the importance of local liturgical practices in the formation of polyphonic collections. The cycle by Leonhard Schröter and works by Blasius Ammon, Jacobus Vaet, J. Febure, Cesare de Zacharia and Bartholomäus Gesius date from the later 16th century; the settings by Michael Praetorius (1611) and Christian Keifferer (Dillingen, 1613) mark the end of the old tradition. 17th-century composers such as Johann Stadlmayr and Antonio Draghi employed instrumental doubling, concertante instruments, basso continuo and sinfonias in their hymns, as did their Italian contemporaries. In France important collections were composed by François Gallet (Douai, 1586), Charles d’Helfer (1660) and J.-V. de Bournonville (1612); in England Byrd, Sheppard and Tallis all composed settings characteristic of the main 16th-century tradition. Italy was to remain the chief centre of polyphonic hymn writing, however, primarily because the liturgy was sufficiently uniform throughout the peninsula to make both the composition and publication of an entire cycle feasible.

3. 17th and 18th centuries.

The stylistic innovations of the Baroque period, particularly concertato, were introduced into the hymn at the beginning of the 17th century. Optional doubling of the vocal bass by an organ, as in Asola’s second cycle for eight voices (1602), later became ‘obligato’ and special partbooks were provided, as in the Hymni per tutto l’anno a quattro voci con il basso per l’organo of Pietro Lappi (Venice, 1628). Like the concerted madrigal and motet, hymns were also written for various combinations of voices and instruments (Amadio Freddi, Hinni novi concertati, Venice, 1632) and made use of a solo voice (Andrea Mattioli, Hinni sacri concertati, Venice, 1646). The concertante style of Maurizio Cazzati’s important cycle (1662) for solo voice ‘con violini e beneplacito’ is also evident in the works of C.D. Cossoni (1668), Sebastiano Cherici (1672), G.A. Florimi (1673), Bonifatio Gratiani (1674), G.B. Vitali (1681) and G.A. Silvani (1702). The older style is used in the collection by Filippo Vitali (Rome, 1636) in which the texts of the reformed Breviary (1632) appear for the first time in a polyphonic setting. Cazzati also composed a cycle (1670), for four voices ‘da cappella’ with optional basso continuo, which has been cited as an early example of the attempt to recapture the Palestrina style. This kind of setting was subsequently very common, as in Silvani’s Inni sacri per tutto l’anno a quattro voci pieni, da cantarsi con l’organo e senza (Bologna, 1705).

A number of 17th-century hymn settings appear in collections of music for Vespers, mainly psalms; the best example of this genre is the Ave maris stella in Monteverdi’s Vespers (1610). As collections of this kind increased in number, collections devoted solely to hymns decreased. The scale of the settings, generally larger than that of 16th-century works, may have made the idea of a cycle less popular. Individual hymn settings made less use of cantus firmus technique and more of free composition; some collections, as early as that of Orazio Vecchi (1604), indicate the tendency with such statements as ‘partim brevi super plano canto, partim propria arte’, and early 18th-century collections sometimes include both techniques. The hymn collection composed by Joannis Georgi for S Maria Maggiore, Rome, in the mid-18th century has settings for four unaccompanied voices and for one to four voices and organ. In the former category the imitation of the Palestrina style even extends to beginning the setting with the second line and leaving the first to be sung in chant. Similar settings were composed for the same church in the early 18th century by Pompeo Cannicciari. A number of settings from the 18th century and even the 19th show this attempt to recapture an archaic style that was now valued as specifically sacred.

The tendency to compose individual settings instead of cycles grew during the late 17th century and the 18th until, in the late 18th century and the 19th, no major works were composed. Most of the cycles of the last two-thirds of the 18th century are by minor composers in rather isolated areas; the form was superseded by single settings and particularly large numbers of hymns for major feasts. A composer’s hymn output might include a number of settings of Ave maris stella or Pange lingua and nothing else. There are also settings from this period of single internal stanzas like Tantum ergo sacramentum or O salutaris hostia which were not intended to be used as regular Office hymns but were for the Elevation in Mass or the Salve services.

18th-century hymn composers include Padre G.B. Martini, who composed 60 single settings between 1740 and 1770. These do not form a cycle, nor do those of another large collection of individual settings (for four voices, some with strings and continuo) by A.M. Pacchioni for Modena. G.A. Bernabei composed a collection of hymns for Munich in which he alternated settings for four voices and continuo with settings for solo voice and concertante instruments; Eberlin and Adlgasser composed single settings for use in Salzburg Cathedral. Single settings for Viennese chapels were composed by Ziani, Fux, Georg Reutter (ii) and Wagenseil. A few of these settings retain the cantus firmus techniques of earlier periods, but most are freely composed. The settings by Fux remained in regular use at Göttweig well into the 19th century. J.G. Albrechtsberger composed at least 27 hymn settings for use at Melk (1760–61). Single settings are also known by Charpentier. All these single settings seem to be occasional works by local composers for local use. The only important 19th-century composer who wrote hymns was Bruckner, and those were early works.


