26 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(37): ‘The Old Hundredth’

‘O enter then His gates with praise’ ... a farm gate at Cross in Hands Lane, on the edges of Lichfield (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).

Today [26 March 2015], I invite you to join me in listening to Vaughan Williams’s arrangement for ‘The Old Hundredth’ or Psalm 100.

Yesterday [25 March 2015], I was listening to his arrangement of the canticle Magnificat, which is one of three New Testament Canticles associated with Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Psalm 100, as the Canticle Jubilate Deo, is one of the psalms said or sung as a Canticle at Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.

In mediaeval times, Jubilate was the second of the fixed psalms at Lauds on Sundays and holy days, and it was also sung at Prime. Thomas Cranmer did not include it in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), but it was introduced in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer as an alternative to Benedictus. The 1662 Bok of Common Prayer specifies that it should be used when Benedictus is “read in the Chapter for the Day, or for the Gospel on St John Baptist’s Day.”

Vaughan Williams wrote this triumphant setting for Psalm 100 in 1953 for SATB, congregation and full orchestra, organ with brass fanfare, and it was first performed on 2 June 1953 in Westminster Abbey at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The order of service that day directed just before the Holy Communion:

“The organ shall play and the people with one voice sing this hymn: The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune. Text by W. Kethe (Daye’s Psalter, 1560-1), arrangement for choir, orchestra and organ by R Vaughan Williams.” It was the first time at a coronation service that the congregation was permitted to join in the singing of a hymn.

Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of ‘The Old Hundredth’ was sung five years later in Westminster Abbey at his own funeral, with the Abbey Choir, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. His ashes are buried in the Musicians’ Aisle with his wife Ursula.

This setting by Vaughan Williams was sung again at a National Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in Saint Paul’s Cathedral on 5 June 2012.

Ever since the coronation in 1953, the stirring grandeur of Vaughan Williams’s setting of ‘The Old Hundredth’ has been a familiar component of many large-scale state and national occasions. It was originally scored for Full Orchestra, Organ, Choir and Fanfare Trumpets, with Vaughan Williams setting the fanfares for “all available trumpets,” which ring out to introduce the first and last verses. It is without doubt the most thrilling setting of this much loved hymn.

‘The Old Hundredth’ is a hymn tune in Long Metre from Pseaumes Octante Trois de David (1551), the second edition of the Genevan Psalter and is one of the best known melodies in the musical traditions of the Church. The tune is usually attributed to the French composer Loys Bourgeois (ca 1510-ca 1560).

Although the tune was first associated with Psalm 134 in the Genevan Psalter, the melody receives its current name from an association with the version of Psalm 100 translated by the puritan William Kethe as ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell.’

Kethe was a Scottish evangelical polemicist and satirist who went into self-imposed exile in the reign of Mary Tudor. Initially, Kethe was based in Frankfurt am Main. But his extreme Calvinism led him to be received into John Knox’s congregation in Geneva on 5 November 1556.

Kethe’s literary talents came to the fore in the 25 metrical Psalm settings he contributed to the 1561 Forme and Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments approved by J[ohn] Calvyn. This version of Psalm 100 is the most famous, and was set to a pre-existing tune by Bourgeois.

The Genevan Psalter was compiled over a number of years in response to Calvin’s teaching that communal singing of psalms in the vernacular language is a foundational aspect of church life. This contrasted with the prevailing Catholic practice at the time in which sacred texts were chanted in Latin by the clergy only. Calvinist musicians, including Bourgeois, supplied many new melodies and adapted others from sources both sacred and secular. The final version of the psalter was completed in 1562. Calvin intended the melodies to be sung in plainsong during church services, but harmonised versions were provided for singing at home.

Vaughan William’s arrangement incorporates the harmonisation of the tune by John Dowland (1563-1626) from Thomas Ravnescroft’s Psalter (1621).

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell,
Come ye before him, and rejoice.

The Lord, ye know, is God indeed,
Without our aid he did us make;
We are His folk, he doth us feed,
And for His sheep he doth us take.

O enter then his gates with praise;
Approach with joy his courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless his Name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? the Lord our God is good;
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
The God whom heaven and earth adore,
From men and from the Angel-host
Be praise and glory evermore. Amen.

Tomorrow:Disposer Supreme

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