13 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (14): ‘Almighty God who art the author
and giver of all wisdom’ (Samuel Johnson, Bernard Rose)

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. Today (13 December) is marked in the Church of England with a lesser commemoration in Common Worship (see p. 16) for Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), and so this morning I have chosen the Anthem Almighty God who art the author and giver of all wisdom, a setting by Bernard Rose of a prayer by Samuel Johnson.

Although this may seem an unusual choice of a hymn for Advent this morning, this anthem is a prayer filled with the hope we should have during Advent when we face our fears in the world. It was written by Johnson in November 1765, and is included in many collections of his works.

The historian AJP Taylor was asked from time to time, “Who do you think is the greatest Englishman,” He would reply: “I have never been at a loss for an answer. Samuel Johnson of course. Not Churchill, not Wellington or Nelson. Certainly not Darwin.”

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was one of the most important writers of the 18th century. Due to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), Johnson’s personality has often eclipsed his writings and many famous Johnson quotes actually come from Boswell’s recollections of conversation, rather than Johnson’s own writing.

Next only to Shakespeare, Johnson is perhaps the most quoted English writer. And Lichfield, where he was born, loves Samuel Johnson as much as Stratford-upon-Avon loves William Shakespeare.

Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum ... Lichfield loves Samuel Johnson as much as Stratford on Avon loves William Shakespeare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield on 18 September 1709. A childhood infection left him deaf in his left ear, almost blind in his left eye, with impaired vision in his right eye, and with scar tissue that disfigured his face.

At the age of 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford, 1728, but he was forced to leave a year later because of poverty and unpaid fees. But during that year he was deeply influenced by reading William Law’s Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life.

In 1735, he married the widowed Elizabeth (“Tetty”) Porter, who was 20 years older than him. The newly-married Johnson opened a private school at Edial Hall, west of Lichfield, where one of his first students was David Garrick, who became a life-long friend and was the foremost actor of his day.

When the school closed, Johnson and Garrick decided to seek their fortune in London, where Johnson began writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine. In the next few years, he wrote short biographies, poems in Latin and English; monthly articles on politics and other current affairs, and on literature, politics, religion, ethics, agriculture, trade, business, philology, classical scholarship, aesthetics, metaphysics, medicine, chemistry, travel, exploration, and Chinese architecture.

In 1746, he began working on his Dictionary of the English Language. He wrote definitions of over 40,000 words, with different shades of meaning, illustrating the meanings with about 114,000 quotations he had gathered. His work has served as the basis for all English dictionaries since.

For two years, from March 1750 to March 1752, he published the Rambler, a periodical, every Tuesday and Saturday. Each issue included one of his essays, and he wrote 208 essays in all. But while he was working on his Dictionary, his wife Tetty died in March 1752, and his grief was overwhelming.

But Johnson completed his task in nine years, and his Dictionary was published in 1755. Oxford University honoured his work with an MA degree.

In 1756, after finishing his Dictionary, he was asked to supervise a new periodical, the Literary Magazine. But the magazine did not last. In 1759 he wrote a short novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

In 1762, he was awarded a pension for life of £300 a year. Meanwhile, he began working on a new edition of the works of Shakespeare in 1756. It took nine years and was published in 1765.

In 1766, his friends Henry and Hester Thrale found him agitated, with acute depression. He became part of their family and he recovered his sanity. He died quietly on the evening of Monday 13 December 1784.

Candlelight at Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral … Bernard Rose’s anthem is one of three prayers by Samuel Johnson set to music for Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Bernard Rose (1916-1996) wrote the anthem, Almighty God who art the author and giver of all wisdom (1982) as an unaccompanied setting for SATB.

This is one of three prayers by Samuel Johnson set to music for Lichfield Cathedral. The others are: Almighty and most merciful father, written by Ambrose P Potter, for use at the annual Johnson Commemoration; and O Lord, make us this day a setting by Richard Lloyd of a prayer by Dr Johnson, written for the 300th anniversary of his birth (18 September 2009) and first performed at the Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral on Sunday 19 September 2010.

Although Rose’s anthem is dated Appleton, 26 March 1984, it seems he wrote it in 1982, and he dedicated it to the organist and “the choir of Lichfield Cathedral.”

Rose attended the first performance of the anthem, and it was later broadcast as part of Choral Evensong recorded in Lichfield Cathedral on Friday, 5 October 1984 for Radio 3.

It was later included in 1998 in the album, This Worldes Joie, a collection of choral works by Sir Arnold Bax, Benjamin Britten and Herbert Howells by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, with Mark Shepherd as conductor and David Goode as organist (Guild, GMCD 7139).

The composer and organist Bernard William George Rose (1916-1996) was a chorister assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral before studying at the Royal College of Music and Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Indeed, he won the organ scholarship to Saint Catharine’s College over the later Prime Minister Edward Heath.

He began his academic career as a tutor and organist at Queen’s College, Oxford, and later became Informator Choristarum (organist and master of the choristers) at Magdalen College, Oxford (1957–1981), and Vice President (1973–1975). His pupils included Kenneth Leighton, Dudley Moore, Harry Christophers and his son, Gregory Rose.

Almighty God who art the giver by Samuel Johnson and Bernard Rose:

Almighty God, who art the Giver of all Wisdom,
enlighten my understanding
with (good) knowledge of right,
and govern my will by thy laws,
that no deceit may mislead me,
nor temptation corrupt me,
that I may always endeavour to do good,
and to hinder evil.
Amidst all hopes and fears of this world,
take not the Holy Spirit from me,
but grant that my thoughts may be fixed on thee,
and that I may finally attain everlasting happiness,
for Jesus Christ’s sake, Amen.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Tomorrow:Gaudete’ by Steeleye Span (1972/1973)

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