I was working on a paper this week about C. Hubert H. Parry, the English composer and musicologist, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of his pupils (who is now much more famous). Parry, along with Charles Stanford, was known in the early 20th century as one of the musicians involved in the "new English renaissance," who helped to move music past the Victorian age. In 1904, Parry and Stanford edited the venerable Hymns Ancient and Modern 0f the Anglican Church, first published in 1861. The previous edition, of 1875, was incredibly popular and in fact is still in print.
The A&M new edition, however, pretty well tanked. People had been using the earlier editions for 43 and 29 years, and were slow to change. Further, the new edition restored earlier texts which were unfamiliar, such as "Hark, how all the welkin rings" as opposed to "Hark, the herald angels sing." Parry did not include many of his own tunes in this selection, instead doing extensive historical research and using post-Victorian tunes, both new and re-used older ones.
Vaughan Williams, in 1904, was asked to edit The English Hymnal, which task he accepted although an aganostic. Vaughan Williams took the route of including four of his own tunes, using French and Welsh tunes, as well as bringing English folk tunes into use in the hymnal, a subject that was a major research interest for him. Further, he used art songs for the basis of many tunes in the hymnal, giving it a wide musical gamut and making it a very influential hymnal for the English speaking world. His tunes which were included in this hymnal and its 1933 edition are almost all well-known, among them SINE NOMINE, DOWN AMPNEY, SALVE FESTA DIES, and KING'S WESTON.
What has really made me consider these composers' contributions is what I am working on today, which is some hymns of the American William Howard Doane, who wrote many gospel songs as well as edited many hymnals. The hymnals that Doane edited all included many of his own hymntunes (especially the Sunday School hymnals, but that was standard practice). The Baptist Hymnal, 1883, which was Doane's biggest work as editor, includes 35 of his hymns. Some of his more famous tunes are included, among them "Rescue the Perishing" and "Near the Cross."
Vaughan Williams has remained fairly famous throughout the last century, especially for SINE NOMINE, "For All the Saints." Very few people know Doane, although they might know some of his tunes, and fewer still know Parry, although they might recognize JERUSALEM, whether from the end of Chariots of Fire or from ELP's Brain Salad Surgery.
What I've been thinking about, though, is why some composers are still known and others aren't. My idea is that most of the churches that would have sung Doane's works when they were new are now singing contemporary Christian music, and therefore have left Doane's works aside—as a gospel hymn composer, he was the "contemporary Christian music" of his day. Churches who would have sung Vaughan Williams when he was new are likely still singing him, as a musician of the more artsy type.
Parry, however, is interesting, because the two tunes that are the most famous of his, JERUSALEM, which is usually heavily British-nationalist, and REPTON, often joined with "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," were not composed for hymns at all. The former was written shortly before his death to accompany William Blake's "Preface to Milton," and the latter was from Parry's oratorio Judith. The tunes are musically interesting, very singable (even with a wide range and wide leaps), and tend to stick in your head (or, at least my head). They are well-known in Britain, from what I hear, but Americans seem to have little knowledge of them.
Why did Parry not write things like that for hymns, instead doing so for non-congregational usage? If he had written more tunes like these to include in A&M, would we know him much better, like Vaughan Williams? He had the ability, unless those two tunes are flukes. But, looking at some of his other tunes in The Hymnal, 1982, they don't seem terrrible, although possibly not quite as nice as these two. Why would a composer limit his music writing to be more simple when writing congregational song? Is the idea that congregations are not educated enough to follow more musically interesting tunes true? Or, should we look more at folk music traditions with their easily comprehended pentatonic scales, from which Vaughan Williams was heavily drawing and to which Parry's tunes have some similarities? Is it these folk characteristics that give some tunes such lasting power?