Saturday, 28 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(39): ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’

‘Before the mountains were brought forth or ever the earth and the world were made, Thou art God from everlasting and world without end’ ... in the Wicklow Mountains near Knockree 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).

Over the last two days, I was listening to his arrangement of Psalm 100, ‘The Old Hundredth’ [26 March 2015] and his arrangement for ‘Disposer Supreme’ or the ‘Old 104th.’

This morning [28 March 2015], I am listening to another Psalm setting harmonised by Vaughan Williams, ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge,’ which is his arrangement for Psalm 90. This is a fine example of his use of a simple English melody – in this case a hymn tune – as the basis for a more substantial piece of considerable emotional and dramatic power.

This anthem for double choir combines the words of Psalm 90 – ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’ – with the metrical version by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) of the same psalm, ‘O God, our help in ages past.’

Vaughan Williams composed this arrangement in 1921 for soloists, semi-chorus and orchestra (or organ), and it is a tribute to Bach. This is a fine example of his use of a simple English melody – in this case a hymn tune – as the basis for a more substantial piece of considerable emotional and dramatic power.

Over a modal parlando setting of Psalm 90, he juxtaposes the St Anne chorale to Isaac Watts’s paraphrase, similar to several Bach cantata movements and organ preludes where a chorale tune steals in from left field against an apparently incompatible aria.

Most of the piece is a cappella, until the orchestra, or the organ and the trumpet, finally join in.

In the unaccompanied opening section, in D major, both psalm and hymn proceed together – the psalm chanted, the hymn in broad phrases. D major then becomes D minor for the next verse, ‘As soon as thou scatterest them, heard this time without the hymn.

A more animated passage in a modal version of C minor brings this section to a close at ‘so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.’

An important instrumental transition follows, freely based on phrases from the ‘St Anne’ tune, leading eventually to a reprise of ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge.’ Fugal derivations of ‘St Anne’ become more prominent as the music gradually builds to an emphatic conclusion.


Lord thou hast been our refuge sung by Westminster Abbey Choir at the 70th Anniversary Service of the Battle of Britain

Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth or ever the earth and the world were made, Thou art God from everlasting and world without end.
Thou turnest man to destruction; again Thou sayest:
Come again, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday;
seeing that is past as a watch in the night.

O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.


As soon as Thou scatterest them, they are even as asleep and fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and groweth up, but in the evening it is cut down and withered.
For we consume away in Thy displeasure, and are afraid at thy wrathful indignation.

For when thou art angry, all our days are gone, we bring our years to an end, as a tale that is told.
The days of our age are threescore years and ten: and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow. So passeth it away, and we are gone.
Turn thee again, O Lord, at the last. Be gracious unto thy servants. O satisfy us with thy mercy, and that soon.
So shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.

Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth or ever the earth and the world were made, Thou art God from everlasting and world without end.

And the glorious Majesty of the Lord be upon us. Prosper Thou, O prosper Thou the work of our hands, O prosper Thou our handy work.

Tomorrow:At the name of Jesus’ (‘Kings Weston’).

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