  • R. Gerber : ‘Die Hymnen des Apelschen Codex (Mus. Ms. 1494 der Universitäts-Bibliothek Leipzig)’, Festschrift Arnold Schering, ed. H. Osthoff, W. Serauky and A. Adrio (Berlin, 1937/R), 76–89
  • R. Gerber : ‘Die Textwahl in der mehrstimmigen Hymnenkomposition des späten Mittelalters’,GfMKB: Lüneburg 1950, 75–9
  • R. Gerber : ‘Spanische Hymnensätze um 1500’, AMw, 10 (1953), 165–84
  • R. Gerber : ‘Römische Hymnenzyklen des späten 15. Jahrhunderts’, AMw, 12 (1955), 40–73
  • R. Gerber : ‘Die Hymnen der Handschrift Monte Cassino 871’, AnM, 11 (1956), 3–23
  • R. Gerber : ‘Zur italienischen Hymnenkomposition im 15. Jahrhundert’, AcM, 28 (1956), 75–86
  • B. Stäblein : Hymnen, MMMA, 1 (1956)
  • R. Gerber : Zur Geschichte des mehrstimmigen Hymnus: gesammelte Aufsätze, ed. G. Croll (Kassel, 1965) [incl. all articles by Gerber cited above]
  • G. Haydon : ‘ Ave maris stella from Apt to Avignon’, Festschrift Bruno Stäblein, ed. M. Ruhnke (Kassel, 1967), 79–91
  • T.R. Ward : The Polyphonic Office Hymn from the Late Fourteenth Century until the Early Sixteenth Century (diss., U. of Pittsburgh, 1969)
  • T.R. Ward : ‘The Polyphonic Office Hymn and the Liturgy of Fifteenth Century Italy’, MD, 26 (1972), 161–88
  • T.R. Ward : The Polyphonic Office Hymn 1400–1520: a Descriptive Catalogue, RMS, 3 (1980)
  • J. Roche : ‘“Musica diversa di Compietà”: Compline and its Music in Seventeenth-Century Italy’, PRMA, 109 (1982–3), 60–79
  • J. Bettley : ‘“L’ultima hora canonica del giorno”: Music for the Office of Compline in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century’, ML, 74 (1993), 163–214

IV. Protestant

Metrical hymns have been an important and distinctive part of Protestant worship since the Reformation. Today the word ‘hymn’ has the general meaning ‘sacred lyric for use in worship’. In this section, however, the definition adopted is an older and narrower one: ‘sacred lyric of original content for use in worship’, as distinct from a metrical translation or paraphrase of a psalm or of some other portion of scripture or liturgy.

1. Origins of the Protestant hymn.

  • Nicholas Temperley

From its very beginnings the Protestant hymn differed from the Catholic in being sung by the laity. Metrical religious lyrics in the vernacular were well developed in the Middle Ages, especially in Germany: carols are the most familiar example. But the vernacular hymn as an integral part of Christian worship began only with the Reformation. ‘With the gathering of the followers of Jan Hus in Bohemia into congregations, popular song becomes definitely Congregational Song’ (Benson, 1909, p.21). The earliest recorded hymnbook of the Bohemian Brethren dates from 1505 (see Cantional, §1). The advent of printing had made it possible for all the worshippers to share in the singing of a large repertory of hymns. Luther himself was steeped in the German folksong in which hymns played so large a part, and he used his freedom to compose hymn texts as a method of popularizing the new doctrines of his reformation. The hymn has been a constant part of worship throughout the history of the Lutheran churches (see Chorale; Luther, Martin and Lutheran church music).

In the other principal branch of Protestantism a different tradition was formed. Calvin determined to found his reformed worship on the practice of the Early Church. While not absolutely denying the value of human compositions, he argued that no better songs could be found than the inspired songs of Scripture. He therefore established at Geneva the tradition of singing metrical psalms, which until recent times was closely followed in the Reformed Churches of France, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia and Scotland (see Psalms, metrical, §II and Psalms, metrical, §IV; Calvin [Cauvin], Jean; and Reformed and Presbyterian church music). When these Churches did eventually admit hymn singing, they usually borrowed their hymns from Lutheran or other external sources. As a result their own contribution to the common stock of hymns has been slight, though many tunes originally composed for metrical psalms are now more often sung with hymns.

2. The English hymn before the Wesleyan revival.

  • Nicholas Temperley

The English Reformation was at first Lutheran in impulse. Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songs (c1535) were based on the Wittenberg hymnbooks, but they had little popular appeal and were banned by Henry VIII in 1546. Translations of Latin hymns from the Sarum Breviary and elsewhere were issued in primers for private use at this period; and Cranmer, in an early draft for the Book of Common Prayer, included 26 Latin hymns in the daily Offices. When he translated the services into English for the Prayer Book of 1549, however, all hymns were omitted, presumably because of the shift towards Calvinism under Edward VI. Only the Veni creator spiritus survived, in the Ordination Service (published separately in 1550): it remains there to this day, with the later translation of Bishop Cosin added in 1662.

