03 September 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Saturday 3 September 2022

‘There’s a home for little children / above the bright blue sky, / where Jesus reigns in glory’ … blue skies over the Crescent on the Quays in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today [3 September] remembers Saint Gregory the Great (604), Bishop of Rome and Teacher of the Faith, with a Lesser Festival.

Before today 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.’

Saint Gregory the Great (centre) among Seven Fathers of the Church carved above the south porch of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Gregory was born in 540, the son of a Roman senator. As a young man he pursued a governmental career, and in 573 was made Prefect of the city of Rome. Following the death of his father, he resigned his office, sold his inheritance, and became a monk. In 579 he was sent by the Pope to Constantinople to be his representative to the Patriarch. He returned to Rome in 586, and was himself elected Pope in 590.

At a time of political turmoil, Gregory proved an astute administrator and diplomat, securing peace with the Lombards. He initiated the mission to England, sending Augustine and forty monks from his own monastery to refound the English Church. His writings were pastorally oriented. His spirituality was animated by a dynamic of love and desire for God. Indeed, he is sometimes called the ‘Doctor of Desire.’

For Gregory, desire was a metaphor for the journey into God. As Pope, he styled himself ‘Servant of the servants of God’ – a title that typified both his personality and ministry. He died in 604.

Mark 10: 42-45 (NRSVA):

42 So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Today’s reflection: ‘There’s a Friend for Little Children’

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 the last two days, I have been listening to the hymns by Bishop William Walsham How, ‘For All the Saints’ and ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ which were set by Vaughan Williams to the tunes Sine Nomine and Herongate.

This morning [21 March 2015], I invite you to continue in this mode, listening to another hymn that is associated with the decision by Vaughan Williams to use the title ‘Herongate’ for the second of these hymns. I am listening to ‘There’s a Friend for Little Children’ which he set to the tune ‘Ingrave’ in the English Hymnal (No 607) in 1906.

He transcribed the tune in 1903 when he heard a song after a visit to Ingrave Rectory, about three miles from Herongate and near Brentwood in Essex.

Early in 1903, Kate Bryan, the founder and headmistress of Montpelier House School in Brentwood, Essex, organised a series of extra-mural classes under the auspices of Oxford University. She set up an organising committee that included Georgiana Heatley, the daughter of the Revd Henry Davis Heatley, Vicar of Ingrave, a nearby village.

Vaughan Williams was one of the first lecturers. Over a six-week period that Spring, he gave a series of weekly lectures on folk songs, and Lucy Broadwood sang some songs as illustrations for some of his lectures.

Georgina Heatley was inspired by these lectures and took the initiative to collect folk songs among the older inhabitants of Ingrave. She passed these songs on to Vaughan Williams, and later she and one of her sisters invited him to a tea at their father’s vicarage organised by the Vicar for the old people of the village. Vaughan Williams was invited to hear some of the villagers sing, but on the day, Thursday 3 December 1903, they could not be persuaded to co-operate. Nevertheless, Vaughan Williams went to visit Charles Potiphar at his home in Ingrave the next day (Friday 4 December 1903).

The old man was standing in his smock against the door frame of his cottage, and launched into singing his favourite song, Bushes and Briars and several other traditional songs.

This moment has been described as Vaughan Williams’s ‘moment of epiphany,’ his visit to this humble labourer’s cottage sparked Vaughan Williams’s passion for folk songs, and the thought that these songs could be lost forever turned him instantly into one of the greatest folk song collectors of the 20th century.

The encounter led to the use of folk song tunes in the English Hymnal and as a source of inspiration for some of the most notable English classical music of the first half of the 20th century, including his three Norfolk Rhapsodies and In the Fen Country

He returned to Ingrave in January and in February 1904, and over the next few months he spent weeks collecting songs as he cycled around Ingrave, Willingale, Little Burstead, East Horndon and Billericay, jotted the folk songs down with pencil and paper.

Another villager in Ingrave, the singer Mary Ann Humphreys, also provided many tunes for Vaughan Williams, However, Vaughan Williams did not collect any songs from her until April 1904.

