27 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(38): ‘Disposer Supreme’ (‘Old 104th’)

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford … in 1832, Isaac Williams became John Henry Newman’s curate here (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).

I was listening yesterday [26 March 2015] to his arrangement of Psalm 100, ‘The Old Hundredth.’ This morning [27 March 2015], I invite you to join me in listening to Vaughan Williams’s arrangement for ‘Disposer Supreme’ or the ‘Old 104th’ and the hymn ‘Disposer Supreme’ (New English Hymnal, No 216).

The harmonisation for this hymn is Vaughan Williams’s adaptation of ‘Old 104th,’ originally composed for Psalm 104 by Thomas Ravenscroft (1592-1635). The words of the present hymn were written in 1686 by Jean-Baptiste de Santeüil (1630-1697) and were translated into English in 1836 by Isaac Williams (1802-1865).

Vaughan Williams probably came to know and love this because of the strong Goucestershire connections of Isaac Williams. Indeed, he was so fond of this tune that he wrote a remarkable Fantasia for piano solo, chorus and orchestra on it.

Jean-Baptiste de Santeüil was born in Paris on 12 May 1630. He was a member of the Canons Regular of St Victor in Paris. Under the name of Santolius Victorinus he was a distinguished writer of Latin poetry. Many of his hymns appeared in the Cluniac Breviary (1686) and the Paris Breviaries (1680 and 1736), and his Hymni Sacri et Novi were published in Paris in 1689, with a posthumous enlarged edition in 1698. This is one among several of his hymns that have been translated into English. He died in Dijon on 5 August 1697.

The Revd Isaac Williams, who translated this hymn, was born in Cwmcynfelin, Cardiganshire, on 12 December 1802, and was brought up in his parents’ house in Bloomsbury, London, where his father was a Chancery barrister at Lincoln’s Inn. He gained several school prizes at Harrow, and as a student at Trinity College Oxford, he gained the University Prize for Latin Verse. This prize brought him into close relationship with John Keble, who became his spiritual father, and with Hurrell Froude. In his second term he was elected a scholar of Trinity.

He graduated BA (1826), MA (1831), and BD (1839), and was ordained deacon in 1829 and priest in 1831. He was a curate in Windrush (1829), a Gloucestershire village about 12 miles from John Keble’s home at Fairford. But he returned to Oxford that year as a tutor at Trinity College. In 1832, Williams became John Henry Newman’s curate at the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford. There in 1833 John Keble preached his Assize Sermon, which became the spark that ignited the Oxford Movement.

While he was Newman’s curate at Saint Mary’s from 1832 to 1842, Williams was also a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford at the same time. While there he published his first poetical collection in 1838, The Cathedral, or the Catholic and Apostolic Church in England. It was modelled on George Herbert’s The Temple (1633), but the idea was worked out in greater detail, connecting each part of the edifice with some portion of church doctrine or discipline.

Williams became the most prolific of the Tractarian poets, writing no less than 11 volumes of poetry for the movement. When Keble resigned as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1841, his friend appeared to be the obvious choice to succeed him. But Williams was closely identified with the Tractarians. He was a close friend of Keble and Newman, and was in 1838 he was the author of Tract 80, on Reserve in the Communication of Religious Knowledge, which, next to Tract 90, had stirred the greatest controversy. The election became a referendum on Tractarianism and the beliefs and writings of the Oxford Movement, and instead the chair went to Edward Garbett of Brasenose, who was unknown as a poet.

Williams resigned his fellowship in 1842 when he married Caroline Champernown of Dartington Hall, Devon. He left Oxford, and went to Bisley as curate to John Keble’s younger brother, the Revd Thomas Keble (1793-1875), who was also a Tractarian. Keble was one of the first priests in the Church of England to revive the daily service in church, both morning and evening — a feature in his parish work that was the subject of a beautiful poem by Williams.

However, Williams suffered from bad health for the last 20 years of his life. He resigned as Keble’s curate in 1848 and moved to Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, where his brother-in-law and fellow Tractarian, the Revd Sir George Prevost (1804-1893), was the vicar. He lived there until his death on SS. Philip and James Day, 1 May 1865. Prevost, who became Archdeacon of Gloucester (1865-1881), later edited the Autobiography of Isaac Williams (London, 1892).

‘Disposer supreme – the Old 104th’ sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge

Disposer supreme, and judge of the earth,
Who choosest for thine the weak and the poor,
To frail earthen vessels, and things of no worth,
Entrusting thy riches which ay shall endure;

Throughout the wide world their message is heard,
And swift as the wind it circles the earth;
It echoes the voice of the heavenly Word,
And brings unto mortals the hope of new birth.

Their cry thunders forth, ‘Christ Jesus is Lord’,
Then Satan doth fear, his citadels fall:
As when the shrill trumpets were raised at thy word,
And long blast shattered proud Jericho’s wall.

O loud be the call, and stirring their sound,
To rouse us, O Lord, from sin’s deadly sleep;
May lights which thou kindlest in darkness around,
The dull soul awaken, her vigils to keep.

All honour and praise, dominion and might,
To thee, Three in One, eternally be,
Who pouring around us thy glorious light,
Dost call us from darkness thy glory to see.

Tomorrow:Lord, Thou hast been our refuge

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