Dunblane and the “hymn explosion”

Back in the 1960s, in the small Scottish town of Dunblane, a series of annual gatherings of writers, musicians and clergymen was the catalyst for what became known as the “hymn explosion”.

Scottish Churches House, Dunblane

The Dunblane Consultations (1962-69) were a series of gatherings held at Scotland’s ecumenical hub, Scottish Churches House, and were designed to look seriously and objectively at what would make appropriate modern hymns. . .

. . . and to write them.

Writers, musicians and clergymen came to the annual “working parties” where, in a kind of “hymn laboratory”, they wrote hymns that they felt reflected the faith and needs of the world they lived in.

The consultation members were ecumenical in their backgrounds and not by any means just from Scotland. The key drivers were Ian Fraser, warden of Scottish Churches House, and the pioneering writer on hymns, Erik Routley, whose centenary was marked on All Saints Day 2017.

Erik Routley at the time of the Dunblane consultations

Listen to Ian Fraser and George McPhee (organist at Paisley Abbey since 1963) share their memories of Erik Routley and the Dunblane Group with Laurence Wareing.

The group‘s earliest publications (Dunblane Praises 1 & 2, 1965 and 1967 respectively) offer the best evidence of the consultation aims.

“We have looked only for modern expressions of the great Christian themes,” wrote Erik Routley, “and for some ways of responding to the emotional and religious demands of our time.” It was not anticipated that much of what was produced would “achieve immortality”. Instead, the central aim was to stimulate discussion and further creativity by offering the fruits of thoughtful experiment.

The sense of trying out “new kinds of hymnody” is clearly evident in the tunes. As well as more popular idioms, volume one in particular includes several tunes with complex chromatic harmonies. Peter Cutts was especially adept at these (though more recent hymn book editors have shied away from all but his most melodically accessible tunes). The sometimes challenging hymn settings reflected Routley’s own insistence that music worthy of the worship of God should not be lazy but reflect a composer’s effort. At the same time, as Douglas Galbraith (another consultation member) puts it:

“The other principle was that we are people whose hope is to grow into the maturity that is Christ the head; if our church music does not allow us to grow, stretch us, dare us, it is not in tune with the gospel.”

However, it was the new words that really caught people’s imagination – from Ian Fraser’s hymns expressing “the needs of modern labour” (“Lord, look upon our working days, / Busied in factory, office, store”) to perhaps the earliest attempts to express concern for and about God’s creation:

Writers at Dunblane were amongst the earliest to explore faith and ecology

Think of a world without any flowers
Think of a world without any trees

This still-popular hymn by Doreen Newport (StF 92) was one of a number designed to be sung by children and which didn’t simply, as Ian Fraser recalls, reflect God “as the big policeman in the sky”.

Here, too (using still resolutely un-inclusive male language), are some of Brian Wren’s earliest hymns, Erik Routley’s own first attempt to write hymn words (“All who love and serve your city”), and a good many texts that were the product of collaborative working and credited to “Dunblane”.

One especially striking contribution to Dunblane Praises 1 is an anonymous text. Designed to be sung “in the manner of a folk-song”, “Where is he?” is an account of the wise men visiting Bethlehem, translated into a contemporary setting (“Morning brought the clang of dustbins, / City cleaners passing by”) and with a repeated phrase:

In a shake-down in the garage
Lay the Saviour of the world.

The editors noted that “the anonymous author of these words professes no Christian faith at all; but a member of the Working Party brought the words to Dunblane and the rest of the members found them irresistible.” *

Performance Notes are a feature of both volumes. They reflect the varied nature of the hymns, many of them intended for accompaniment by instruments other than a traditional organ, and many of the later contributions having “a dramatic quality which suggests and indeed implies a dramatic view of worship”.

Fred Kaan - one of the fine writers of the mid-twentieth century "hymn explosion" (painting by Anthea Kaan)

The notes confirm, too, the overriding desire of the Dunblane Consultations to think freshly, to respond to contemporary concerns with contemporary words, and to connect our faith expression to lived experience. It was a desire that proved to be a great stimulus, both in the UK and in America (where Routley eventually settled as a lecturer at Princeton), ultimately bequeathing us the work of many of our most popular and enduring contemporary hymn writers.

*The text was later attributed to James Fraser when it was picked up, along with a good many other Dunblane hymns, by the publisher of new hymns, Galliard.

Categories: Articles, Cutts, Peter, Galbraith, Douglas (auth), Kaan, Fred, Newport, Doreen, Routley, Erik, Words and music, Wren, Brian.

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