22 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(5): ‘O God of earth and altar’

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting to reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Today [22 February 2015] is the First Sunday in Lent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Peter 3: 18-22; and Mark 1: 9-15.

This morning, as I prepare for the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral later this morning, I have chosen the hymn, ‘O God of earth and altar,’ by the English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936).

This hymn is over 100 years old, yet its concerns are very relevant today, as we are invited to pray about the plight of a world torn by poverty, war and misrule and offered cheap and trite answers by cruel opportunists whose only interest is in power.

The hymn was first published in the English Hymnal (1906), edited by Canon Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams (No 562), and is included in the New English Hymnal (No 492), where it is set to the English folk melody, King’s Lynn, arranged by Vaughan Williams. Although the hymn is not included in the Irish Church Hymnal, Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, suggest the solemn, robust tune underlines the message of the text.

Vaughan Williams, who also used this tune in his ‘Norfolk Rhapsody No 2,’ first heard it in East Hordon, Essex, on 23 April 1904. At the time, he was travelling around the English countryside, collecting traditional folk songs to use in his own compositions. He heard this tune a second time in King’s Lynn on 9 January 1905 when he was introduced in the Tilden Smith, a pub in the old North End, by the Revd Edward Evans or the Revd Alfred Huddle to the singers Thomas Anderson, a 70-year-old fisherman, and James ‘Duggie’ Carter.

The weather that day was rough and the fishermen were unable to get out on The Wash. They had gathered in the Tilden Smith, and among them were Duggie Carter and Joe Anderson, who were singing out songs like the ‘Captain’s Apprentice,’ ‘Dogger Bank’ and ‘The Mermaid.’

The words of the original song that provides this tune tell of a young poacher who was transported to the convict settlement in Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania. The melodies are said to have influenced some of Vaughan Williams’s later works, including his Norfolk Rhapsodies and Sea Symphony.

The Tilden Smith then stood at the heart of the North End, which was a self-contained fishing community, just a few streets away from Saint Nicholas Chapel, also known as the fishermen’s church. The nearby Fisher Fleet was home to hundreds of boats, while up to 1,000 people lived crammed into the warren of cottages. It has since been bulldozed by slum clearance and to make way for new roads, and the Tilden Smith was renamed The Retreat.

‘Duggie’ Carter sang ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’ and Joe Anderson sang ‘Young Henry the Poacher,’ which Vaughan Williams used in the English Hymnal in 1906 as the tune for Chesterton’s poem. The hymn, no. 562, bears the name King’s Lynn. Both Carter and Anderson were known well by the curate of Saint Nicholas’ Chapel, the Revd Alfred Huddle, and would have sung in the Chapel regularly, as well as in more secular settings.

GK Chesterton, who was born in 1874 in Campden Hill, Kensington, was a prolific and well-known journalist, author and poet. He found Christianity provided the answers to the many dilemmas and paradoxes he found in life.

He was a friend and contemporary of writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells. He died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in 1936. His ‘Father Brown’ mystery stories (1911-1936) remain popular and have been adapted for television.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.

Collect of the First Sunday in Lent:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow: ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 1, ‘Easter

Patrick Comerford adds on 27 March 2015:

This hymn was sung as the opening hymn at the burial of Richard III on 26 March 2015 in Leicester Cathedral, contrasting the imperfections of earthly life – ‘not least as exemplified by our faltering rulers,’ an explanatory note suggested.

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