11 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (22): Three Preludes
Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, 3, ‘Hyfrydol’

‘Alleluia! Bread of heaven … / here proclaimed as priest and victim / in the Eucharistic feast’ … words from the hymn set to Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of ‘Hyfrydol’ … the High Altar and Reredos in Saint Chad’s Church, Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, 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 three mornings this week [Monday to Wednesday], I am listening to his Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, and I conclude this morning [11 March 2015] as I listen to the third of these preludes, ‘Hyfrydol.’

These three organ solos are based on Welsh tunes, which Vaughan Williams had already arranged for hymns in the English Hymnal, which he edited with Canon Percy Dearmer.

Vaughan Williams’s father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, came from a family of Welsh origins that had distinguished itself in the law.

The composer first published these organ preludes in 1920 and dedicated them to Alan Gray (1855-1935), who was the organist of Trinity College Cambridge (1892-1930) when Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate there.

Vaughan Williams studied the organ under Gray at Trinity, and with Gray’s patient help he passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) in 1898, and received his Doctorate in Music (MusD) at Cambridge the following year. These three organ preludes are Vaughan Williams’s tribute as a grateful student to Alan Gray.

The third of these preludes, ‘Hyfrydol’ (pronounced ‘huv-rud-ol’, meaning “cheerful”) is based on the tune of that name composed around 1830 by the Welsh singer, Richard Huw Pritchard (1811-1887), when he was still only 19.

Pritchard was a grandson of the 18th century Welsh bard Rowland Huw. He lived for many years in Bala, where was a minister and precentor (or director of the choir) at the annual Sasiwns y Bala. Many of his tunes were published in Welsh periodicals, and ‘Hyfrydol’ was first published by Pritchard in 1844 with about 40 of his other tunes in his collection of hymns for children, Cyfail y Cantorion (‘The Singer’s Friend’).

He moved to Holywell, about 20 miles west of Chester, in 1880, when at the age of 69 he was forced by poverty to take a job as a loom tender’s assistant in the mills of the Welsh Flannel Manufacturing Company. He died in Holywell in 1887 at the age of 76.

‘Hyfrydol’ is Pritchard’s most enduring tune and was regularly sung to a number of Welsh hymns. However, it was almost 20 years after his death before ‘Hyfrydol’ was first sung to English words. Vaughan Williams arranged it in 1906 for the hymn ‘Alleluia, sing to Jesus’ by William Chatterton Dix in the English Hymnal (No 302; see New English Hymnal, No 271).

Hyfrydol has been used as a setting for many other hymns, including Charles Wesley’s ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’ and ‘Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,’ Francis Harold Rowley’s ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story,’ John Wilbur Chapman’s ‘Our Great Saviour,’ and Philip P Bliss’s ‘I Will Sing of My Redeemer’ (1876). In the Irish Church Hymnal it is the setting for John Bakewell’s hymn, ‘Hail, thou once-despised Jesus!’ (No 268).

‘Hyfrydol’ has a metre of (alternating lines of eight and seven syllables). Other examples of this metre include ‘Blaenwern’ by William Rowlands and ‘Abbot’s Leigh’ by Cyril V Taylor.

The best-known arrangement of ‘Hyfrydol’ is that by Vaughan Williams for his revision of the English Hymnal in 1906, and he also composed some variations on this theme. Here once again, as with so many arrangements, Vaughan Williams turns an apparently simple tune into a work of great beauty and with profound emotional impact.

Tomorrow:God that madest earth and heaven’ (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’).

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