Landmarks in Scottish Church Music: The Monymusk Revival

Douglas Galbraith continues his series ‘Landmarks in Scottish Church Music’ by taking us through The Monymusk Revival.

If you were a member of an eighteenth century church choir, on practice night instead of 'I to the hills will lift mine eyes' you might find yourself singing this (try it!):

                                Our bodies are but brickle barks
                                which sweem the seas of fame;
                                and if by sloth we miss our aim
                                we'll sink in seas of shame.

In this way they avoided mere 'note-bashing' in the use of the sacred words that carried the people's deepest prayers to God in the context of Sunday worship. However, on the way home in the dark or in the hostelry afterwards, the humour, parody and ribaldry found generally in Scottish song at that time, might have found you singing (the sensitive and the impressionable may skip this one):

                                I wish my love was a red rose,
                                grown in my garden wall,
                                and I to be a drope o' dew;
                                upon her I would fall.

There was one practice-verse, however, a parody of Psalm 84, that carried a kernel of history, and it leads us straight to the theme of this article:

                                How lovely is thy dwelling place,
                                Sir Archie Grant, to me;
                                the home-park and the policies,
                                how pleasant, sir, they be.

During what Miller Patrick (Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody) has called 'the great eclipse' – which followed the publication of the Scottish Psalter of 1650, the first without tunes since the Reformation – when congregations' knowledge of the repertoire dwindled to the 'twelve tunes' or fewer, habits of singing had also changed. One was the imported practice from England (where, it is suggested, there were lower levels of literacy) of 'lining out', where each line was intoned for the congregation to repeat. This had the effect of slowing the performance of the music, as well as disrupting the flow of the sense. But the pace dropped still further as an epidemic of 'ornamentation' (think bagpipes and how players embellish a single note) invaded the tunes. Where did this come from? Was it because of the boredom arising from a very limited repertoire (the latter shared by the Precentors too, it has to be admitted)?  Or did the laboured pace of the singing drive precentors and people to create more interest in adding 'extra' to the basic notes of the melody? It is a practice which survives today, rather beautifully, in Hebridean congregations, but it fell out of favour on the mainland when decoration reached an excess. Robert Bremner in his Rudiments of Music of 1756 speaks of ‘nonsensical graces’, and tells of the precentor who insisted that the first note of the tune Elgin must have no fewer than eight quavers!

The revolution settlement of 1689 brought more social stability, and musical activity in the country generally began to increase. St Cecilia's Hall, still in use today, opened in the Cowgate in 1728 for performances of orchestral and choral works, bringing European composers and performers direct to the door. Millar Patrick quotes Smollett from his novel Humphry Clinker: ‘The Scots are all musicians. Every man you meet plays on the flute, the violin, or the violon cello, and there is one nobleman whose compositions are universally admired’ [this would be the Earl of Kellie]. By 1740 or so, the growing sophistication in music generally was showing the music of the church in rather a poor light.

The catalyst for change came from the small north eastern parish of Monymusk, where local landowner Sir Archibald Grant had established a choir. Psalms were not Grant’s only enthusiasm; an innovative agriculturalist, he was responsible for the planting of trees where there were none before, including many species not so far known in Scotland, and he was behind the development of local industries, including the polishing of the granite for which Aberdeen is now famous. His pioneering work with the local choir 'went viral' when he appointed as choirmaster a certain Thomas Channon, an English soldier based at Aberdeen. The instructions given to him are evidence of the kind of problems being experienced at the time. Channon was to recover the old and introduce the best of the new. He was to teach the tune without excessive ornamentation. Harmonies were to add grandeur and solemnity.

Channon with his choir famously gave a demonstration of the new style one Sunday morning in 1755 in the Kirk of St. Nicholas, the Toon Kirk of Aberdeen. In spite of being condemned as ‘a new-fangled profanation’ and rated by one commentator as a worse disaster than the 1745 rebellion, the new ways were warmly and widely embraced. Channon was a Methodist who knew the English West Gallery style, a style of singing which is coming back into vogue today, at least among enthusiasts. In the earlier years, the harmony was usually three-part, there were solo sections, there were staggered and fugal entries, dotted notes, and changes in rhythm which gave the settings bounce and pace. Such was the enthusiasm that it became common for ‘singing lofts’ to be installed in churches to house the burgeoning number of choir members (in Huntly divided into three, to house separately those who sang the treble, the tenor and the bass).

