12 August 2022
Praying with USPG and the hymns of
Vaughan Williams: Friday 12 August 2022
Before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:
1, One of the readings for the morning;
2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’
In Common Worship in the Church of England, the Gospel reading at Morning Prayer today is:
Luke 24: 13-35 (NRSVA):
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19 He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25 Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Today’s reflection: ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 5, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’
Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.
This morning [12 August 2022], I have chosen the hymn ‘The Call’ by the 17th century Welsh-born English priest-poet George Herbert (1593-1633).
For the weekdays this week, I have been reflecting on ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ composed by Vaughan Williams between 1906 and 1911. He conducted the first performance of the completed work at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester on 14 September 1911.
The work, taken as one, sets four poems by George Herbert from his collection The Temple: Sacred Poems (1633).
Many of George Herbert’s poems have become hymns that are well-known and well-loved by generations of Anglicans. They include including the fifth of these mystical songs, as the hymn ‘Let all the world in every corner sing,’ as well as ‘Teach me, my God and King’ and ‘King of Glory, King of Peace.’
George Herbert was the Public Orator at Cambridge for eight years, and spent only three years as a priest before he died. He was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and lived at a time when the English language was expanding and developing its literary capacities, aided by the publication of the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
His first biographer, Izaak Walton, described Herbert on his deathbed as “composing such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.” The Temple was edited by his friend Nicholas Ferrar and was published in Cambridge later that year as The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations. It met with such popular acclaim that it had been reprinted 20 times by 1680, and went through eight editions by 1690.
Like most Anglicans of his day, Herbert sought to steer a middle course between the Roman Catholics and the Puritans. Perhaps he appealed to Vaughan Williams because were both men were creatively preoccupied with that age-old conflict between God and World, Flesh and Spirit, Soul and Senses.
Both George Herbert and Vaughan Williams were students at Trinity College Cambridge, and the composer’s father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, served as a curate in Bemerton, the Wiltshire parish where Herbert had been vicar 200 years earlier.
Vaughan Williams wrote his ‘Five Mystical Songs’ for a baritone soloist, with several choices for accompaniment: piano only; piano and string quintet; TTBB chorus, a cappella; and orchestra with optional SATB chorus, the choice Vaughan Williams used at the premiere.
Like George Herbert’s simple verse, the songs are fairly direct, but have the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text. The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. They were supposed to be performed together, as a single work, but the styles of each vary quite significantly.
The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. However, the final ‘Antiphon’ is the most different of all the hymns. This the climactic finale to Vaughan Williams’s ‘Five Mystical Songs’ and it is a staple of the sacred choral repertoire and a superb culminating work for both concert and worship settings.
This is a triumphant hymn of praise, sung either by the chorus alone or by the soloist alone. Unlike the previous four songs, a separate version is provided for a solo baritone. It is also sometimes performed on its own, as an anthem for choir and organ: ‘Let all the world in every corner sing.’
I have chosen this fifth mystical song ‘Antiphon,’ as my Lenten meditation this morning [12 August 2022]. This poem has been set to music by many other composers and it is included in the New English Hymnal (Hymn 394) and the Irish Church Hymnal (Hymn 360) as the hymn, with a well-known tune ‘Luckington’ by Basil Harwood. This version was also sung at the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003.
In my own collection of music, ‘Antiphon’ is the concluding track (No 17) in the collection Choral Classics recorded by Lichfield Cathedral Choir in 2008 with Philip Scriven as Director and Martyn Rawles on the Organ, a programme of popular choral music from the 16th century to the present day.
Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing:
My God and King.
The heavens are not too high,
His praise may thither flie;
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.
Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing: My God and King.
The Church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out;
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.
Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing:
My God and King.
‘George Herbert (1593-1633) at Bemerton’ (William Dyce, 1860)
Friday 12 August 2022 (International Youth Day):
The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘International Youth Day.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Dorothy deGraft Johnson, a Law student from Ghana.
The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:
Today we celebrate young people and the perspectives they have to share. May we listen to them and act on their words..
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org