Original hymns in Sternhold and Hopkins’s psalm book

During the Marian exile rival parties sprang up in the English Protestant communities. Many of those who most disliked the Book of Common Prayer went to Geneva, where in 1556 they compiled their own Forme of Prayers. They attached to it a group of metrical psalms which was to become the nucleus of the English metrical psalter (see Psalms, metrical, §III). This and the later Genevan editions drew solely on psalms and other scriptural passages for their verse. But when the metrical psalter was introduced in England after Elizabeth I’s accession (1558), some compromise was found necessary between the strictly Calvinist Genevan party and other groups who favoured the Prayer Book and who had spent the years of exile in Lutheran centres such as Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Wesel. Consequently the 1561 edition contained a much enlarged appendix to the metrical psalms, which included the Veni creator spiritus, versions of most of the Prayer Book canticles, the Athanasian Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Commandments and six original hymns. In the 1562 edition of Sternhold and Hopkins, the first complete edition of the psalm book, three more hymns were added (the complete list is shown in Table 2 ). These may rightly be regarded as the first hymns of the English Protestant Church. Two of the hymns were of German origin and were provided with German tunes; four others had their own tunes, of which one (Frost 186) is striking in its emotional intensity by comparison with the almost uniform dullness of the average English psalm tune of the time. It may well have been composed by Tallis, who harmonized it for John Day’s four-part psalter of the following year. The other three hymns had cross-references to psalm tunes.

TABLE 2: Original hymns in Sternhold and Hopkins’s psalm book


First line





A Thanksgeving after the receving of

‘The Lord be thanked for his gifts’

W. Samuel


the Lordes Supper

A Prayer after the Commandments

‘The spirit of grace grant us, O Lord’



A Prayer

‘Preserve us, Lord’

R. Wisdom, after Luther

Frost 184 (L.M.)


A Prayer unto the Holy Ghoste, to be

‘Come Holy Sprite, the God of myght’



Song before the Sermen

Da pacem Domine

‘Give peace in these our daies’

E. Grindal, after W. Capito

Frost 183 (8787D)


The Lamentation of a Sinner

‘O Lord, turn not away thy face’


Frost 10 (D.C.M.)


A Lamentation

‘O Lord in thee is all my trust’


Frost 186 (D.L.M.)


The Complaint of a Sinner

‘Where righteousness doth say’


Frost 185 (6666D)


The Humble Sute of a Sinner

‘O Lord of whom I do depend’

J. Marckant

Frost 8 (D.C.M.)


The tunes are identified by reference to M. Frost: English and Scottish Psalm and Hymn Tunes c1543–1677 (London, 1953), with the metres in brackets

These nine hymns formed an almost unvarying part of the text of the metrical psalter throughout the rest of the 16th and 17th centuries, and tended to retain their tunes even when the tunes of many of the psalms were altered – for example in East’s and Ravenscroft’s harmonized psalters (1592; 1621) and in Playford’s musical revision of the standard psalm book (1661). Several of the hymns were popular in domestic use, and there is evidence that Samuel’s communion hymn was widely adopted for singing during the administration of the sacrament.

The more general use of hymns, when it came, grew out of increasing dissatisfaction with the metrical psalm as a vehicle for congregational religious feeling. The purpose of the metrical psalms had been the utilitarian one of converting Old Testament verse into a form in which it could be sung by the people, while adhering as closely as possible to the original text. They were not literal enough for some extreme Puritan sects, and they were not literary enough for cultured Anglicans. As the zeal of the original reformers diminished, and particularly after the Presbyterians left the Church of England in 1662, there was mounting criticism of the crudity and inadequacy of the texts of the metrical psalms. This was coupled with the feeling that many of the psalms were unsuited to current conditions, and that none contained direct acknowledgment of Christian revelation, however much they might be interpreted as Christian prophecy. As an intermediate step a number of freer translations of the psalms were issued: some, such as Matthew Parker’s (c1565), George Wither’s (1632), George Sandys’s (1638) and Tate and Brady’s New Version (1696), remained faithful to the original but sought to improve the literary standard of the verse. Other translations, beginning with John Patrick’s (1679) and culminating in Isaac Watts’s The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), consciously reinterpreted the psalms in evangelical terms. Richard Baxter, in Six Centuries of Select Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1688), freely selected passages from Old and New Testaments and wove them into hymn-like verse. In such compromises it is difficult to say where paraphrase ends and free composition begins: the distinction between hymns and psalms became blurred. Although much devotional poetry was written during the century after Elizabeth’s accession, some of which has found its way into present-day hymnbooks, none was intended for liturgical use, with the sole exception of George Wither’s The Hymnes and Songs of the Church (1623). This was planned to complement the Prayer Book services and included hymns for festivals and holy days. Although Wither obtained from James I a unique patent requiring that the book be bound up with every copy of the metrical psalms, its circulation was defeated by the action of the Stationers’ Company and it was soon a dead letter. Its chief interest today lies in the tunes composed for it by Orlando Gibbons, several of which are now in common use.

After the Restoration in 1660 a number of writers of differing denominations began to compose hymns with some intention of liturgical use. The Roman Catholic John Austin’s Devotions, in the Ancient Way of Offices (Paris, 1668) was an influential book, and was heavily drawn on by John Playford for his Psalms and Hymns in Solemn Music (1671), in which hymns were interspersed among metrical psalms in the evident hope that they might be tried out in church as well as at home. Thomas Ken wrote his famous Morning and Evening Hymns (and his Midnight Hymn) for the use of the scholars of Winchester College in a direct and simple style suggested by the models of the Roman Breviary; they were published in 1694. On the Puritan side the most important writer was John Mason, whose Spiritual Songs (1683) had great influence among Dissenters.

