15 September 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Thursday 15 September 2022

A wreath of poppies on the memorial to 19-year-old Private Robert Davies in Lichfield City station who was murdered in 1990 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (15 September) recalls Saint Cyprian (258), Bishop of Carthage and Martyr, with a Lesser Festival.

Two of us are spending a few days in York as I take some rest following what is known as ‘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.’

Saint Cyprian of Carthage … argued that the sacraments are only valid within the Church

Saint Cyprian was born in Carthage ca 200, and was a teacher of rhetoric and a lawyer in the city before his conversion to Christianity. He gave away his pagan library and set his mind to study the sacred Scriptures and the commentaries that were beginning to proliferate. He became a priest and then, in the year 248, was elected Bishop of Carthage by the people of the city, together with the assembled priests and other bishops present.

Cyprian showed compassion to returning apostates, while always insisting on the need for unity in the Church. During the persecution of Valerian, the Christian clergy were required to take part in pagan worship. Cyprian refused and was first exiled and then condemned to death. He died on this day in the year 258.

Luke 9: 23-26 (NRSVA):

23 Then he [Jesus] said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.’

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: 4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ (Whitman)

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 [15 September 2022], I am listening to the fourth movement, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ (Whitman).

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

Vaughan Williams based this movement on an earlier setting of the same words he had composed in 1914, before the outbreak of World War, and which he now incorporates into Dona nobis pacem.

This is a setting for a third poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), ‘Dirge for Two Veterans,’ from Drum-Taps (1865). The poem provides a second drum study for Vaughan Williams, but the drums this time are not the drums of war but the drums heard after war, the drums of death and burial, the drums of mourning and a funeral procession.

The drums and brass are transformed into instruments of noble commemoration; the strings and harp create a serene field filled by the choir fill with tender, loving words.

We are invited into a moonlit scene where we find a mother, highlighted by the moon, watching the funeral march for her son and husband, who have both been killed together in battle.

Her grief is symbolic of the grief shared by all families when lives are cut short one generation after another.

A compassionate world witnesses the scene with one heart, giving love as the moon gives light. The mourning turns to an outpouring of compassion and love as the wife and mother opens her heart and pours out her love for husband and son.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending!
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon;
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles;
All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding,
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring;
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father;
In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell;
Two veterans, son and father, dropped together,
And the double grave awaits them.

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive;
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumined;
(’Tis some mother’s large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Thursday 15 September 2022, Saint Cyprian):

The Collect:

Holy God,
who brought Cyprian to faith in Christ,
made him a bishop in the Church
and crowned his witness with a martyr’s death:
grant that, after his example,
we may love the Church and her teachings,
find your forgiveness within her fellowship
and so come to share the heavenly banquet
you have prepared for us;
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 our Redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened
by the blood of your martyr Cyprian:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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 (International Day of Democracy) in these words:

We give thanks for the ability to express ourselves and bring about democratic change. May we remember those who fought for our rights and pray for those who live in undemocratic countries.

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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