16 September 2022
Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Friday 16 September 2022
The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (16 September) recalls Saint Ninian (ca 432), Apostle of the Picts, with a Lesser Festival, and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1882), Priest and Tractarian, with a Commemoration.
Two of us are returning to Stony Stratford today after a few days in York following my ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in Sheffield earlier this week. But, before today begins, 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.’
Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1822) was born in 1800 and educated at Oxford, where he became a Fellow of Oriel College in 1823. He became an expert in biblical languages and criticism and in 1828 he was appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford, the same year he was ordained.
His patristic studies and his firm adherence to a Catholic interpretation of doctrine made him one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. He was significant in encouraging the revival of Religious Life within the Church of England and was a noted preacher. His austere way of life made him much revered by his contemporaries and they founded Pusey House and Library in Oxford in his memory, following his death on this day in 1882.
Luke 8: 1-3 (NRSVA):
1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano
Today’s reflection: 5, ‘The Angel of Death’
For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, 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).
For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.
The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.
I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence.
The six sections or movements are:
1, Agnus Dei
2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)
3, Reconciliation (Whitman)
4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)
5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)
6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)
This morning [16 September 2022], I am listening to the fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death’.
5, ‘The Angel of Death’
Vaughan Williams’s text for this movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ is derived from a speech on 23 February 1855 in the House of Commons by the great Victorian politician and reformer John Bright. In his speech, Bright condemned the Crimean War.
John Bright (1811-1889) was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says ‘John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.’ He is best remembered for his opposition to the Corn Laws, which came to an end in 1846.
Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’
Bright’s speech in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).
Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.
Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: ‘I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.’ However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.
Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated at being unable to avert it, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.
Bright’s words seem so appropriate to quote today and seem so relevant when we consider the present war in Ukraine, almost 170 years after the Crimean war. At the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.
Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, when they were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937) in his We Say No (1935), published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.
In this movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.
The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.
The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land …’ Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.
In the final movement that follows [17 September 2022], the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death shall cause the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came … The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …’
5, ‘The Angel of Death’
The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.
John Bright, who made his ‘Angel of Death’ speech in the House of Commons in 1855, was the first MP to refer to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Today’s Prayer (Friday 16 September 2022):
The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.
The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:
Let us give thanks for Holy Cross Theological College, and the work they do to train the clergy of the Church of the Province of Myanmar.
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