3737 Seminary Road Alexandria, VA 22304
New Electronic Hymnal from VTS Library
by the Rev. William Bradley Roberts, associate professor of Church Music

Over the last few months the staff of the Bishop Payne Library (in particular Sarah Glenn and Patricia Burke) have labored arduously to produce an electronic version of an important 1899 hymnal, long out of print.  What is this hymnal, and why is it significant enough to warrant so much effort?

British poet laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) surveyed the hymnody of late 19-century England and determined it to be in a sorry state.  Choral and organ music had enjoyed a Renaissance in the wake of the Oxford Movement (beginning in 1833) but Victorian hymn tunes, Bridges opined, were sentimental and lacking in musical quality.  Bridges, an established poet and sometime music director of village choirs, resolved to do something about it.

Taking in hand the distinguished Hymns Ancient and Modern (first edition 1861), Bridges, along with his friend, Oxford professor H. Ellis Wooldridge, spent the years 1895 to 1899 rescuing texts, in his opinion, from inferior tunes. Bridges was highly subjective, sometimes discarding tunes that musicians today find quite acceptable. When he felt it was needed, Bridges translated hymns, some of them previously unavailable to English speakers. Beyond just collecting and translating, however, Bridges crafted new texts, bringing his considerable poetic skill to bear. Despite his primary focus on tunes, it is his texts that have lasted, passing from one hymnal to the next.

One of his hymns, for example, that has become a classic is “All my hope on God is founded.” It is usually sung to the beautiful tune Michael by Herbert Howells, one of the finest Anglican composers of the twentieth century. Bridges has six other texts in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 including “Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,” “O sacred head, sore wounded” and “When morning gilds the skies,” all translations of German texts.

When Robert Bridges had assembled what he felt was a satisfactory collection, he named the new book the Yattendon Hymnal after the small town where he had directed the parish choir. For decades the book has been unavailable to church musicians and hymnologists, copies existing in only a few libraries. When the odd volume has been offered for sale by used books stores, it has sold for as much as $5,000.

In consultation with head librarian Dr. Mitzi Budde, I first thought that we would seek a grant to print copies of the Yattendon Hymnal in an elegant facsimile edition. There were, however, several problems with this approach. Not only would it have been a remarkably expensive project, but also the individual copies would have sold for several hundred dollars, putting the book out of reach of many who needed it.

Looking for an alternate approach to the facsimile, we decided instead to make digital photos of each page in the hymnal, storing the material in an electronic data base. After determining that there was no copyright encumbrance, we needed to locate a fair copy of the Yattendon Hymnal that was free of marks or deterioration.

Another consideration was that the first edition had errors in it that were corrected in the second edition. Did we want the original version, so that readers could see the book exactly as it first appeared, or did we want the subsequent printing with corrections? The decision was hastened by the fact that, in the first edition copy we were able to obtain, someone had taken a pen and corrected the mistakes, exactly as they were instructed to do in the errata sheet. This meant, then, that our original version had been altered by hand. We opted for the second edition, which is essentially the same as the first, but with all the corrections made in print.

I came to know the Yattendon Hymnal through my friend and colleague Carl P. Daw, Jr. The Rev. Dr. Daw, an Episcopal priest and a venerable writer of hymns, is executive director of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. He and I were working on a Festschrift (a collection of essays and studies written to honor someone) on the occasion of the 90th birthday of a distinguished church musician. While my part was composing an anthem and a new hymn tune, Daw’s contribution was a scholarly essay on the Yattendon Hymnal. Thus I came to know Robert Bridges’ collection. Daw, who in May was awarded an honorary doctorate from Virginia Seminary, graciously agreed to write an introduction to our publication of the hymnal.

Having previously known Bridges as a poet, I was most eager to know more about Yattendon. Discovering that it was largely unavailable led to investigating the possibilities of reissuing it. Not only is the Yattendon Hymnal now in print, but it can be accessed by anyone in the world who has a computer and an internet connection. It is our hope that scholars and hymnal compilers will find it a rich treasure, full of inspiration and insight.

You can download a copy of the Yattendon Hymnal, as well as Carl Daw’s introduction and analysis of the contents by going to the VTS website http://www.vts.edu, clicking Bishop Payne Library, then catalog and electronic texts, then electronic texts. This will take you to the Yattendon Hymnal, which is easily recognizable by the picture of Robert Bridges, copied above.