24 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (35):
‘Deck thyself, my soul with gladness’

‘Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness / Come into the dayglight’s splendour’ ... Early morning in Epimenidou Street in Rethymnon (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).

This morning [24 March 2015], I invite you to join me in listening to the hymn ‘Deck thyself, my soul with gladness,’ for which Vaughan Williams arranged a setting of the tune Schmücke dich.

If you sing the hymn with attention, it is really impossible to come away gloomy. It has the effect that its words intend – inviting us to “leave the gloomy haunts of sadness” and rejoice in the opportunity to come and receive the Holy Communion, which Christ has provided for us by his great goodness and humility.

The original words in German were written by Johann Franck, 1649 (Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele), and were translated into English by Catherine Winkworth, who had them published in Lyra Germanica (1858) and The Chorale Book for England (1863).

The original melody by Johann Crüger is found in his Geistliche Kirchen-Melodien (Berlin, 1649). Johann Sebastian Bach used the tune for one of his most celebrated organ chorales, the fourth of his Eighteen chorales (BMV 654), and also in Cantata 180. Schumann once described this “as priceless, deep, and full of soul as any piece of music that sprang from a true artist’s imagination.” Mendelssohn declared that “if life were to deprive me of hope and faith, this one chorale would being them back.”

Many other composers have written organ chorale preludes on this tune, including Johannes Brahms, Sigfrid Karg-Elert and Peter Hurford.

Vaughan Williams harmonised this tune for the first edition of the Engish Hymnal in 1906,and this harmonisation is used for the hymn in the New English Hymnal (No 280) and in the Irish Church Hymnal (No 445), where it has been edited as ‘Soul array thyself with gladness.’

Later, Vaughan Williams arranged a setting of Schmücke dich for cello and strings, which was first performed in London on 28 December 1956 in honour of the 80th birthday of Pablo Casals.

Johann Franck (1618-1677) was born at Guben, Brandenburg, the son of Johann Franck, a lawyer and councillor. After his father died in 1620, he was adopted by his uncle, the Town Judge, Adam Tielckau, who sent him to schools in Guben, Cottbus, Stettin and Thorn. In 1638, he began studying law at the University of Königsberg, the only German university left undisturbed by the Thirty Years’ War. There he was known for his religious spirit and his love of nature.

After his return from Prague in May 1645, he began practising as a lawyer. In 1648, he became a burgess and councillor, in 1661 burgomaster, and in 1671 was appointed the deputy from Guben to the Landtag (Diet) of Lower Lusatia. He died in Guben in 1677.

As a hymn writer, he displays firm faith, deep earnestness, finished form, and noble, pithy, simplicity of expression. His hymns are marked by a personal, individual tone and a longing for the inward and mystical union of Christ with the soul.

Johann Crüger (1598-1662) was born in Gross-Breese, near Guben. After his education in Guben, Sorau and Breslau, the Jesuit College in Olmütz, and the Poets’ School at Regensburg, he made a tour in Austria, before settling in Berlin in 1615. He was a private tutor until 1622, when he was appointed Cantor of Saint Nicholas's Church, Berlin, and a teacher in the Greyfriars Gymnasium. He died in Berlin in 1662.

Although Crüger wrote no hymns, he was a distinguished musician and composer of hymn tunes, including Nun danket, the setting for ‘Now thank we all our God’ in the New English Hymnal (No 413) and the Irish Church Hymnal (No 361).

Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878), who translated thus hymn, was born in London, the daughter of Henry Winkworth, of Alderley Edge, Cheshire. She spent most of her early life in the Manchester area, and later moved to Clifton, Bristol. She died in Monnetier in Savoy in July 1878.

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
Come into the daylight’s splendour,
There with joy thy praises render
Unto him whose grace unbounded
Hath this wondrous banquet founded;
Higher o’er all the heavens he reigneth,
Yet to dwell with thee he deigneth.

Now I sink before thee lowly,
Filled with joy most deep and holy,
As with trembling awe and wonder
On thy mighty works I ponder;
How, by mystery surrounded,
Depths no man hath ever sounded,
None may dare to pierce unbidden
Secrets that with thee are hidden.

Sun, who all my life dost brighten:
Light, who dost my soul enlighten;
Joy the sweetest man e’er knoweth;
Fount, whence all my being floweth;
At thy feet I cry, my Maker,
Let me be a fit partaker
Of this blessèd food from heaven,
For our good, thy glory, given.

Jesus, Bread of Life, I pray thee,
Let me gladly here obey thee;
Never to my hurt invited,
Be thy love with love requited:
From this banquet let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep its treasure;
Through the gifts thou here dost give me,
As thy guest in heaven receive me.