Resulting from a 2006 conference sponsored by the Dr William's Centre for Dissenting Studies in London, Dissenting Praise begins to fill a lacuna in hymnological studies, discussing the music of dissenting churches and the influence of that music on English-language hymnody. It is a thought-provoking collection of essays which explores hymnody from a wide range of academic angles, aggregating the work of literary scholars, historians and musicologists. The first three chapters feature textual analysis of the hymns, and the next four are more historical discussions. Musicological and Welsh topics are then considered in the final two chapters. While some essays, such those by Ken R. Manley and Nicholas Temperley, are quite accessible and would be suitable for a broad audience, the chapters by Elizabeth Clarke and Françoise Deconinck-Brossard assume more specialist knowledge and expertise.
Temperley's is the strongest chapter, despite his writing suggesting a bias against Calvin and his followers. He contradicts the fact that Calvin had a deep appreciation for the emotional power of music (pp. 203, 205–6), and that ‘high Calvinist doctrine’ (p. 206) had long promoted new psalm tunes (i.e. Common Tunes) and harmonised homophonic and polyphonic settings of existing psalm tunes in England, Scotland and on the Continent (i.e. Ravenscroft Psalter, 1635 Scottish Psalter, etc.). Nevertheless, his point is well made that congregational singing became progressively more complex so that it resembled a performance. Whether readers are interested in select chapters or the entire volume, they would be well served by beginning with Temperley's chapter, as his provides much-needed background and terminology for the other chapters.
Other essays which deserve mention include those of David M. Thompson and E. Wyn James. Thompson's essay evaluates Josiah Conder's contribution to Baptist hymnody, particularly in the way his hymnbooks began to supplant the work of Isaac Watts. James, on the other hand, provides a valuable survey of three centuries of hymnody in the Welsh church.
In perhaps the weakest chapter of the volume, Clarke discusses music in the context of the seventeenth century. It is unfortunate that her conclusions tend towards the subjective and often stretch beyond the constraints of the evidence she provides. For instance, on p. 16, she asserts ‘unfortunately the House of Commons preferred the [Psalter] version of Francis Rous (1580/81–1659), despite the list of heavyweight Presbyterian names [William] Barton printed in support of his own’. The reader is left wondering why this is ‘unfortunate’. Were Barton's psalms poetically superior? Is it because he had a propensity towards hymnody over psalmody? Or was this just from Barton's perspective? Her essay does however include some helpful textual analysis for experts in the field.
For a volume dedicated to song, it is disappointing that Temperley's is the only essay which includes any discussion of the actual music (though most of the historically focused chapters do at least acknowledge that the texts were primarily intended to be sung). Apart from this, contributors could have done a better job of placing dissenting hymns within their theological and denominational contexts. Only rarely do the authors specifically address the ways in which authors wrote hymns to fit their dissenting theology rather than that of the Church of England, or how collectors adapted hymns to fit their dissenting theology as opposed to that of the original authors.
Dissenting Praise nevertheless has made an original and invaluable contribution to hymn studies: it has initiated discussions of less-known hymn traditions which all had significant impacts on the course of liturgical music, and particularly that of the English-speaking church of the West. In addition to introducing dissenting hymns, most of the authors have identified areas for future enquiry. Dissenting Praise therefore promises long to remain a standard for hymn scholarship.