The liturgical use of hymns at this period, however, was inhibited by various theological and political circumstances. In the Church of England a period of reaction had set in: Sternhold and Hopkins’s psalms were associated, like the Book of Common Prayer with which they were frequently bound, with the restored establishment of Church and State, and it was long before any innovation could make headway. Even the New Version of the psalms encountered great opposition from bishops, clergy and people. However, the Supplement to the New Version of the Psalms, issued by Tate and Brady (1700), eventually proved a popular and permanent addition to the psalms. Although few new hymns were included (six in 1700, nine in the sixth edition of 1708) they had the important advantage of authorization by the queen in council on 30 July 1703. One of them, While shepherds watched, is the earliest strictly Anglican hymn that has remained popular. The tunes printed in the early editions of the Supplement were entirely those of the Old Version, but in 1708 a large group of new tunes appeared, including some excellent ones attributed to Croft (‘Hanover’ and ‘St Anne’ among them). Meanwhile Henry Playford’s Divine Companion (1701) had provided many new hymns and tunes by Blow, Clarke, Croft and others, explicitly designed for parish churches in which volunteer choirs were beginning to be formed. The anonymous publication Lyra Davidica (1709) introduced the Easter hymn Jesus Christ is risen today, which was soon in widespread Anglican use; hymns were also sung at Whitsun and other major feast days, and on royal and national occasions. Opposition to hymn singing in the established Church remained strong, however, throughout the 18th century. In the hundreds of collections issued for parish church use there are very few new hymn texts. There was, on the other hand, a considerable development in hymn and psalm tunes (see Psalms, metrical, §III, 4, (iii)).

Among Dissenters, including the Presbyterians ejected in 1662, singing of all kinds was hampered until 1689 by the fact that meetings were generally illegal and had to be held in secret. Nevertheless many Presbyterian leaders, led by Richard Baxter, advocated the use of hymns as well as metrical psalms. The Independents also began to add hymns to psalms during the last decade of the 17th century. Among the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists, a controversy on the validity of singing in worship was set off by the action of Benjamin Keach in introducing hymns at his meeting-house in Bristol – first (c1675) after Communion only, later (c1690) at every Sunday service. At the extreme of nonconformism, the General Baptists joined the Quakers in outlawing singing of any kind in public worship, on the grounds that the singing of other men’s words and tunes could not possibly represent that spontaneous speaking from the heart that they conceived to be the only form of worship valid under the New Covenant.

It was an Independent, Isaac Watts (1674–1748), who took the decisive step towards the foundation of an English hymnody which would ultimately prevail over psalmody. His work was the culmination of the 17th-century movement away from literal psalm versifications. He embarked on a thorough reform of congregational song texts, based on the fundamental principle that church song should express the thoughts and feelings of the singers. (This of course was incompatible with the Calvinistic belief in literal translation of the inspired texts.) The psalms, if used at all, must be made appropriate to modern Christian use: this object was achieved in Watts’s The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). Beyond this, Watts provided in Horae lyricae (1705) and in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) as complete and comprehensive a set of hymns as had ever been proposed for English worship. Most of the hymns were written between 1694 and 1696. They were all in the three commonest psalm metres and were evidently designed to be sung with the old psalm tunes. Watts had no wish to reform the tunes, but he strongly advocated a faster pace and a heartier manner of singing them.

The popularity of Watts’s hymns and psalms in his own Independent (later Congregationalist) society amounted to domination for more than a century; among Baptists and Presbyterians it was hardly less. Their influence in America was as great and as lasting as in Britain, and when at length they were admitted into the Church of England, a number of them became, and have remained, among the greatest favourites (e.g. O God, our help in ages past).

3. The modern English hymn.

  • Nicholas Temperley

The hymns of John Wesley (see Wesley family, §1 and Wesley family, §2) and his brother Charles began a new era in the history of the English hymn, in which words and tune were alike aimed to arouse the emotions of a religiously awakened congregation. Watts had merely written hymns; but the Wesleys made hymns a central feature of their worship (See Methodist church music). They designed their hymns, and (after its first years) their whole ministry, chiefly for the lower classes; yet their own cultivated background, pardoxically, favoured both literary and musical idioms that were not well suited to that end. The first Wesleyan hymns were written in the 1730s under the strong influence of Watts and of the Moravians (see Moravians, music of the); in time the brothers produced a body of several thousand covering every aspect of religious and secular life.

Until his death in 1791 John Wesley kept a tight control over the hymn singing of his movement, and laid down the tunes to be used and the manner of singing them as well as the texts. A new type of tune, explicitly associated with these hymns as opposed to the metrical psalms, came into use. Many of the hymns were in unconventional metres, more particularly the trochaic metres (e.g. Jesu, lover of my soul). J.F. Lampe’s collection of 24 of Charles Wesley’s hymns with his own tunes (1746) was the first distinctively Methodist collection of hymn melodies printed; eventually some of these tunes with others approved by Wesley were gathered in Sacred Melody (1761), the official tune book of the Methodists (102 tunes in all; fig.2 ). Wesley disapproved of the older psalm tunes as dull and formal, but he also disliked the florid type of tune that had recently become popular in Anglican country psalmody, particularly the fuging-tunes. Many of the early Methodist tunes are in the galant style of the day, reminiscent of concert or theatre music; some were actually adapted from secular tunes. It was this worldly modern flavour that shocked many churchmen of the time, but it conflicted with no principle that Wesley held dear, and it served to bring religious music into the realm of contemporary tastes. The Methodists quickly gained a reputation for the warmth and heartiness of their singing, which was due partly to the choice of tunes but more especially to the attitude towards singing that Wesley himself had taught them. Everyone joined in, all stood up, and an invigorating pace was adopted in place of the slower tempo of the psalm tunes. Often the meetings were in the open air, and there was never any organ or other accompaniment. The spectacle of hundreds of people singing such hymns with unabashed fervour proved irresistible to many, and helped to draw hundreds of thousands away from the established Church.

