19 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(30): ‘For all the saints’

All Saints’ Church, one of the two Anglican churches in Rome ... William Walsham How was chaplain here from 1865 (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).

Today in the Calendar of the Church we remember Saint Joseph (19 March), one of the few saints’ days we celebrate in the middle of Lent, along with Saint Patrick (17 March).

It seems appropriate, therefore, this morning [19 March 2015] to invite you to join me in listening to the hymn ‘For All the Saints,’ which was set by Vaughan Williams to his tune Sine Nomine.

‘For All the Saints’ was written as a processional hymn by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) of Wakefield and was first printed in 1864 in Hymns for Saint’s Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nelson.

This hymn was sung to the melody ‘Sarum,’ by the Victorian composer Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), until Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer published the English Hymnal in 1906.

Vaughan Williams named his setting Sine Nomine. The title means “without name” and follows the Renaissance tradition of naming certain compositions Sine Nomine if they were not settings for pre-existing tunes.It has been described as “one of the finest hymn tunes of [the 20th] century” by Richard Clothier (A Heritage of Hymns, Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1996, pp 156-158).

Most English hymn tunes from that time are written for singing in SATB four-part harmony. However, Sine Nomine is primarily unison (verses 1, 2, 3, 7 and 8), with organ accompaniment. Just three verses (4, 5 and 6) are set in sung harmony.

The tune appears in this form in most English hymnbooks, including the English Hymnal (No 641), the New English Hymnal (No 197), and Common Praise (No 232), and in the Irish Church Hymnal (No 459). Vaughan Williams wrote two harmonisations – one for unison stanzas and one for choral stanzas. Equipped with a “walking” bass, Sine Nomine is a glorious marching tune. Allowing the “alleluia” phrase to enter before our expectation of it is a typical and very effective Vaughan Williams touch.

The Dublin-born composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), whose pupils included Vaughan Williams, also wrote the tune Engleberg for this hymn. However, in the wake of Sine Nomine it never gained popularity.

Vaughan Williams also set another hymn by Bishop How, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 226; New English Hymnal, 84), to the tune ‘Herongate.’

William Walsham How, a solicitor’s son, was born in Shrewsbury on 13 December 1823 and educated at Shrewsbury School and Wadham College, Oxford (BA 1845). He was ordained in 1846, and was curate of Saint George’s, Kidderminster (1846), and Holy Cross, Shrewsbury (1848), before becoming the Rector of Whittington, Shropshire, then in the Diocese of St Asaph but now in the Diocese of Lichfield, in 1851.

He was later a Rural Dean (1853), a canon of Saint Asaph Cathedral (1860), chaplain of the English church in Rome (1865) and Rector of Saint Andrew’s Undershaft, London (1879). He became a Suffragan Bishop for East London as Bishop of Bedford, and in 1888 he became the first Bishop of Wakefield, a new diocese in the industrial heartlands.

His untiring work among the people of the docks and the slums earned him the title of “the poor man’s bishop,” and because he insisted on using public transport he was also known as the “omnibus bishop.” But he liked best the description of him as “the children’s bishop.” He died in Leenane, Co Mayo, in 1897, while on a fishing holiday in Dulough.

Bishop How, who was strongly influenced by the Tractarian Movement, was the author of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge Commentary on the Four Gospels and the author and editor of several collections of hymns, sermons and children’s stories, many of them published by SPCK.

His hymns are marked by pure rhythm as well as directness and simplicity, showing a comprehensive grasp of the subject and throwing unexpected light on their themes, with his images interwoven with tender thoughts. Although he is seldom thought of as a poet, his hymns have outlived his other literary works and he is one of the most effective Victorian hymn writers.

This morning’s hymn, ‘For all the Saints who from their labours rest,’ is, perhaps, his most popular hymn. Other hymns by him in the Irish Church Hymnal include: ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 226, New English Hymnal, 84), ‘To thee our God we fly (Irish Church Hymnal, 540, New English Hymnal, 127), and ‘Who is this so weak and helpless’ (New English Hymnal, 474).

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Tomorrow:It is a thing most wonderful

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