Among those teachers to whom I owe gratitude is the late Ken Naylor. His teaching career was largely at the Leys, Cambridge, where he taught for 27 years, but the autumn of his career was spent at Christ’s Hospital where he was manager of the Arts Centre. This was a terrific boon to the Music Department: Ken was a superb additional organist to the community, but he was also a wonderful arranger. I understand that he provided the fledgling King’s Singers with some of their early arrangements; it was the elaborate, many-voiced arrangement of ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ which became a favourite with our close harmony Male Voice Choir (a curiously named ensemble in – as it was then – an all boys school!). I was very fortunate to have Ken teaching me the History of Music when I was in Year 12 (or the ‘Deputy Grecians’ as we were known in C.H. lingo).
It was only when life had moved on and I was into my career that I first came across Ken’s wonderful tune ‘Coe Fen’ which he wrote to John Mason’s hymn ‘How shall I sing that majesty?’. Choosing Eb major and triple time is always a good start for a hymn tune, but Ken was on top form the day he wrote this tune: the way the highest note of each phrase creeps ever higher until the top Eb at the start of line 7 (after an exquisitely prolonged last note of line 6) is masterly, and there aren’t many hymn tunes that start their second half on a half diminished 7th! The finest hymn singing I have ever heard was by Downside School at the memorial service for their Christ Hospital educated Director of Music, Chris Tambling: Coe Fen in truly monumental guise, and a wonderful tribute to a special man.
Now that composing has become my own career, I was asked to work on a hymn for communal singing during a local church event. With this occasion and Coe Fen in mind, it seemed to me that the one thing that Ken Naylor’s great hymn tune lacked was a thrilling descant. So I set to work.
It was only on completing my attempt and sharing it with other Coe Fen admirers that I discovered that Ken had written a descant to his tune. Had I known this, I would not have trodden upon such hallowed ground: it seems like disrespect, even at this distance down the years. I requested that the master’s own descant be scanned and sent to me. At least there was some affirmation: like my descant, Ken had started his in bar 2, imitating the congregational tune one bar later at a higher pitch; but then, shock! I realised that Ken had committed one of those grave sins of good part-writing: on beats 2 and 3 he had his descant moving in parallel octaves with the bass line!
Perplexed, and – if I’m being honest – a little smug, I shared this discovery with a musical colleague. A day later he returned to the topic and gently pointed out that in my descant beats 2 and 3 moved in parallel 5ths with the congregational tune. Time for a quick revision and a portion of humble pie…