Hymn 70 from John Wesley’s ‘Sacred Melody’ (London, 2/1765)

The Church was slow to take up the challenge. Throughout the 18th century individual clergymen were continually calling for improvements in church music, but the majority were indifferent: many did not even reside in their parishes. Improvement when it came was due to the small band of Evangelical clergy, at first closely linked with the Methodists, who were determined that the worship of God should be conducted with genuine feeling. The lead was first taken in several charitable institutions (the chapels of the Foundling, Lock and Magdalen hospitals) that were not under diocesan control; these were followed by licensed proprietary chapels, such as the Surrey Chapel, where Rowland Hill was minister from 1783 to 1833. Progress in parish churches was more difficult because of the general belief that only metrical psalms had scriptural and legal authority. Even some Evangelicals, of whom William Romaine was the most prominent, felt unable to abandon the Old Version. Others introduced more modern translations (such as those of Watts or Merrick), and by slow degrees the singing of hymns became more common. In 1791 editions of the New Version began to include a number of additional hymns in their appendix. Meanwhile William Cowper, John Newton and Hill, among other Evangelicals, contributed some distinguished hymns to the Anglican repertory. In the matter of tunes there was less reason for caution, and many tunes of the ‘Methodist’ type became popular in the established Church towards the end of the 18th century. The larger parish churches acquired organs, disbanding the singers and instrumentalists in the west gallery; and a few enthusiastic clergymen, such as Munkhouse of St John’s, Wakefield, and W.D. Tattersall of Wotton-under-Edge, began to train choirs to lead the congregation instead of attempting elaborate music of their own.

The introduction of hymns proceeded rapidly in several town churches in Yorkshire, where the Evangelicals were strongest, during the early years of the 19th century. The question of their legality came to a head in 1819, when Thomas Cotterill, vicar of St Paul’s, Sheffield, introduced his own Selection of Psalms and Hymns, including a number of hymns by the Moravian James Montgomery that have since become some of the best-known in the language. Some of the congregation rebelled to the point of taking Cotterill to court. The case of Holy and Ward versus Cotterill was heard on 6 July 1820 in the Consistory Court of the province of York. The chancellor (G.V. Vernon) concluded that even the king in council could not, under a strict interpretation of the Acts of Uniformity, alter the liturgy by allowing the use of either metrical psalms or hymns in church; but he declined to implement his judgment since the singing of psalms and hymns was so well established. By consent of the parties the question was referred to the archbishop, who ‘undertook to compile a new Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Mr. Cotterill’s Church’. This bizarre action had the important effect of determining that in practice any hymns or psalms could be introduced in a parish church at the discretion of the incumbent. The new position was ably set forth by Jonathan Gray, who had recently compiled his own selection of hymns for use in several York churches.

This development made possible a great flowering of English hymnody in which the established Church took over the lead from the Dissenting bodies. The Romantic movement stimulated concern for the poetic merit of hymns and an interest in the medieval hymns of the Roman Church: both are reflected in Bishop Heber’s Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year (1827). Frere called Heber ‘the creator of the modern church hymn-book’. The effort to apportion hymns to specific liturgical functions in the church services and calendar was not new, but it was given new emphasis by the men of the Oxford Movement. The extreme point was reached in the Hymnal Noted (1851, 1854), edited mainly by J.M. Neale, which consisted entirely of versions of Latin hymns, designed for use as Office hymns within the Anglican Church despite the fact that Office hymns had no part in the authorized liturgy. The music was drawn chiefly from plainchant, with a preference for the Sarum melodies; they were provided with a harmonized accompaniment. The best-known hymn of this new type is perhaps O come, O come, Emmanuel. Meanwhile other tastes and other sections of the Church produced their own hymnbooks. The Evangelical tradition was maintained by Edward Bickersteth’s Christian Psalmody (1833), later augmented in his son Edward H. Bickersteth’s Psalms and Hymns (1858). Charles Kemble’s Selection of Psalms and Hymns (1853) was an old-fashioned low-church production, ignoring recent developments; middle ground was occupied by the Hymns of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), expanded in 1871 into Church Hymns with Sullivan as musical editor. Frances E. Cox’s Sacred Hymns from the German (1841) initiated a new interest in the old Lutheran chorales and their tunes, which culminated in Catherine Winkworth’s Chorale Book for England (1863) for which William Sterndale Bennett edited the music. Other musical editors, led by William Cross (1818) and followed by John Goss (1827) and William Crotch (1836), had begun a movement to restore the early English psalm tunes in pure and unadorned form. With the rise of musical scholarship many other sources from the past were tapped for textual and musical materials. The early and mid-Victorian periods witnessed an unparalleled amount of activity in the composition, rediscovery, arrangement and publication of hymn texts and tunes. Much of it was frankly commercial, and there was an unedifying stampede to commission hymns and tunes from well-known authors and composers, and to get selections adopted by fashionable churches and recommended by bishops. The advertising of hymnbooks reached phenomenal heights at this period. Sales were enormously increased by the growing (and not always disinterested) insistence by the clergy that parishes provide hymnbooks for every member of the congregation. William Mercer took this a stage further in his Church Psalter and Hymn Book (1854) by issuing an edition with the unharmonized tunes as well as the words, so that all could have the tunes before them – for the first time since the last musical edition of the Old Version (1688). At this same period the trend towards the ‘proper’ tune (that is, a tune permanently associated with a particular hymn) became decisive.

