dissertation corner with elliott walker

In this week’s instalment of Dissertation Corner, Nicoletta Peddis speaks to current dissertation Elliott Walker.

Tell us about your dissertation.

My dissertation is an investigation on how Anglican hymns have undergone change since their origins due to social, religious and political change. For example, a lot of the hymns, probably 80 % of standard hymns sang in worship, actually started out as poetry. They have undergone a process in which they start as a poem, usually there is a good few years before they transform to a hymn, and then the poem gets set into a tune or a melody and that’s how the hymn is born. It is very interesting to see how that hymn starts as poem and then enters church worship and how does that change it. My dissertation takes a few hymns and observes how they have gone through change and how they have in a sense got better. It is split into a three chapters structure.

The first chapter is looking at the Early-Modern, looking at the Te Deum and at a hymn called Poor Soul, The Centre of my Sinful Earth which is originally a Shakespeare sonnet that transformed into a hymn. The second chapter looks at the Victorian period, looking at All Things Bright and Beautiful, which started out as a poem again and at Amazing Grace, but it also focuses on something called the ‘Oxford Movement’, which was a movement in which, in the mid-19th Century, the officials of the Church of England worried at how the Church was going more secular, and there was a sort of a panic about it, and they promoted the necessity of going back to Catholic teachings and to  traditions. In that ‘mood’ was when one of the most popular hymn books was born which is still used today, in revised editions.

The final chapter looks at the 20th Century, looking at what a think is a very interesting And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time which was a poem from William Blake which transformed into a very big patriotic hymn, at I Vow to Thee, My Country and at The Lord is My Shepperd. This last one is very interesting because of the social impact that The Vicar of Dibley had on it; the hymn should be in the Victorian chapter but due to television and media it is quite well known for The Vicar of Dibley. When I play organ at funerals I have a slight anxiety that the congregation are expecting The Vicar of Dibley tune and of course, it isn’t that. The last hymn I’m writing about, comes from the 1990’s and it’s Shine Jesus Shine.  It is a very modern hymn from Kendrick, who interestingly calls his hymns songs, showing the modernisation of the Church of England and, although it started out as a hymn, when you look into the lyrics of it and the meaning, you can link to a lot of problems in the 1990’s, like for example the rise of terrorism.

How has your dissertation changed from your proposal?

Interestingly, it has not actually changed. I have just narrowed down a lot of hymns that I wanted to write about due to word count. I always had this idea, right from the very beginning, that hymns are powerful and a lot of people thinks they are just boring things to listen to in church, which is understandable, but I am working to see and to show how powerful they really are.

How did you come to choose this topic and this research area?

My main job is a church organist, so I work in church music and I have always had a massive passion for hymnology. My dissertation is sort of linking the literature to the musical aspect of hymns.

What are you enjoying about your dissertation so far?

I am enjoying finding things out. I know it might sound really cliché but I’m learning so much more about an area that I had already started to research, and learning the stories behind the hymns. For example, I never thought very much about the hymn Amazing Grace but over the past two weeks I was researching it and it has got such an interesting background, which I already knew about but then I found more about it and it was quite an emotional process.

What would you say has been most challenging so far?

The most challenging thing has been finding some of the hymns in their original form. For example, the Te Deum, which is a very old chant hymn which dates back to the Reformation, was gone for a while, but then it is reappearing in spoken prayer and I think the big challenge in my dissertation is trying to find original forms of hymns that date so far back but I found quite good substitutes and it quite interesting to try and find it. The other challenge I would say is getting everything into the word count.

Is anything else you want to add / tell us about your dissertation?

I think it is very interesting to look at hymns that you won’t find in a hymn book anymore, because they raised social or political issues. For example, I Vow to Thee, My Country is a really popular patriotic hymn and was originally a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice. It speaks about having a devotion to your national identity and having a devotion to God and then this sort of hymn became really problematic because of the question of who you should more devoted to. And it is not just in terms of patriotism, other hymns, such as for example All Things Bright and Beautiful, had verses taken out because they were not very ‘Christian’. For example, the verses ‘The rich man in his castle, / The poor man at his gate, / God made them, high or lowly, / And ordered their estate’, are completely gone from the hymn now because it had to do with class, with struggle, and it is something they removed because it is sort of saying that God made rich people to be rich and poor people to be poor.

The other interesting fact about my dissertation is that I started to draft it in York Minster. I just sat there for two and a half hours, immersing myself in the atmosphere and I started to jot down the initial thoughts and ideas.