The mutability of tradition

Recently I have been pondering how in the performance of church music a ‘new normal’ is quickly established, overturning previous traditions that are soon forgotten.

For example, the seminal 1906 “The English Hymnal”, whose music editor was Ralph Vaughan Williams (no musical slouch he), in/famously gave metronome markings at the head of each hymn. According to the book’s ‘Preface’ we read”

Speed.-The present custom in English churches is to sing hymns much too fast. It is distressing to hear ‘ Nun Danket’ or ‘ St. Anne’ racedthrough at about twice the proper speed. Metronome marks are added to each hymn, which, the editor believes, indicate the proper speed in a fairly large building with a congrega- tion of average size. (Preface, p. x1v)

The tune 'Adeste fideles from "The English Hymnal" (1906).
The tune ‘Adeste fideles from “The English Hymnal” (1906).

This would seem authoritatively to define performance tempi if one is seeking a proper ‘authenticity’ in the use of that repertoire. But who nowadays would countenance most of these (to contemporary ears) dreary tempi? It seems that within barely a couple of generations a ‘tradition’ has evolved contrary to the evidence. Even Vaughan Williams himself (writing c.1936) appeared ambivalent about what – at face value – seems absolute :

If I remember right the English Hymnal has metronome marks which will give you the tempo which I considered right 30 years ago – but it seems to me that these things depend entirely on circumstances e.g. the size of the building & the number of performers.” [17 May (1936?) : RVW Letters Online].

The historic recordings available through the online “Archive of Recorded Church Music” further demonstrates how, in matters of performance at least, ‘tradition’ – even in the hands of its direct inheritors – is mutable.

Have Mercy Upon Me O God (1611) by William Byrd (1539/40 or 1543–1623)performed 1927 by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge and un-named instrumentalists, directed by Cyril Rootham; the first ever recording of the choir  (HMV B2448). Time 6′ 22″.

Have Mercy Upon Me O God (1611) by William Byrd (1539/40 or 1543–1623), performed c.2007 by the choir of Magdalen College Choir, Oxford and un-named instrumentalists and director. Time 4′ 03″.