The climax of all these tendencies – theological, aesthetic, practical and commercial – was the publication of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861. The initial impetus was Anglo-Catholic, but the committee formed under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Baker wisely decided to make the book a comprehensive one, including the most popular hymns of all shades of opinion provided they attained an acceptable standard. They eliminated much possible competition by pooling the resources of several men who were planning to publish their own selections. The success of the book was without parallel. By 1869 the annual sale was about half a million copies. By 1873 over 30% of London parish churches had adopted it; by 1881 the proportion was closer to 70%, with the SPCK Church Hymns the only serious rival. An official inquiry in 1895 showed that about 75% of churches throughout England had adopted Hymns Ancient and Modern, and by 1912 no fewer than 60 million copies had been sold.

Though comprehensive in its selection, the book preserved its Anglo-Catholic tone and probably did more than anything else to spread the ideas of the Oxford Movement so widely that many of them became imperceptibly a part of the tradition of the Church as a whole. At the same time the book rapidly popularized a new and distinctively Victorian type of hymn tune, of which John Bacchus Dykes produced the largest number as well as the most characteristic examples. Dykes’s tunes were simple, often making use of rhetorical devices of repetition and climax borrowed from instrumental music, and supported by richly emotional harmonies. They took full advantage of the new conditions in which parish congregations enjoyed the support of a full choir and organ: they could be sung at a much faster pace than had been common a generation earlier, and could make use of dynamic changes suited to the words, which were actually marked in the texts of the hymns. Dykes’s tunes exactly met the need of the time, and they were very popular. Indeed the music was probably the main ingredient in the success of the book. Heber had published his Holy, holy, holy in 1826, Newman his Lead, kindly light in 1833. But it was not until they were matched to Dykes’s tunes that they became two of the most popular hymns in the English language (the same was true of Abide with me, set to W.H. Monk’s tune ‘Eventide’). Hymns Ancient and Modern became an influence far beyond the boundaries of the Church of England. But it was the tunes that were first adopted by Welsh Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians and American Lutherans; the words followed later.

Within a generation Hymns Ancient and Modern had overcome almost all its rivals, and had caused the abandonment of plans to develop an authorized hymnal for the Church of England. In the last decades of the 19th century there was a consequential drop in the output of both hymns and tunes. A distinctive contribution was made by the many hymnbooks compiled for schools, which naturally emphasized literary and scholarly values. On the other hand, popular evangelistic hymns, brought in from the USA by Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, were produced in great numbers by the Salvation Army and similar bodies. The nonconformist churches compiled their own official selections, all profoundly influenced by the new catholic spirit proclaimed in Hymns Ancient and Modern.

The Victorian hymn long remained the norm. Most of the developments in art music of the 20th century have been of a kind that cannot successfully be applied to congregational singing. The one important exception is the recognition of popular music in all forms as a legitimate element in serious music, and also in worship. The first step in this direction was taken in The English Hymnal (1906), a book designed on high-church principles and with loftier artistic standards than perhaps any previous general collection, but which nevertheless struck a blow against snobbery by including among its tunes not only a number of popular English carols and folksongs and several Welsh Methodist tunes, but even five hymns whose words and music were taken straight from Philip P. Bliss and Sankey’s 1875 collection of Gospel Hymns (see §4 below). The freshness of the musical settings by Vaughan Williams was a particularly strong point of the new hymnal, which might well have superseded Hymns Ancient and Modern if its extreme theological position had not offended many sections of the Church. Percy Dearmer, one of the editors of The English Hymnal, compiled a second excellent collection, Songs of Praise (1925), in a more ecumenical spirit that suited its time. Musically however it was more dogmatic than its predecessors, deliberately omitting Victorian favourites and substituting ‘modal’ tunes by Shaw and Holst that have not replaced them in popular esteem.

The period beginning in the late 1960s has seen an upheaval and renovation of English hymnody. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council authorized congregational hymn singing in the vernacular for the first time, and a distinctive output of English Catholic hymns and tunes has resulted, with some influence of popular music. On the Protestant side, the campaigns of Billy Graham and the charismatic movement, both of which have affected Evangelical Anglicans as well as a number of nonconformist groups, have fostered an informal style of singing, with commonplace, everyday language, playing to the feelings rather than the intellect. The tunes are repetitive and simple enough for everyone to learn them quickly, in popular musical idioms ranging from light classical to hard rock; the organ is replaced by groups of instruments, generally including guitars; clapping and bodily movement are encouraged. The resulting forms have come to be known as ‘worship songs’ rather than ‘hymns’.

