30 March 2011

A note on three of this evening’s hymns

‘The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4: 14) … A hidden waterfall above the beach at Loughshinny Co Dublin (Photograph; Patrick Comerford) (from the cover of the booklet for this evening’s Community Eucharist)

Patrick Comerford

Our processional hymn at the Community Eucharist this evening [30 March 2011], The Lenten Prose (Hymn 208, Church Hymnal, 5th edition), is a plainsong responsory from a 10th century Mozarabic litany, Attende Domine, and is a beautiful plea for God’s mercy. The first line is sung as a response between the verses and the English translation allows it to be sung to the traditional chant.

The Lenten Prose was introduced to modern hymnody by Dom Joseph Pothier, the Benedictine liturgist at Solesmes, in 1895, and was first adapted in English by WJ Birkbeck (1859-1916) in the English Hymnal (1906), which he co-edited with Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Birkbeck, whose grandmother was from Co Galway, was a devout Anglican who worked to increase understanding in England of pre-revolutionary Russia and the Russian Church. In 1913, he was the Birkbeck Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at Trinity College Cambridge.

Vaughan Williams wrote the settings for both ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life’ and ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’

The setting for our Gradual, I heard the voice of Jesus say (Church Hymnal, 576), is Kingsfold by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)., who was one of the greatest English composers of the last century and the musical editor of The English Hymnal, which he co-edited with Dearmer and Birkbeck.

Vaughan Williams also wrote the tune for this evening’s offertory hymn, Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life. The words are from The Call, a poem by George Herbert (1593-1633), published in a posthumous collection of poetry, The Temple, in Cambridge in 1633.

The Call is essentially a meditation on Christ’s words to the Apostle Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6). Herbert adds a number of additional allusions and offers real food for thought in the way he develops his theme. Because of the structure of each of the three stanzas, this poem is often described as “a trinity of trinities.”

George Herbert’s ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life’ was first published as the poem ‘The Call’ in his posthumous collection, ‘The Temple’

Herbert had been an MP and a Jacobean courtier before he was ordained in 1630, encouraged by Nicholas Ferrar and his community in Little Gidding. As Rector of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, Herbert was unfailing in his care for his parishioners, bringing the Sacrament to those who were ill and food and clothing to those in need. There he also began writing poetry, and shortly before he died he sent the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, who later arranged for its publication. Other hymns from The Temple in the Church Hymnal include King of glory, King of peace (358) and Let all the world in every corner sing (360).

Vaughan Williams, like Herbert, studied at Trinity College Cambridge. He retained the title The Call for his setting for this hymn, which was first published as the fourth of his Five Mystical Songs in 1911. However, the harmonisations of this evening’s hymn version are not identical to the original by Vaughan Williams – instead, the version in the Church Hymnal combines the first half of the version in BBC Songs of Praise (1997) with the second half from the Cambridge Hymnal (1967).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

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