12 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (23): ‘God
that madest earth and heaven’ (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’)

‘God, that madest earth and heaven, / Darkness and light; / Who the day for toil hast given, / For rest the night …’ Bachelors’ Walk and the light at the top of the Spire reflected in River Liffey in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, I am 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).

For the last thee mornings this week [Monday to Wednesday], I was listening to his Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes. These three organ solos are based on Welsh tunes that Vaughan Williams had already arranged for hymns in the English Hymnal, which he edited with Canon Percy Dearmer.

Vaughan Williams’s father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, came from a family of Welsh origins that had distinguished itself in the law. And so, this morning [12 March 2015], I continue this Welsh theme, listening to the hymn ‘God that madest earth and heaven,’ which Vaughan Williams arranged for the English Hymnal (1906) to ‘Ar Hyd Y Nos,’ a Welsh melody, dating from about 1784.

‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ is a Welsh folksong sung to a tune that was first published in Edward Jones’s Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards (1784). The metre is 84 84 88 84.

The Welsh lyrics were written by John Ceiriog Hughes (1832-1887), and the song is highly popular with traditional Welsh male voice choirs, and is sung at festivals throughout Wales.

It has been translated into several languages, including English, and is best known as a children’s lullaby in English by its second line translating the Welsh title, ‘All Through the Night.’

The tune is often used for other hymns such as ‘Go My Children With My Blessing,’ and Fred Pratt Green’s ‘For the Fruit of All Creation.’

The hymn ‘God that madest earth and heaven,’ which Vaughan Williams set to ‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’ in the English Hymnal (1906) (No 268), is a composite two-stanza hymn, in which Stanza 1 was written in 1827 by Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826) and Stanza 2 in 1838 by Archbishop Richard Whately (1787-1863).

Reginald Heber was Bampton Lecturer in Oxford and Rector of Saint Luke’s, Hodnet, in north Shropshire and the Diocese of Lichfield, before becoming Bishop of Shropshire. While Heber was Rector of Hodnet, tradition says, he was staying one night in a Welsh house when he heard a blind harper playing this melody, and he was so taken by it he immediately wrote the first stanza.

The second stanza is a free translation by Richard Whately of the prayer Salva nos, Domine from the office of Compline in The Book of Common Prayer: “Preserve us, O Lord, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”

Richard Whately was Archbishop of Dublin from 1831 to 1863. He was born in London, and educated at Oriel College, Oxford. He was the Bampton Lecturer in Oxford (1822) and Principal of Saint Alban’s Hall, Oxford (1825), before becoming Archbishop of Dublin in 1831.

In 1860, he published his Lectures on Prayer, which included several translations of German hymns by his eldest daughter, Emma Jane Whately. His youngest daughter, Blanche, was also a hymn writer. He died in Dublin on 8 October 1863.

The two stanzas were brought together in their present form in 1838. The hymn is included in the New English Hymnal (No 245), and in a slightly amended version with a harmonisation by Dr George Hewson in the Irish Church Hymnal (No 67).

God, that madest earth and heaven (NEH 247):

God, that madest earth and heaven,
Darkness and light;
Who the day for toil hast given,
For rest the night;
May thine angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet thy mercy send us,
Holy dreams and hopes attend us,
This livelong night.

Guard us waking, guard us sleeping;
And, when we die,
May we in thy mighty keeping
All peaceful lie:
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not thou, our God, forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us
With thee on high.

Tomorrow:Fantasia on Greensleeves

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