Thursday, 11 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (12): ‘Hills of
the north, rejoice’ (No 128)

‘Hills of the north, rejoice’ … looking across to the Mountains of Mourne from the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath, earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. My choice this morning (11 December 2014) is ‘Hills of the north, rejoice’ by Charles Oakley (Irish Church Hymnal, No 128).

The Revd Charles Oakley (1832-1865), a lawyer and a Church of England priest, wrote the original version of this unique and vigorous hymn in the mid 19th century, expressing the Advent message of the coming of Christ to all four corners of the world.

Charles Edward Oakley was born in 1832, was educated at Oxford and was ordained in 1855. He became Rector of Wickwar in 1856, and later Rector of Saint Paul’s, Covent Garden. He died on 15 September 1865 before his hymn ever acquired popularity.

This missionary hymn first appeared in Bishop TV French’s Hymns Adapted to the Christian Seasons, and the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer in 1870.

At first, this hymn was sung to the tune known as Darwall’s 148th, first published by Aaron Williams in The New Universal Psalmodist (1770).

The Revd John Darwall (1731-1789) was born in 1731 in Haughton, between Stafford and Gnosall in Staffordshire, and was baptised on 13 January 1731. He is probably best known for his setting of Psalm 148, known as Darwall’s 148th, which is most often sung to the words of Rejoice the Lord is King by Charles Wesley and Ye holy angels bright (Irish Church Hymnal, No 376) by Richard Baxter.

After graduating from Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1756, he became curate and later Vicar of Saint Matthew’s, Walsall, and lived there for the rest of his life. He wrote many tunes for A New Version of the Psalms of David of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, as well as poetry for The Gentleman’s Magazine.

His tune for Psalm 148 is his only composition that remains in popular use today. It was composed and sung at the inauguration of a new organ in Saint Matthew’s, Walsall, by Dr John Alcock (1715-1806), of Lichfield at Pentecost in 1773.

Darwall died in Walsall on 18 December 1789, and was buried in Bath Street Burial Grounds, Walsall.

John Alcock had come to Lichfield in 1750 as a vicar-choral of the cathedral and shortly afterwards made organist and master of the choristers as well. On his arrival, Alcock found the music in the cathedral at a very low ebb, and, being a pedantic perfectionist, he soon fell out with his colleagues.

Matters came to a head in 1758 when the men of the choir petitioned the dean and chapter to admonish him for his general behaviour. Alcock stood down as organist and master of the choristers, but managed to remain as a vicar-choral. From 1761 to 1786, he was the organist of Sutton Coldfield parish church, and from 1766 to 1790 of Saint Editha’s Church,Tamworth, as well. During that time he also received a doctorate in music from the University of Oxford in 1766. For some time, he was also employed as the private organist to Arthur Chichester, 5th earl and 1st Marquess of Donegall.

Alcock was afflicted in later life by gout but continued to live at 11 Vicars' Close until he died there on 23 February 1806. He was buried at Lichfield Cathedral. His eldest son, John Alcock (1740-1791), worked closely with Darwall as the organist at Saint Matthew’s Church, Walsall, from 1773 until his death in 1791.

‘Shores of the utmost west, / lands of the setting sun …’ a bright winter sunset by the seashore last December (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Oakley’s hymn gained new popularity after 1915, when Martin EF Shaw (1832-1865) wrote for it his leaping tune ‘Little Cornard,’ and the hymn and the tune became inseparable. He named the tune after the village in Suffolk where he had spent his honeymoon.

Martin Shaw had studied under Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry, and worked closely with Ralph Vaughan Williams. His influence on Anglican hymnody comes from his being the organist in Saint Mary’s, Primrose Hill, London, where the Vicar was Canon Percy Dearmer, who edited the English Hymnal in 1906.

But by the middle of the 20th century the text’s patronising attitude to people of other lands and cultures made it difficult to use.

For example, how could ‘Shores of the utmost west’ be called ‘unvisited, unblest’?

There has been skilful rewriting since the 1960s, first for Hymns for Church and School (1964), then by the editors of English Praise (1975), a supplement to the English Hymnal, and in more recent years in Ireland by the editors of the Irish Church Hymnal. These alterations retain the call of the first four lines, with an answer in the final couplet that is so clearly reflected in the tune.

Even though the language in today’s version may be less vivid, it has puit away the vocabulary of “us” and “them” in previous versions, and emphasises that Christ’s coming brings light and salvation to all.



Hills of the north, rejoice by Charles Oakley

Hills of the north, rejoice,
river and mountain-spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing.
Christ comes in righteousness and love,
he brings salvation from above.

Isles of the southern seas,
sing to the listening earth;
carry on every breeze,
hope of the world’s new birth:
in Christ shall all be made anew,
his word is sure, his promise true.

Lands of the east, arise!
he is your brightest morn;
greet him with joyous eyes,
praise shall his path adorn,
the God whom you have longed to know
in Christ draws near, and calls you now.

Shores of the utmost west,
lands of the setting sun,
welcome the heavenly guest,
in whom the dawn has come:br /> he brings a never-ending light,
who triumphed o’er our darkest night.

Shout as you journey home;
songs be in every mouth!
Lo, from the north they come,
from east and west and south.
in Jesus all shall find their rest,
in him the longing earth be blessed.

Tomorrow:The Lord will come and not be slow’ (No 140), by John Milton

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