22 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams:
(33): ‘Come down, O love divine’

The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, where the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 (Photograph: Colin West 2011 / Panoramio)

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).

This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent [22 March 2015]. The Fifth Sunday in Lent is often known as Passion Sunday, marking the beginning of a two-week period at the end of Lent known as Passiontide, although that name is sometimes used for the Sixth Sunday in Lent, more generally known as Palm Sunday.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for today are: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13 or Psalm 119: 9-16; Hebrews 5: 5-10; and John 12: 20-33.

This morning [22 March 2015], I invite you to join me in listening to the hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’ for which Vaughan Williams wrote the tune ‘Down Ampey.’ Thanks in particular to this setting by Vaughan Williams, this hymn is loved around the world.

He named the tune after the pretty Cotswold village of Down Ampney in Gloucestnershire, where he was born in the Vicarage on 12 October 1872. Down Ampney is off the A417 which runs between Cirencester and Faringdon in Oxfordshire on the A420, and about 5 km north of Cricklade, which is on the A419 running from Cirencester to Swindon, Wiltshire.

The parish church, All Saints’ Church, was founded by the Knights Templar in 1265, although much of its current shape is the result of a Victorian rebuilding. The spire dates from the 14th century, when the south porch was added.

The nave is supported on pointed arches decorated with a profusion of red flowers. One theory says the flowers are a reminder of the bubonic plague or Black Death, when red rash marked the victims’ skin. The Black Death is also said to explain why the church stands at a distance from the centre of the village.

When the order of Templars was suppressed by the crown in 1315, the living of Down Ampney passed to the Abbey of Cirencester. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries it passed to Christ Church, Oxford.

The church has excellent stained glass, much of it Victorian or modern, including a series of nautical parables given by Admiral Charles Talbot after his ship survived a storm off Sebastopol in 1854. Another window depicting the Resurrection Stone is dedicated to Vaughan Williams’s father. The interior is a symphony of woodwork, with intricately carved south transept screen and pulpit, and the Victorian north transept screen incorporates Jacobean panelling. The south transept has a pair of effigies, Sir Nicholas de Valers (or de Valery), a Templar knight associated with the founding of the church, and perhaps his wife, Margaret Bassett, who is shown in a pious pose.

The north transept or Hungerford Chapel is enclosed within a fine oak screen, part of which is made from the Musicians’ Gallery at Cirencester Abbey. The fragments were found in a yard in Down Ampney parish and moved into the church. The chapel is a grandiose memorial to Sir James Hungerford and his son Anthony, successive lords of the manor of Down Ampney. Their ornate, gilded monument dates to 1637 and shows father and son facing each other across a prayer desk.

The composer’s father, the Revd Arthur Charles Vaughan Williams (1834-1875), served in Bemerton, the same parish where the poet George Herbert had been Vicar around 300 years earlier — and at Halsall in Lancashire, before becoming the Vicar of Down Ampney in 1868. He died there on 9 February 1875, only three years after the birth of his son Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Soon after, Vaughan Williams was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan (née Wedgwood) (1842-1937), a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III and the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a home in the North Downs in Surrey bought by the Wedgwood family in 1847.

The tune he composed for the mediaeval hymn ‘Come Down, O Love Divine’ (Discendi, Amor santo) written by Bianco da Siena (ca1350-1434), is named ‘Down Ampney’ with affection for and in honour of his birthplace.

‘Come down, O love divine,’ (New English Hymnal, No 137; Irish Church Hymnal, No 294) was originally written in Italian in the 14th or 15th century by Bianco da Siena. It was first translated into English in 1867 by the Revd Dr Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890), a Dublin-born Anglican priest who had been forced to give up his full-time parochial ministry due to ill-health.

The hymn was first published in 1906, when it was published in the English Hymnal, edited by Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams, set to this strong, eminently singable, tune specially composed for it by Vaughan Williams, with a unique metre. Indeed, many regard this as the most beautiful of all his hymn tunes.

’Come down, O Love divine’ (‘Down Ampney’) by King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Thomas Williamson/Stephen Cleobury

Come down, O love divine,
Seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
Till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let thy glorious light
Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong,
With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
Till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.

Tomorrow:The Wassail Song

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