A 19th-century composer whose tunes have been a staple in the diet of the Church of England’s hymn-singers — and an ear-worm to many — has finally been recognised with a brass plaque in the antechapel of his former Cambridge college, St Catharine’s.
The college just missed his 140th-anniversary year, but on the Sunday before last the plaque was unveiled at a special evensong in which his Evening Service in F Major was given a persuasive rendition, as well as several of his best-known tunes, under the direction of Dr Edward Wickham.
If we had not known, would we have guessed the composer of these canticles? Lush in harmony, melodically seductive, perhaps a little four-square, with cadences that suggest the mid-Victorian era. . . As for the hymn-tunes, Dominus Regit Me (”The King of love”), Gerontius (”Praise to the Holiest”), and Nicaea (”Holy, holy, holy”) — they would give the game away to almost every church musician: it was, of course, the Revd John Bacchus Dykes (1823-76).
Of his more than 300 tunes, 56 were included in the 1875 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (and 31 still passed the test of changing fashion in 1950). Despite his own personal taste, Vaughan Williams felt obliged, because of their popularity, to include a dozen in The English Hymnal (1906).
But the era of outright hostility seems to be past. “Perhaps he gilds the lily — but there’s no need to be cruel,” said the preacher, the Dean of Ely, the Very Revd Mark Bonney, speaking of Dykes’s harmonic style, influenced by the Continental Romantics, and recently characterised by a musicologist, Jeremy Dibble, as “imaginative” — but not with a sneer.
Dykes saw his composing as a vocation, the Dean said. In a letter of 1874, Dykes had explained why he had written so many tunes: “I never think of setting a hymn that
is worthily set, where the tune can be got. That would be silly caprice, or vanity of presumption. But if a hymn does not appear to be worthily set, then, I own, I am induced, I may say sometime almost compelled, to try to do my best for it. . . I know so well the teaching power of hymns, if they are happily wedded, that I am very anxious to do my best (as far as God is pleased to help me) to add to the number of these felicitous unions.”
In Cambridge, Dykes had been the beneficiary of a scholarship established in honour of his grandfather, and studied music as an extra-curricular subject under Thomas Attwood Walmisley. He was the fourth president of the Cambridge University Musical Society, and is reported as having sung John Parry’s “Nice Young Man” at the first of its concerts under that new name in 1844.
He set aside such secular frivolity, however, on becoming an earnest Tractarian priest, blessed in his marriage to Susannah, who bore him eight children. In 1849, he became a Minor Canon at Durham, and a little later Precentor; then, from 1862, he was Vicar of St Oswald’s, Durham, where Dean Bonney recalled once venerating his grave. “I understand the churchyard is now a playground, and Dykes’s grave the only marked grave within it.”
He was concerned with raising both the musical and the doctrinal level of the Church. During his last two years, Dykes came into conflict with the Evangelical Bishop Baring over his churchmanship, which
was not extreme by later standards. The case ended up at the Court of the Queen’s Bench, where, Dean Bonney said, “the judges had no intention of siding with Dykes, and his appeal was dismissed with hardly any of the evidence being heard.” Dykes wrote the Bishop an open letter, Eucharistic Truth and Ritual.
The finely engraved plaque, with the apt quotation ”Dominus regit me”, is the result of the generosity and persistence of the American sociologist John Shelton Reed and his wife, Dale. One of Professor Reed’s books is Glorious Battle: The cultural politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. He held a visiting fellowship of the college in 1996-97; and it was his wife’s genealogical skills that tracked down several members of the Dykes family to attend the service and the college feast afterwards.
“I am grateful that it was done in such style, and my wife and I are proud to have been part of this undertaking,” he says.