22 August 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Monday 22 August 2022

A reredos on a side altar in Lichfield Cathedral … the Welsh-language title ‘Bryn Calfaria’ in Vaughan Williams’s work means ‘Mount Calvary’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Lichfield this morning to take part in the first stage of the three-day Lichfield Peace Walk from Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield, to Saint Chad’s Church, Stafford.

Today’s stage of the walk visits Lichfield Cathedral and a number of sites in Lichfield, including the Garden of Remembrance in Beacon Street, the site of the former Franciscan Friary, and Beacon Park Peace Garden, before setting off along Cross in Hand Lane to Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Farewell. Many of the walkers expect – appropriately – to hold small wooden crosses as they walk along Cross in Hand Lane.

But, before this day gets busy, 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.’

‘So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it’ (Matthew 23: 20) … the altar and sanctuary in Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield, the starting point of the three-day Lichfield Peace Walk this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Gospel reading at the Eucharist in the Lectionary of the Church of Ireland this morning is:

Matthew 23: 13-22 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 ‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, “Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.” 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.’

Today’s reflection: ‘Bryn Calfaria’

For the next three days I am listening to Vaughan Williams’s ‘Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes,’ and this morning [22 August 2022] I am listening to the first of these preludes, ‘Bryn Calfaria.’

These three organ solos are based on Welsh tunes that 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.

Gray’s liturgical compositions are for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Holy Communion in The Book of Common Prayer, including an Evening Service in F minor, a setting of Holy Communion in G, several anthems, including ‘What are these that glow from afar?’, and a collection of descants to various hymn tunes. He also composed a number of items for organ, for violin solo, and for voice and orchestra to religious and secular texts, including three choruses from Rupert Brooke’s 1914.

Vaughan Williams studied the organ under Gray at Trinity, and was regarded as one of his less talented students, although he also studied under Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.

James Day tells how Gray once wrote to Sir Walter Parry for advice about his student, saying he could never trust Vaughan Williams to play a simple service for him without some dread as to what he might do, despite his considerable knowledge and taste on organ and music matters generally.

His mother’s cousin Henrietta ‘Etty’ Litchfield (1843-1927), a daughter of Charles Darwin, once wrote that the young Vaughan Williams ‘can’t play the simplest thing decently … They say it will simply break his heart if he is told that he is too bad to hope to make anything of it.’

Nevertheless, with Gray’s patient help, Vaughan Williams 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. As James Day says, ‘they bear witness to a gentle, patient and thoughtful man.’ They may be modest pieces, but they are found in the repertoire of many churches, colleges and cathedrals.

The first of these preludes, ‘Bryn Calfaria,’ is based on the tune of that name by William Owen (1813-1893). This is the tune Vaughan Williams harmonised for the hymn ‘Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour’ in the English Hymnal in 1906 (No 319; see New English Hymnal, 296 ii), although in the Irish Church Hymnal it is used instead for ‘Hark! The voice of love and mercy’ (No 221).

William Owen began his working life at the age of 10 as a labourer in the Welsh slate quarries. He published his first hymn tune at the age of 18, and went on to publish a collection of his own hymns and anthems in the two-volume collection Y Perl Cerddorol (‘The Pearl of Music’) in 1852-1854. He conducted several choirs and was the Precentor or Choir Conductor at Caeathraw Chapel.

The tune ‘Bryn Calfaria’ was first published in the second volume of Y Perl Cerddorol in 1854, and was written for a Welsh hymn, ‘Gwaed dy Grfoes sy’n cody i fyny.’ It first appeared in an English collection of hymns in 1906 when it was harmonised by Vaughan Williams for ‘Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour’ in the English Hymnal. It made such an impression on Vaughan Williams that he wrote he later wrote this Organ Prelude which conveys its austere and solemn grandeur.

The Welsh-language title, ‘Bryn Calfaria,’ means ‘Mount Calvary,’ which adds to my reasons for listening to this composition on this early morning as I prepare to walk along Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield later today.

The Garden of Remembrance in Beacon Street, Lichfield … one of the stopping places on this morning’s leg of the Lichfield Peace Walk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer, Monday 22 August 2022:

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘The Pursuit of Justice.’ This theme was introduced yesterday by Javanie Byfield and Robert Green, ordinands at the United Theological College of the West Indies.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief) in these words:

Let us pray for those who are of minority faiths, who are persecuted for their religion or beliefs. May the world become a more tolerant and inclusive place.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The site of the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield … one of the stopping places on this morningy’s leg of the Lichfield Peace Walk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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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