There has been a strong reaction to these popularizing trends. The ‘mainline’ liberal Protestant Churches, led by middle-of-the-road Anglicans, Congregationalists and Methodists, have wished to counter the steep decline in attendance by the younger generation. They have sought a renewal of the traditional hymn in forms that speak to the present age without loss of quality. A group of hymn writers, led by Fred Prat Green, Brian Wren and Timothy Dudley-Smith, have developed a style that is determinedly modern in its language, but which, unlike the ‘worship song’, addresses serious theological and social issues and maintains a high standard of prosody and poetic diction. The new hymns appeared first in two supplements to standard books, both appearing in 1969: 100 Hymns for Today supplementing Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised (1950), and Hymns and Songs supplementing The Methodist Hymn Book (1933). Later, these were consolidated with their parent books. The Baptists, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland also brought out revised editions of their denominational hymnals.

This movement, although it met with much criticism, was an outstanding success, so much so that it has been called the ‘Hymn Explosion’. It has been widely influential throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. Hustad (1982) conceded that the ‘Explosion’ was British in origin, and in a 1991 survey of ten leading American hymnals, Hawn found that 13 of the 16 new hymns most widely reprinted were by British authors; Green has been called the greatest Methodist hymn writer since Charles Wesley. The revolution amounts to the discovery of a way of using language that is modern but also suited to worship, so that the familiar ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of traditional hymnody can be abandoned.

For new hymns, the modernizing principle offends none but the diehard conservative. But some hymnals, beginning with Hymns for Today’s Church (1982), have applied it retroactively, by ruthlessly rewriting old hymns until all traces of archaism are removed. This has met with stout opposition. More recently, under American influence, ‘inclusive language’ has been attempted, removing all gender connotations from references to humanity, or even to God. Few traditional hymns are entirely free of the words ‘Lord’, ‘Father’, ‘brother’, ‘mankind’ and similar expressions, and some editors have attempted to expunge all such words. But it has been pointed out with justice that when these words are replaced (and the consequential adjustments to the verse are made) the poetry becomes so mutilated that little is left of the author’s conception and style. In some quarters there have also been efforts to banish metaphors of race, class and militarism, which were common in Victorian hymns. From Greenland’s icy mountains, All things bright and beautiful and Onward, Christian soldiers are either thrown out or distinctly altered. But congregations will not easily give up what they have always known. The modernizers risk depriving the Church of its most faithful followers, the traditionalists.

Music has naturally played a less critical part in these very difficult issues. But composers have faced an analogous challenge. They have had to find a style for hymn tunes that is not commercial or cheaply popular, is readily singable by everyone, and yet sounds modern and stimulating. Some have succeeded, but a school of modern hymn tune composition, if it exists, cannot yet be clearly discerned. Old tunes (say, pre-1939) remain the preferred choice for most ‘mainline’ congregations. But in revising and re-harmonizing them, in the hope of making them sound more modern, editors run the same risk as text revisers: that they may produce a useless hybrid, lacking both the authority of age and the thrill of novelty. Erik Routley and John Wilson are two leading hymn tune editors who have generally succeeded in avoiding this trap.

4. The American hymn.

  • Harry Eskew

European settlers, motivated by wealth, adventure and freedom, took with them to the North American continent their culture, including their heritage of church song. The English and the Dutch brought metrical psalms while the Germans imported chorales. As a result of the Great Awakening in the colonies from the 1730s, many congregations began singing Isaac Watts’s psalms and hymns. Although John Wesley’s first hymnal, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, was published in Charleston, South Carolina, as early as 1737, his more influential later collections were reprinted in America and introduced by the English evangelist George Whitefield during his visits to the colonies. Other significant English evangelical collections reprinted in America include those of Whitefield (1753, reprinted 1765), John Newton and William Cowper (1779, 1787), and John Rippon (1787, 1792). American congregations sang mainly psalms and hymns from Europe for about two centuries before they began to develop a significant repertory of their own hymn texts.

The first American contributions to hymnody were musical, coming through the singing-school movement, which by the late 18th century produced the first native composers. From this movement came the earliest American hymn tune in common use, Oliver Holden’s ‘Coronation’ (All hail the power of Jesus’ name), published in his Union Harmony (Boston, 1793). By the second decade of the 19th century the centre of the singing-school movement had moved from the North-east to the South and Mid-west. The development of shape notes about 1800 fostered a simplified approach to music reading, and singing-school tune books in shape-note notation added to the New England repertory (psalm and hymn tunes, fuging-tunes and anthems) folk hymns with texts and/or tunes derived from oral tradition, such as the melody to Newton’s Amazing Grace, called ‘New Britain’. Shape-note tune books appearing in multiple editions include Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony (Harrisonburg, VA, 1816), Allen D. Carden’s Missouri Harmony (Cincinnati and St Louis, 1820), William Walker’s Southern Harmony (Spartanburg, SC, 1835) and Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King’s The Sacred Harp (Hamilton, GA, 1844). Folk hymnody in simplified form with refrains and other repetitions developed during the Second Great Awakening from about 1800 in frontier areas. These folk hymn texts, widely known as spirituals, were published first in pocket-size songsters and later with harmonized tunes in shape-note tune books of the singing school. Spirituals were developed by both Euro-Americans and African Americans during that period, but the first collection of Negro spirituals did not appear in print until shortly after the Civil War. Both of these traditions of folk hymnody found a firm place in 20th-century congregational song in the USA.

