Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(29): ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’

Erskine Nicol (1825-1904): ‘The 16th, 17th (Saint Patrick’s Day) and 18th March’ (1856) … Saint Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral, and Vaughan Williams’s tune ‘Kingsfold’ is also associated with ‘The Star of the County Down’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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).

Saint Patrick’s Day was celebrated throughout these islands yesterday, with special commemorations in Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, where Saint Patrick is said to be buried.

It seems appropriate, therefore, this morning [18 March 2015] to invite you to join me in listening to the hymn ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say,’ which is set to the tune Kingsfold – a tune that is also associated with the ballad, ‘The Star of the County Down.’

Kingsfold is thought by some scholars to date back to the Middle Ages, and is a folk tune set to many texts in England, Scotland and Ireland, including ‘Divers and Lazarus,’ ‘The Murder of Maria Martin,’ and ‘Claudy Banks.’

The oldest copy of this tune is ‘Gilderoy,’ which appears in Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of Scots Songs (Tea Table Miscellany) by Alexander Stuart (ca 1726). Gilderoy appeared earlier in Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills to Purge the Melancholy III (1707), although that version is less recognisable as this tune.

The tune was published with the words for ‘Dives and Lazarus’ in English Country Songs, an anthology co-edited by Lucy E Broadwood (1858-1929) and J Alec Fuller Maitland, in 1893.

The tune had been submitted to Lucy Broadwood by Alfred James Hipkins (1826-1903), who worked for John Broadwood and Sons, the piano-making company run by Lucy’s family. Hipkins heard the tune being sung on the streets of Westminster, but was familiar with it for many years under the name of ‘Lazarus.’

The words published with it were found by Lucy Broadwood in Notes and Queries, although she comments in English County Songs that the last verse was published by William Hone in The Every-Day Book, and was sung in Warwickshire in the late 1820s. At this point, then, the song and the tune were not a complete entity, but the marriage of two individual parts.

Vaughan Williams would have been familiar with this tune and the words associated with it in English County Songs, as he used many of the tunes in the book as illustrations in his talks on English folk songs around 1902.

However, he first noted the tune on 23 December 1904, when he heard it in the Wheatsheaf, a pub in the village of Kingsfold in Sussex, where a man named Booker was singing the broadside murder-ballad ‘Maria Martin’ to this tune. Booker’s variant of the tune was published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society (Vol 2, No 7) in 1905, along with other versions found both with that song and with ‘Come all ye Worthy Christian Men,’ ‘Dives and Lazarus,’ and so on.

After he heard the tune in Kingsfold, Vaughan Williams used it as a hymn tune in the English Hymnal (1906), where it is his setting for Horatius Bonar’s ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ (No 488).

According to Colm O Lochlainn, ‘The Star of the County Down’ was written by Cathal McGarvey, in the early 20th century, before he died in 1927. Sometimes, a similar piece, ‘Flower of the County Down,’ is put forward as the “original” form of ‘Star.’ But this may be a bit of an urban myth based on sleeve-notes for modern recordings.


Maddy Prior’s live performance of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ at the Nettlebed Folk Club on the ‘Seven For Old England’ tour. The song is on the album of the same name ‘Seven For Old England’

Later, Vaughan Williams composed Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, a work for harp and string orchestra and based on ‘Dives and Lazarus,’ one of the folk songs quoted in Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite. The others are ‘The Star of the County Down’ (Ireland), ‘Gilderoy’ (Scotland), ‘The Thresher,’ ‘Cold blows the wind’ and ‘The Murder of Maria Marten’ (Norfolk).

He composed the work on commission from the British Council to be played at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The first performance was by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on 10 June 1939, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, who also conducted the first British performance that November in Bristol.

This morning’s hymn is set to Vaughan Williams’s harmonisation of ‘Kingsfold In both the New English Hymnal (No ) and the Irish Church Hymnal (No 576).

The author of the hymn, the Revd Dr Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), was born at Edinburgh into a clerical family associated with the Church of Scotland for more than two centuries. In Bonar’s day, the Scottish church had no substantial library of hymns and the congregations sang metrical Psalms almost exclusively. Bonar began writing hymns before his ordination when he was serving as superintendent of a Sunday school.

He was ordained in 1837, and became the pastor at the North Parish, Kelso. In 1848, he joined the Free Church of Scotland. In 1866 he moved to the Chalmers Memorial Church at the Grange in Edinburgh. In 1883, he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.

‘I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say’ is one of the hymns he wrote at Kelso, and is his best-known song. Its focus is on the call of Christ to come to him, look to him, drink, and rest, and the simple call to obey and to find in him all that he has promised.

Vaughan Williams’s tune Kingsfold, which is shaped in classic rounded bar form (AABA), has modal character and is both dignified and strong. It is well suited to either unison or harmony singing.



I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon my breast:’
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary, and worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting-place,
And he has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one;
Stoop down, and drink, and live:’
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
And all thy day be bright:’
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk
Till traveling days are done.

Tomorrow: ‘For all the saints’

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