Thursday, 1 November 2012

Music for All Saints' Day

One of the lovely things about All Saints' Day is that its imagery and music are so deeply familiar; it's a little like Christmas, in that as the feast approaches you already know what you're going to encounter, and can look forward to it.  But unlike Christmas, with its never-ending wealth of poetry and hymns, All Saints' Day has a fairly small range of material - almost all of it wonderful, but all very familiar.  And so this introduction is by way of apology (but not really) for posting such famous hymns today; they're just so good, and I like them so much that I could sing them every day without getting tired.  And we only get to sing them in one season of the year, so I have to make the most of it!

And thus:

Who are these like stars appearing,
These, before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
Who are all this glorious band?
Alleluia! Hark, they sing,
Praising loud their heavenly King.

Who are these of dazzling brightness,
These in God’s own truth arrayed,
Clad in robes of purest whiteness,
Robes whose lustre ne’er shall fade,
Ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence come all this glorious band?

These are they who have contended
For their Saviour’s honour long,
Wrestling on till life was ended,
Following not the sinful throng;
These who well the fight sustained,
Triumph through the Lamb have gained.

These are they whose hearts were riven,
Sore with woe and anguish tried,
Who in prayer full oft have striven
With the God they glorified;
Now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

These, like priests, have watched and waited,
Offering up to Christ their will;
Soul and body consecrated,
Day and night to serve Him still:
Now in God’s most holy place
Blest they stand before His face.

This is Frances Cox's translation of a German hymn, 'Wer sind die vor Gott­es Throne'; if this is indeed the German text, her version is quite a free one. Frances Cox was born in 1812 and lived all her life in Oxford; I just had some fun looking up her different addresses in the city, and found that she lived at one point in a house which is now part of St Hilda's College, and at another time in the Iffley Road; in 1861 she was living here, and is mentioned in that link as one of the 'three spinster daughters' of George Valentine Cox.  Surely Frances deserves to be named, for this hymn if nothing else...

And then there's this:

Give us the wings of faith to rise
within the veil, and see
the saints above, how great their joys,
how bright their glories be.

We asked them whence their victory came:
they, with one united breath,
ascribe their conquest to the Lamb,
their triumph to his death.

They marked the footsteps that he trod,
his zeal inspired their breast;
and, following their incarnate God,
they reached the promised rest.

This is Ernest Bullock's setting of words by Isaac Watts.  When sung as a hymn, I usually hear 'Give us the wings of faith to rise' to the beautiful tune 'Song 67'.  Bullock's version omits verses 2 and 5:

Once they were mourning here below,
and wet their couch with tears:
they wrestled hard, as we do now,
with sins, and doubts, and fears.

Our glorious Leader claims our praise
for his own pattern given;
while the long cloud of witnesses
show the same path to heaven.

It's a shame to lose verse 2; that idea is an important component of All Saints' Day, or at least it is to me, though I may be wrong in this.  I heard a sermon on Sunday which talked about how saints are too perfect for us to identify with - I've heard lots of sermons about that, and I always find it odd.  Maybe the medieval saints I love the most are unusual, but I've never thought them too perfect for me to identify with - from St Anselm playfully remembering his youthful arrogance to St Guthlac quaking with fear at the thought of his death, from the little vanities of St Edith and St Etheldreda to the many flaws of poor Edward the Confessor, I find their struggles deeply comforting.  These are people we remember, who strove and wrestled and wept through their lives, but survived it all somehow, and lived to be great and holy.

In which spirit, here's Vaughan Williams...

These words are taken from Ecclesiasticus 44:

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us;
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power;
Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge;
Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing;
All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth evermore.

And RVW brings us to:

I'm sure you know the words, but nonetheless:

1. For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

3. O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

6. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

7. But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on his way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

11. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The words are by William Walsham How, a Wadham man, who also wrote the slightly sentimental but nonetheless lovely 'Summer suns are glowing'.  I have a soft spot for singing 'For all the saints' to Stanford's Engelberg, which you don't hear so often because the Vaughan Williams version is so dearly loved; but I do like Stanford's 'Alleluias'.


Priscilla said...

YES, I completely agree. A small and familiar but glorious repertoire. I'm excited to play Sine Nomine this Sunday.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, that tune is so much fun!