17 August 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Wednesday 17 August 2022

Trinity College Cambridge … Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate here and AE Housman a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am returning from Sheffield to Stony Stratford later today (17 August 2022) after my consultation in Sheffield Hospital yesterday with the Steretactic Radiosurgery Team at Royal Hallamshire Hospital. This follows my stroke five months ago (18 March 2022) and, hopefully, is going to prepare the way for a surgical procedure within the next few weeks.

But, before I catch the train and my 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.’

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard’ (Matthew 20: 1) … at work in a vineyard in Platanias near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Gospel reading at the Eucharist this morning in the Lectionary as adapted by the Church of Ireland is:

Matthew 20: 1-16 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Today’s reflection: ‘Is my team ploughing’

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.

Throughout this week, I am listening to On Wenlock Edge, a setting by Vaughan Williams of six poems from AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

This morning [17 August 2022], I am listening to ‘Is my team ploughing,’ the third of the six settings by Vaughan Williams of these poems by AE Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896.

In reacting to the Boer War, in which his brother Herbert was killed, Housman powerfully anticipated the horror and futility of World War I, and his poems would find fresh relevance to the outbreak of World War I.

His landscape is a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex of the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

Vaughan Williams composed On Wenlock Edge – a cycle of six songs for tenor, piano and string quartet – in 1909, a year after he had spent three months in Paris studying under Maurice Ravel, a composer three years younger than him. The first performance took place in the Aeolian Hall, London, later that year.

In the 1920s, Vaughan Williams made an arrangement of On Wenlock Edge for full orchestra that was first performed on 24 January 1924 by John Booth, with the composer conducting. Vaughan Williams preferred this version to his original.

The third of these songs, ‘Is my team ploughing,’ is a conversation between a dead man and his still living friend. Towards the end of the poem it is implied that his friend is now with the girl he left behind when he died.

While writing the poem, Housman borrows from the simple style of traditional folk ballads, featuring a question-and-answer format in a conversation.

The dead man asks first about his animals, then about football, but his girlfriend comes last. The text, along with other poems from A Shropshire Lad, has been set to score by several English composers, including George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney, as well as Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams leaves out these two football stanzas, which Gurney and Butterworth retained in their settings:

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

Vaughan Williams omitted the third and fourth stanzas, to Housman’s annoyance, and wrote to his publisher, Grant Richards asking: ‘I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music?’

Years later, Vaughan Williams said he felt ‘a composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense’ of it. He added: ‘I also feel that a poet should be grateful to anyone who fails to perpetuate such lines as: “The goal stands up, the Keeper / Stands up to keep the Goal”.’

Vaughan Williams’s setting is superb, but the stanza does count, and he appears not to have grasped that here we have a coded reference to what is happening in the dead man’s sweetheart’s bed.

The music critic Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times claimed the omission of these two stanzas by Vaughan Williams destroys Housman’s effect of ‘a gradual, almost casual, transition from the ghost’s questions about the common things of life to the question about his sweetheart.’ But Vaughan Williams was aiming at solemnity and sublimity in this composition, and decided to omit these stanzas so he could achieve this effect.

3, ‘Is my team ploughing

‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?’

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies down not to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still my lad, and sleep.

‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right’ (Matthew 20: 4) … vines in the vineyard at Aghia Irini Monastery, south of Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer, Wednesday 17 August 2022:

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Human Trafficking in Durgapur.’ This them was introduced on Sunday by Raja Moses, Project Co-ordinator of the Anti-Human Trafficking Project, Diocese of Durgapur, Church of North India.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the Diocese of Durgapur and their service to communities in Malda, North and South Dinajpur.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard’ (Matthew 20: 1) … at work in a vineyard in Rivesealtes, near Perpignan in southern France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

‘He sent them into his vineyard’ (Matthew 20: 2) … grapes in a vineyard in Tsesmes near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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