How shall I sing that majesty (Coe Fen) SATB & descant

Tuesday 15 October 2019
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Ken Naylor, arr. Alistair Warwick:
How shall I sing that majesty

Descant and choral arrangement: over 2000 copies bought by churches and schools throughout the world

"splendid arrangement … I feel sure many choirs
(and congregations) will enjoy it."

Martin Neary

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NEW: Download PDF of the words for your congregation

No 1 in the Top 5 Hymns listed in Church Times/RSCM survey

Suitable for:

  • Music Sunday
  • choral festivals
  • Ascension
  • Christ the King
  • or any celebration of music in worship

Also listed in Sunday by Sunday as suitable for Trinity Sunday.

Difficulty level: *** (moderately difficult)

This piece in four verses is available as a printed choral leaflet or as a digital download (PDF).
It will give your singers a challenge that they will enjoy!

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Some notable performances
  • RSCM 2006 Scottish Triennial Festival at St Michael's, Linlithgow on 4 November 2006
  • featured in a choral-reading session with David Briggs, formerly of Gloucester Cathedral, at the 12th Annual East Carolina Religious Arts Festival in 2008
  • sung at the RSCM Australia Summer School in January 2011
  • and sung by many choirs due to the hymn being sung on BBC Sunday Worship and Songs of Praise
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Notes on the piece

The wonderful hymn tune Coe Fen was composed by Kenneth Naylor (1931–91), formerly music master at the Leys School, Cambridge.

Both a choral arrangement and a final-verse descant are provided.

Choral arrangement

This arrangement by Alistair Warwick sets the middle verses as a four-part choral version from the original (up to seven-part) organ texture. Verse two can be sung without organ if desired.

Between each verse there is a short link by the organ, except after verse two where the heavenly "alleluias" are echoed by an optional semi-chorus:

Coe Fen: end of verses 2 and 3

Throughout the arrangement use is made of elements of Naylor's writing – especially the three-note motive "Eb G F" (the first three notes of the melody and its transpositions) – in order to bind it to the original.


For verse four there is a sensitively understated descant to suit the text. Although six bars specify a double descant, it will work equally well with just the upper line.

Here is the final part of the descant:

End of the descant to Coe Fen

Experienced organists will naturally use the organ part in the last verse as a basis for their accompaniment.

The hymn can, of course, be sung in unison without any choral contributions (the original organ part is included); indeed, the assembly is encouraged to sing the melody throughout.

Although the music is copyright (see "Notes" about the use of this work), the text is in the public domain, so the words can be freely copied for use by your congregation.

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About the text

This inspiring text by the Puritan writer John Mason has taken almost 300 years to be wedded to a worthy tune. (Tallis's Third Mode Melody is a fine tune, but the partnership doesn't quite work!)

John Mason was born c. 1645 in Irchester, Northamptonshire, England (baptised in March 1646), and died 1694 at Water Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England (buried 22 May).

The text of 'How shall I Sing' appears as part of the first hymn in Mason's Spiritual Songs; or, Songs of Praise to Almighty God upon Several Occasions (1683). The original hymn, in praise of God, was based partly upon Psalms 103 (104) and 138 (139).

J.R. Watson's An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (OUP, 2002) [1], with a foreward by Timothy Dudley-Smith, draws comparisons with 'My song is love unknown' by Samuel Crossman, saying that they are both asking the same questions, but in different ways:

My song is love unknown   How shall I sing?
What may I say? Who am I?
Important note about the verses

Although this hymn has only entered the hymnody canon fairly recently, the text is treated in different ways: some books have only three verses for this hymn, conflating verses two and three, while others have a different arrangement of the text in these two verses.

The solution offered here seems logical and to represent the author's intentions (see "The text" for the complete text).

Three Four choices
  1. NEW: Print copies of the words (PDF) for your congregation.
  2. If you only have three verses in your hymnbook, you could ask the congregation to sing the first and last verses, whilst the choir sings the two middle verses.
  3. If your hymn book has the other order of verses and you want to continue singing it this way, you can mark up your choral copies so that they reflect what is in the hymn book.
  4. Print the words (see "The Text" tab) in your service sheet or newsletter. The text is in the public domain and freely copyable.


1. See pages 111-13 in Amazon's Book Preview for more background to this hymn text.

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"splendid arrangement … I feel sure many choirs (and congregations) will enjoy it."

Martin Neary, London, England

"Your edition fits my needs perfectly. Thank you so much for the edition and your prompt service!"

Mary, Pennsylvania, USA

"What a great tenor line!"

Stuart Robinson, Penmaenmawr, Wales

"We premiered your setting of 'How shall I sing...' on Easter Sunday and it went down a storm. The choir love it, especially the altos who are delighted not to have endless strings of one or two notes!"

Claire Corbett, Midlands, England

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Special arrangements for sublicensing

This arrangement of Coe Fen is made under licence from Oxford University Press (OUP) who own the copyright to the original tune Coe Fen, and thus any arrangements of the work.

Any requests for sublicensing should be made directly to OUP music.enquiry(at) (this includes inclusion in any other publication, recording, broadcasting, or public performance outside worship).
Please send us a copy of your request (copyright(at)

To enable us to receive the appropriate royalties from further use of this work, please make clear in any negotiations with OUP that it is this arrangement that you wish to use, quoting "Naylor, arr. Warwick: Coe Fen, published 2006, The Art of Music". Thanks!

The text

1   How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

2   Thy brightness unto them appears,
while I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face:
They sing, because thou art their sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun,
there alleluias be.

3   Enlighten with faith's light my heart,
inflame it with love's fire,
then shall I sing and take my part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
Yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

4   How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep:
thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

John Mason (1646–1694)

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A note on the text

See "About the text" for an explanation of the verses.

NEW: Print copies of the words (PDF) for your congregation.

Alternatively, if you only have three verses in your hymnbook, you could ask the congregation to sing the first and last verses, whilst the choir sings two verses in the middle.

Since the text is in the public domain, you could also print the words in your service sheet or newsletter.


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