21 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (32):
‘There’s a Friend for Little Children’

‘There’s a home for little children / above the bright blue sky, / where Jesus reigns in glory … blue skies at Bettystown beach, Co Meath, earlier last week (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).

For the last two days, I have been listening to the hymns by Bishop William Walsham How, ‘For All the Saints’ and ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ which were set by Vaughan Williams to the tunes Sine Nomine and Herongate.

This morning [21 March 2015], I invite you to continue in this mode, listening to another hymn that is associated with the decision by Vaughan Williams to use the title ‘Herongate’ for the second of these hymns. I am listening to ‘There’s a Friend for Little Children’ which he set to the tune ‘Ingrave’ in the English Hymnal (No 607) in 1906.

He transcribed the tune in 1903 when he heard a song after a visit to Ingrave Rectory, about three miles from Herongate and near Brentwood in Essex.

Early in 1903, Kate Bryan, the founder and headmistress of Montpelier House School in Brentwood, Essex, organised a series of extra-mural classes under the auspices of Oxford University. She set up an organising committee that included Georgiana Heatley, the daughter of the Revd Henry Davis Heatley, Vicar of Ingrave, a nearby village.

Vaughan Williams was one of the first lecturers. Over a six-week period that Spring, he gave a series of weekly lectures on folk songs, and Lucy Broadwood sang some songs as illustrations for some of his lectures.

Georgina Heatley was inspired by these lectures and took the initiative to collect folk songs among the older inhabitants of Ingrave. She passed these songs on to Vaughan Williams, and later she and one of her sisters invited him to a tea at their father’s vicarage organised by the Vicar for the old people of the village. Vaughan Williams was invited to hear some of the villagers sing, but on the day, Thursday 3 December 1903, they could not be persuaded to co-operate. Nevertheless, Vaughan Williams went to visit Charles Potiphar at his home in Ingrave the next day (Friday 4 December 1903).

Hearing Charles Potiphar sing ‘Bushes and Briars’ at his cottage door in Ingrave was a ‘moment of epiphany’ for Vaughan Williams

The old man was standing in his smock against the door frame of his cottage, and launched into singing his favourite song, Bushes and Briars and several other traditional songs.

This moment has been described as Vaughan Williams’s “moment of epiphany,” his visit to this humble labourer’s cottage sparked Vaughan Williams’s passion for folk songs, and the thought that these songs could be lost forever turned him instantly into one of the greatest folk song collectors of the 20th century.

The encounter led to the use of folk song tunes in the English Hymnal and as a source of inspiration for some of the most notable English classical music of the first half of the 20th century, including his three Norfolk Rhapsodies and In the Fen Country

He returned to Ingrave in January and in February 1904, and over the next few months he spent weeks collecting songs as he cycled around Ingrave, Willingale, Little Burstead, East Horndon and Billericay, jotted the folk songs down with pencil and paper.

Another villager in Ingrave, the singer Mary Ann Humphreys, also provided many tunes for Vaughan Williams, However, Vaughan Williams did not collect any songs from her until April 1904.

In January 1905, he collected songs around the King’s Lynn district of Norfolk and while he was on holiday in Sussex and Yorkshire later that year. In 1906, he visited Samuel Childs at the Bell, Willingale, noting down ‘Sweet Primroses.’

Charles Potiphar died in 1909. Shortly after his death, Vaughan Williams made a recording on wax cylinders of Mary Ann Humphreys singing, including a stately and lyrical performance of Bushes and Briars and a lively and rhythmic rendering of Tarry Trousers. Vaughan Williams collected 12 other songs from Charles Potiphar, and went on to collect some 810 songs in a 10-year period.

Meanwhile, in 1913 Essex County Council took over Montpelier House School as the nucleus of Brentwood county high school, and Kate Bryan died in 1917.

Three years before his death, in 1955, Vaughan Williams revisited Brentwood and recalled his first visit to the Essex town and the neighbouring villages that had such a profound effect on his music. In 2003, to mark the centenary of his visit to Ingrave, the Essex Record Office mounted an exhibition, ‘That precious legacy.’

Sue Cubbin of Brentwood, Essex Sound and Video Archive Assistant at the Essex Record Office, published her book That Precious Legacy - Ralph Vaughan Williams and Essex folksong, in 2006. In this book, she traces the composer’s early links with Essex and sketches his time in the Brentwood area. Her book is available from the Essex Record Office ISBN 978-1-898529-05 price £5.99 (Contact 01245 244644).

This morning’s hymn was written in 1859 by Albert Midlane (1825-1909), a businessman and Sunday School teacher from Newport in the Isle of Wight, and it was first published that year in Good News for the Little Ones. It was set to the tune ‘In Memoriam (Stainer)’ by Sir John Stainer for Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875).

The hymn’s sentiments are so mawkish today and its theology so dated that it is no longer included in the major collections of hymns, but the tune remains an important part of the story of Vaughan Williams and how he collected folk tunes for the English Hymnal over 100 years ago.

There’s a Friend for little children
above the bright blue sky,
a Friend who never changes,
whose love will never die;
our earthly friends may fail us,
and change with changing years,
this Friend is always worthy
of that dear Name he bears.

There’s a rest for little children
above the bright blue sky,
who love the blessèd Saviour,
and to the Father cry
a rest from every turmoil,
from sin and sorrow free,
where every little pilgrim
shall rest eternally.

There’s a home for little children
above the bright blue sky,
where Jesus reigns in glory,
a home of peace and joy
no home on earth is like it,
nor can with it compare;
for everyone is happy
nor could be happier there.

There’s a crown for little children
above the bright blue sky,
and all who look for Jesus
shall wear it by and by;
a crown of brightest glory,
which he will then bestow
on those who found his favour
and loved his Name below.

There’s a song for little children
above the bright blue sky,
a song that will not weary,
though sung continually;
a song which even angels
can never, never sing
they know not Christ as Saviour,
but worship him as King.

There’s a robe for little children
above the bright blue sky,
and a harp of sweetest music,
and palms of victory.
All, all above is treasured,
and found in Christ alone:
O come, dear little children
that all may be your own.

Tomorrow:Come down, O love divine’ (Down Ampney)

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