The enthusiasm spread. Soon afterwards, eight ‘classes’ in psalm singing were established in Edinburgh, regulated by a committee of the great and the good who also sanctioned any new tunes sung in the parish kirks. For its part, Glasgow opened a ‘free school... to encourage and promote the improvement of church music’. It is noteworthy that the teachers appointed by each city had to be sourced from Durham and Manchester. This search for new knowledge was very much of its time. Although the eighteenth century had begun under the shadow of intolerance, with trials for heresy and witchcraft and the purging from their parishes of clergy who could not embrace presbyterianism, the strong system of schooling and the progressiveness of the universities had contributed to what was later dubbed ‘the Scottish enlightenment’. With several of its pioneers coming from Scotland’s manses, this movement broke new ground in law, sociology and philosophy, while at the same time producing the classic order and symmetry of Edinburgh’s New Town. Universities were reaching out into their communities with popular lectures to eager audiences. (See further T.M.Devine, The Scottish Nation: 1700-2000).

However, throughout the period there was growing discomfort at the restrictiveness of the psalms as the sole diet, because ‘the solemn praises of a New Testament Church are too much limited when confined entirely to... Old Testament composures’, to quote the minute of the Presbytery of Paisley from 1747. Part of the answer was already on the way, namely the publication by the General Assembly of the Scottish Paraphrases, a unique group of 67 portions of Scripture, of which 35 were from the New Testament. These were luminous biblical passages which 'had music in them' and demanded to be sung. They were very much like the psalms in sound and shared the same tunes, but at least you could now sing of the Resurrection.

Some of these had English originals, by such writers as Philip Doddridge and Isaac Watts who began their hymn writing careers by sticking very close to the words of Scripture, but all these originals were 'made over' and many were freshly composed by the Assembly's committee. One writer was a young man who died at the age of 21 but not before he had written enough material to become widely known as the 'Gentle Poet of Loch Leven'. Michael Bruce was a weaver's son from the village of Kinnesswood – whose parish minister today, Dr Angus Morrison, is the current Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – and it seems possible that before he was co-opted on to the committee he was already versifying New Testament passages for his own local choir practices, or for singing in parlour or in the midst of daily labour, later to be formalised in paraphrases such as 'The Saviour died and rose again' and in his more formal 'Gospel Sonnets'. Another of his New Testament paraphrases, no. 58, 'Where high the heavenly temple stands', is a rare hymn about the Christ who at the throne of grace prays in compassion for the world of which he has been a part, a 'fellow-sufferer (who) retains a fellow-feeling of our pains', a brilliant capturing of Hebrews 4, verses 14 and following. Compare another version of the same passage at Paraphrase 57 and see what a difference a poet can make.

Some of these paraphrases, such as ‘Come let us to the Lord our God / with contrite hearts return’ (Hosea), and ‘O God of Bethel’ with its couplet, ‘Through each perplexing path of life/our wand’ring footsteps guide’ (from Genesis, and in which Bruce had a hand), touched the communal nerve and still appear with regularity in new hymn collections. Professor David Fergusson indeed notes that the language of the latter is as inclusive as you might wish in these days, where in the penultimate verse is juxtaposed both maternal and paternal images of God's providence (‘O spread thy covering wings around’ with ‘And at our Father’s lov’d abode’).

The Scottish Paraphrases were received by the Assembly in 1781, but (by oversight, or uncertainty?) they were never actually commended to the Church. But even this omission failed to reassure many, and a considerable proportion of the Costorphine (Edinburgh) membership, decrying ‘prelatic leanings’, left to form their own congregation!

Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith worked in the Church of Scotland Offices between 1995 and 2006 running the former Office for Worship, Doctrine and Artistic Matters. He was founder-editor of the earlier print version of Different Voices. He is former Precentor of the General Assembly, Secretary of Church Service Society and Editor of the Church of Scotland Year Book. To discuss this article or further reading list in more detail, please email Douglas.