20 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(31): ‘It is a thing most wonderful’

‘I sometimes think about the cross,/ and shut my eyes, and try to see …’ a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (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).

Yesterday, I was listening to the hymn ‘For All the Saints,’ which was written by Bishop William Walsham How and was set by Vaughan Williams to his tune Sine Nomine.

This morning [20 March 2015], I invite you to continue in this mode, listening to another hymn by Bishop How, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 226; New English Hymnal, 84), which Vaughan Williams set to the tune ‘Herongate.’

The tune ‘Herongate’ is one of several folksong melodies collected by Vaughan Williams. He transcribed the tune of ‘In Jesse’s City’ in 1903 when he heard a maid singing that song in Ingrave Rectory near Brentwood, about three miles from Herongate in Essex. It was first used with this hymn in 1906 in the first edition of the English Hymnal, which Vaughan Williams edited with Canon Percy Dearmer.

Herongate is near Ingrave, Essex, and both the Boar’s Head pub and the pond at Herongate are named after the crest of the Tyrell family: a boar’s head with a peacock- feather in its jaws. The inn has legendary connections with Dick Turpin, with stories of him leaping from upstairs windows.

Whether or not Vaughan Williams ever visited the Boar’s Head, the tune ‘Herongate’ is based on the tune he had heard with ‘In Jesse’s City’ in Ingrave Rectory. But, because he had already used ‘Ingrave’ as the name for a different tune, set to ‘There’s a Friend for Little Children,’ he named this morning’s tune ‘Herongate.’

The song is one of the ‘Died For Love’ / ‘Tavern in the Town’ family, also known as ‘In London City’ or ‘The Butcher Boy’ – although here it is a postman boy who is the unfaithful lover.

‘It is a thing most wonderful’ was written by How, while he was Rector of Whittington in Shropshire – then in the Diocese of St Asaph but now in the Diocese of Lichfield – but it was not published until 1872.

The first version was five verses in length, but within 15 years he had added two more verses to the original. Through this hymn, How is trying to reveal the love of God by looking at the Cross through the eyes of a child. In the 1872 draft, he placed the text I John 4: 10 above the hymn: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

It is a thing most wonderful,
almost too wonderful to be,
that God’s own Son should come from heaven,
and die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:
he chose a poor and humble lot,
and wept and toiled, and mourned and died,
for love of those who loved him not.

I cannot tell how he would love
a child so weak and full of sin;
his love must be most wonderful,
if he could die my love to win.

I sometimes think about the cross,
and shut my eyes, and try to see
the cruel nails and crown of thorns,
and Jesus crucified for me.

But even could I see him die,
I could but see a little part
of that great love which, like a fire,
is always burning in his heart.

It is most wonderful to know
his love for me so free and sure;
but ’tis more wonderful to see
my love for him so faint and poor.

And yet I want to love thee, Lord,
O light the flame within my heart,
and I will love thee more and more,
until I see thee as thou art.

Tomorrow:There’s a Friend for Little Children