While folk hymnody was flourishing in the South during the decades before the Civil War, Lowell Mason, Thomas Hastings and others in the Northeast were leading a reform movement advocating music based on European models. Typical of this approach is the tune ‘Antioch’ (Joy to the World), based on themes from Handel’s Messiah and long attributed to Mason. (John Wilson discovered that it originated in British psalmody books, where it was printed without attribution in 1834; see Wilson.) On the opposite side was Joshua Leavitt, whose Christian Lyre (New York, 1831) included hymn texts set to tunes with secular associations. Mason’s influence on the music of American hymnody remains probably the greatest of any single composer.

During the 19th century denominational hymnals were increasingly published, and a number of writers of hymn texts and tunes emerged. Representative texts and tunes include the Congregationalist Ray Palmer’s My faith looks up to thee (to Mason’s ‘Olivet’), the Episcopalian Phillips Brooks’s O little town of Bethlehem (to Lewis Redner’s ‘St Louis’), and the Presbyterian George Duffield jr’s Stand up, stand up for Jesus (to George J. Webb’s ‘Webb’). New denominations developed their own hymnody as well. The Mormons, for example, issued their first hymnal, by Emma Smith, the wife of their founder, as early as 1836 (see Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, music of the).

From about the mid-century numerous collections were published for the rapidly growing Sunday schools, containing hymns in popular idioms designed for immediate appeal to children. A representative leading publisher-composer of Sunday school hymnody is William B. Bradbury, composer of the tune ‘China’ to Anna Warner’s children’s hymn Jesus loves me, this I know. The prolific author of popular texts, Fanny Jane Crosby, is one of several of the most prominent contributors to Sunday school hymnody who also contributed to the hymns of the urban revival movement from the 1870s.

The leading evangelist of the urban revival movement, Dwight L. Moody, employed several musicians who were gifted in composing words and/or tunes to hymns in popular styles that from the mid-1870s came to be known as gospel hymns or gospel songs. These included Philip P. Bliss, Ira D. Sankey, James McGranahan, and George C. Stebbins, whose publications culminated in Gospel Hymns Nos. 1–6 Complete (New York and Cincinnati, 1894). This tradition continued in the early 20th century in the musical evangelism of Charles McC. Alexander, Homer A. Rodeheaver and others. A leading gospel hymnodist whose work spans both eras was Charles H. Gabriel, author-composer of I stand amazed in the presence (1905).

Further developments of the gospel hymn tradition include the shape-note gospel song of the South related to the singing school and singing conventions, such as Anthony J. Showalter’s setting of Leaning on the everlasting arms (1887). The African-American tradition of gospel hymnody developed from the early decades of the 20th century, led by such author-composers as Charles A. Tindley (We’ll understand it better by and by, 1905) and Thomas A. Dorsey (Precious Lord, take my hand, 1932).

Alongside these gospel traditions has developed an American ‘churchly’ tradition of hymnody published in major denominational hymnals. 20th-century hymns of ecumenical acceptance include Henry Van Dyke’s Joyful, joyful, we adore thee (1907, set to a melody from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) and Harry Emerson Fosdick’s God of grace and God of glory (1930, set to the Welsh tune ‘Cwm Rhondda’). A hymn known as the ‘black national anthem’ that has more recently gained a place in major American hymnals is Lift every voice and sing (1901) by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by J. Rosamond Johnson. America had even more writers of music than of words in the 20th century. Unlike the hymn texts, however, the tunes did not gain ecumenical acceptance. American hymn tunes of wide acceptance in the latter half of the century include Carl Schalk’s ‘Now’ (1968, to Jaroslav Vajda’s Now the silence), Richard Dirkson’s ‘Vineyard Haven’ (1972, to Edward Plumptree’s Rejoice, ye pure in heart) and Carlton R. Young’s ‘Beginnings’ (1987, to Brian Wren’s This is the day of new beginnings).

After the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) the Roman Catholic change to the vernacular and emphasis on active participation in worship resulted in a period of experimentation in congregational singing. The new hymns ranged from formal hymnody to folklike songs designed to be sung to guitar accompaniment. Both Catholic and Protestant denominations were affected from about 1970 by charismatic renewal movements whose focus was on miniature hymns marked by brevity and simplicity. Charismatic movements favoured scriptural songs and choruses, such as Karen Lafferty’s popular setting of Seek ye first (1972). Another trend in American congregational song found in major hymnals from the closing decades of the century is the increased inclusion of hymnody from non-European cultures, including African, Latin American, Asian and Amerindian song. A significant influence in encouraging hymn singing and the writing of new hymns is the organization founded in 1922 as the Hymn Society of America, known from 1989 as the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. Hymn writing in Canada flourished especially in the latter half of the 20th century. The work of a large number of Canadian hymnodists was first published in The Hymn Book (Toronto, 1971) of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. One ecumenically accepted hymn of Canadian authorship is O day of God draw nigh (1939) by Robert B.Y. Scott.


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  • M. Hicks : Mormonism and Music (Urbana, IL, 1989)
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  • H. Eskew and H.T. McElrath : Sing with Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Hymnology (Nashville, TN, 2/1995)
  • A. Luff : ‘The Hymn Explosion after 25 Years’, The Hymn, 46/2 (1995), 6–15
  • I. Bradley : Abide with me: the World of Victorian Hymns (London, 1997)
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  • T. McCart: The Matter and Manner of Praise: The Controversial Evolution of Hymnody in the Church of England 1760–1820 (Lanham, MD, 1998)
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