In 1880 J.S. Curwen wrote his fascinating and rare book, Studies in Worship Music with its many observations on the psalms and hymns sung by the different denominations in the United Kingdom, the place of the organ if one was used, chanting, harmonizing, and how to train a congregation to sing. The last third of the book describes his visits to the main churches of London including the following description of his visit to the Metropolitan Tabernacle one Sunday when Spurgeon was preaching.
The mere fact that Mr. Spurgeon's is the largest congregation in the country invests the singing with an interest to the church musician, and there are other reasons which make the Tabernacle psalmody a profitable study. But the congregation is a special one from its size and the spell which Mr. Spurgeon's voice and presence exert upon it. One is, therefore, cautious in drawing general conclusions from the good and bad points in the singing.
Nothing but hymns are sung at the Tabernacle, and these are taken from a collection of no less than 1,130, made by Mr. Spurgeon about seven years ago. The book superseded Dr. Rippon's selection and Dr. 'Watts's Psalms and Hymns,' which had before been in use. Dr. Rippon, by the way, was a former pastor of the church from which the Tabernacle congregation has descended. He was an earnest worker in the service of song, and published a tune-book which was much used in old times. The tunes used at the Tabernacle are chiefly taken from the 'Union Tune Book.' A few come from the 'Bristol Tune Book,' and three or four from 'Hymns Ancient and Modern.' A new tune is not introduced unless it has become popular in the schools and classes connected with the place; then it is tried in the service, and if it goes well it is permanently placed on the list; if not, it is dropped at once. This caution is commendable, and contrasts with the carelessness of the people's interests which many precentors and choirmasters display. The tunes are led by a precentor. Mr. Hale, who has held the office from boyhood, has lately been disabled by weakness of the voice, and Mr. Turner, who had before led the week-night service, now does the whole duty.
The first hymn on Sunday morning last was 'God is our refuge and our strength,' to the tune 'Evan.' Mr. Spurgeon read it slowly through, then he announced the tune and read the first verse again. As the people stood up the precentor advanced from the back of the platform, and started the melody with a clear voice. Like a giant that needs a moment to arouse himself the congregation allowed a note or two to pass before they entered in full strength. Then the heavy tide of sound streamed forth from every part of the building. Many churches have more cultivated congregational singing than Mr. Spurgeon's, but, from the numbers engaged, no other singing touches the heart with such an indefinable pleasure, and makes the frame glow with such a sense of worshipful sympathy. 'There are waterfalls,' it has been said, 'more beautiful than Niagara, but none so overwhelming.' To yield oneself to the power of this great human voice, to let the spirit sink and rise with the swell of this mighty bosom, is to know the force of human sympathy, and feel the joy that companionship in worship inspires.
The second hymn was 'Thou hidden love of God,' to one of the old tunes, 'New Creation', made up from Haydn's chorus, 'The heavens are telling.' This the people enjoyed, and sang as generally as before. The third hymn was 'Beneath Thy cross I lay me down,' to the tune 'Buckingham,' which, of course, was a congenial melody. The people were warming to their work, and the volume of sound poured forth more solid and powerful than before. But why should the hymns be read twice through? It may help some illiterate people to understand the words, and Mr. Spurgeon's energetic reading may infuse the devotional spirit of the poet among the congregation; but nearly all the hymns are so well known that these considerations must be of little practical worth. The reading takes up time, and is evidently wearisome to many; besides, it takes away the freshness of the thoughts that are to be uttered. The sermon was followed by the benediction; it is very rarely that a hymn is sung at this part of the service.
I have said that the singing was led by a precentor; but Mr. Spurgeon is the real motive power of the music, as of everything else at the Tabernacle. The fact is that when the precentor has set the ponderous body of voices rolling, he finds it beyond his power to control it. He battles with his Goliath, but it is all in vain, and if he were three or four notes in advance, the people would not quicken. Mr. Spurgeon evidently takes delight in the service of song, and is anxious above all things that every man, woman, and child in the place should sing. In announcing the hymn he generally makes some remark, such as, 'Let us sing joyfully the 48th Psalm,' — 'Dear friends, this hymn is full of joy, let's sing it with all our hearts,' &c. Occasionally he will stop the congregation, and make them sing more softly or more quickly, when the effect is at once felt in a surprising degree. 'Dear friends,' he said at the watch night service last week, 'the devil sometimes makes you lag half a note behind the leader. Just try if you can't prevail over him to-night, and keep in proper time.' For this dragging, the besetting fault of the Tabernacle singing, the immense size of the congregation is partly the reason. It is also encouraged by the use of a class of tunes in which the tendency is always to linger on the notes, — I refer to tunes in triple time, and those in common time with runs and slurs. But neither tendency is invincible, if pains were taken to instruct the people in the duty of intelligent and joyful praise.
At present the beauty of the Tabernacle singing is religious and spiritual. That is the highest attribute of congregational singing; without that quality no church singing is worth anything. But its musical improvement would not make it less of heart singing: it ought to make it more. It is a pity that the reaction against Romish ritual has driven the Puritan churches to an opposite extreme, and led them to take this objectionable ground, that 'it does not matter how we sing, so long as we sing with our hearts.' Why should the service of praise be singled out like this, for in other actions of our lives we do not say, 'Never mind how you do it, as long as it is done.' Such a view of praise is dwarfed and incomplete. If we have the foundation, it does not follow that we are to be content with an ugly superstructure. 'Clothes do not make the man, but when he is made they improve him.'
The Tabernacle singing is, musically speaking, such as may naturally be expected from an undisciplined company of untrained voices. It is breathy and whispering in effect, and lacks that musical ring which comes from people who have learnt to use their voices. But much might be done to improve it, notwithstanding that the vast size of the congregation and the large number of strangers in it will always be difficulties to contend against. To begin with, it is out of all reason to expect any improvement until some means commensurate with the size of the congregation are taken to practise the people in the tunes, and to provide them with enough reading power to take their part in a hymn-tune. One tune-book should be adopted and adhered to, and this should be in the hands of the congregation. Until the average musical culture of the nation is much higher that at present, good musical congregational singing in a church can only be maintained by systematic training, extending from the Sunday School upwards. We see in the Tabernacle how helpless a precentor, who is nothing but a precentor, is to control a large congregation. But if the precentor were also the teacher of large singing classes, through which numbers of the congregation had passed, if he were also the conductor of a 'psalmody association' of several hundred members which met weekly for practice, and though scattered all over the place during the service, had all the esprit de corps of a choir — the case would be different. All the best singers of a congregation would be familiar with the voice and manner of the precentor, and would be accustomed to obey it with precision. In a year or two they would have grown in numbers sufficient to carry the congregation along with them. The heavy, rhythmless singing, with its gliding from note to note, would give place to a more impulsive and accented style, in keeping with the joy and thanksgiving of Christian worship. With all its shortcomings, the Tabernacle singing is thoroughly enjoyable. The heartiness of Mr. Spurgeon's manner is felt by the congregation. They use their voices, if with a drawl, yet with a will; and no one can doubt that they sing as much from the heart as any congregation in the kingdom.