In January 1905, he collected songs around the King’s Lynn district of Norfolk and while he was on holiday in Sussex and Yorkshire later that year. In 1906, he visited Samuel Childs at the Bell, Willingale, noting down ‘Sweet Primroses.’

Charles Potiphar died in 1909. Shortly after his death, Vaughan Williams made a recording on wax cylinders of Mary Ann Humphreys singing, including a stately and lyrical performance of Bushes and Briars and a lively and rhythmic rendering of Tarry Trousers. Vaughan Williams collected 12 other songs from Charles Potiphar, and went on to collect some 810 songs in a 10-year period.

Meanwhile, in 1913, Essex County Council took over Montpelier House School as the nucleus of Brentwood county high school, and Kate Bryan died in 1917.

Three years before his death, in 1955, Vaughan Williams revisited Brentwood and recalled his first visit to the Essex town and the neighbouring villages that had such a profound effect on his music. In 2003, to mark the centenary of his visit to Ingrave, the Essex Record Office mounted an exhibition, ‘That precious legacy.’

Sue Cubbin of Brentwood, Essex Sound and Video Archive Assistant at the Essex Record Office, published her book That Precious Legacy – Ralph Vaughan Williams and Essex folksong, in 2006. In this book, she traces the composer’s early links with Essex and sketches his time in the Brentwood area. Her book is available from the Essex Record Office ISBN 978-1-898529-05 price £5.99.

This morning’s hymn was written in 1859 by Albert Midlane (1825-1909), a businessman and Sunday School teacher from Newport in the Isle of Wight, and it was first published that year in Good News for the Little Ones. It was set to the tune ‘In Memoriam (Stainer)’ by Sir John Stainer for Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875).

The hymn’s sentiments are so mawkish today and its theology so dated that it is no longer included in the major collections of hymns. But the tune remains an important part of the story of Vaughan Williams and how he collected folk tunes for the English Hymnal over 100 years ago.

There’s a Friend for little children
above the bright blue sky,
a Friend who never changes,
whose love will never die;
our earthly friends may fail us,
and change with changing years,
this Friend is always worthy
of that dear Name he bears.

There’s a rest for little children
above the bright blue sky,
who love the blessèd Saviour,
and to the Father cry
a rest from every turmoil,
from sin and sorrow free,
where every little pilgrim
shall rest eternally.

There’s a home for little children
above the bright blue sky,
where Jesus reigns in glory,
a home of peace and joy
no home on earth is like it,
nor can with it compare;
for everyone is happy
nor could be happier there.

There’s a crown for little children
above the bright blue sky,
and all who look for Jesus
shall wear it by and by;
a crown of brightest glory,
which he will then bestow
on those who found his favour
and loved his Name below.

There’s a song for little children
above the bright blue sky,
a song that will not weary,
though sung continually;
a song which even angels
can never, never sing
they know not Christ as Saviour,
but worship him as King.

There’s a robe for little children
above the bright blue sky,
and a harp of sweetest music,
and palms of victory.
All, all above is treasured,
and found in Christ alone:
O come, dear little children
that all may be your own.

Hearing Charles Potiphar sing ‘Bushes and Briars’ at his cottage door in Ingrave was a ‘moment of epiphany’ for Vaughan Williams

Today’s Prayer, Saturday 3 September 2022 (Saint Gregory the Great):

The Collect:

Merciful Father,
who chose your bishop Gregory
to be a servant of the servants of God:
grant that, like him, we may ever long to serve you
by proclaiming your gospel to the nations,
and may ever rejoice to sing your praises;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with your servant Gregory
to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary all this week is ‘A New Province,’ inspired by the work of the Igreja Anglicana de Mocambique e Angola (IAMA), made up of dioceses in Mozambique and Angola, the second and third largest Portuguese-speaking countries in the world.

The Right Revd Vicente Msosa, Bishop of the Diocese of Niassa in the Igreja Anglicana de Mocambique e Angola, shares his prayer requests in the USPG Prayer Diary throughout this week.

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

We give thanks for the growth of the Church in Angola and Mozambique. May churches and clergy be supported to engage with and inspire their local communities.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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

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