Saturday, 29 September 2012

Two hymns for Michaelmas

Michaelmas is one of my favourite days in the church's year, almost entirely because of the season in which it falls: it's an autumn feast, the last glow of fiery summer, and the golden leaves of angels' wings (as in this window at Winchester Cathedral, above) seem to flutter in harmony with the unleaving of the trees.  I couldn't resist posting today two of my absolute favourite hymns, which both speak of angels and angel-song.  Neither mentions St Michael directly but both do something almost better: they begin with the angels' singing and work downwards through creation to our singing, and then upwards again to God.  Both acknowledge how weak human praise can be; one asks for the angels to assist us in our singing, and then takes delight in the contribution that a heart properly 'tuned' can make to the general song; the other takes comfort in the idea that human endeavours of music and art come from God and return to him, pleasing to him because he made them for that purpose.  My favourite kind of hymn is 'hymns about hymns' - songs about singing, carols about the joy of carolling, such as these two Victorian examples, or this medieval one.  For me, this kind of hymn adds immeasurably to the experience of worship, and allows us to participate in such a gloriously joyful picture of heaven; sometimes I think such hymn-singing is the only experience on earth that's anything like heaven at all.

These two hymns share that feature, but they also have something else in common which makes them especially dear to me - their creators (in one case of the tune, in the other of the words) belonged to my Oxford college, and so we sing them very often in our chapel.  As Edmund says in Mansfield Park, "I have not yet left Oxford long enough to forget what chapel prayers are" - and what the singing of these two hymns in that chapel is!  I could find no recording on youtube sung quite so lustily or with so much love, but I enjoyed myself looking; there are many versions of both, and having just listened to about twenty of each, I could still listen to twenty more. But here's one:

Ye holy angels bright,
Who wait at God's right hand,
Or through the realms of light
Fly at your Lord's command,
Assist our song,
For else the theme
Too high doth seem
For mortal tongue.

Ye blessed souls at rest,
Who ran this earthly race
And now, from sin released,
Behold the Saviour's face,
His praises sound,
As in his sight
With sweet delight
Ye do abound.

Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing;
Take what he gives
And praise him still,
Through good or ill,
Who ever lives.

My soul, bear thou thy part,
Triumph in God above:
And with a well-tuned heart
Sing thou the songs of love!
Let all thy days
Till life shall end,
Whate'er he send,
Be filled with praise.

'Ye holy angels bright' is an adaptation by J. H. Gurney of a text written in 1681 by Richard Baxter, and the tune is by John Darwall.  I always think this hymn has something of George Herbert about it, especially that last verse - 'a well-tuned heart' is Herbert through and through.  Isn't it just the most wonderful phrase?

The second hymn is 'Angel-voices ever singing', by Francis Pott, with a tune by Edwin George Monk.  This is the choir of Norwich Cathedral, singing a very precise but not very hearty version; I chose this one because you can clearly hear the irresistable harmony lines, but it is a little lacking in body. You should hear the way the students in chapel roar out "Yea, we can!"...

Angel-voices ever singing
Round thy throne of light,
Angel-harps, for ever ringing,
Rest not day or night;
Thousands only live to bless thee,
And confess thee
Lord of might.

Thou who art beyond the farthest
Mortal eye can scan,
Can it be that thou regardest
Songs of sinful man?
Can we know that thou art near us
And wilt hear us?
Yea, we can.

Yea, we know that thou rejoicest
O'er each work of thine;
Thou didst ears and hands and voices
For thy praise design;
Craftsman's art and music's measure
For thy pleasure
All combine.

In thy house, great God, we offer
Of thine own to thee;
And for thine acceptance proffer,
All unworthily,
Hearts and minds and hands and voices,
In our choicest

Honor, glory, might and merit,
Thine shall ever be,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Blessed Trinity!
Of the best that thou hast given
Earth and heaven
Render thee.

The rhymes in these verses - especially between 'rejoicest' and 'voices' and then between 'voices' and 'choicest' - are just about my favourite thing in hymnody (or psalmody, perhaps I should say.  Are there any other hymns which contain the word 'psalmody'?!).

I found this on youtube while I was searching for the hymns: if you have a spare five minutes, travel back to 1974 with John Betjeman and a village choir in Norfolk rehearsing 'Ye holy angels bright' (skip to 1:35):

It might as well be a different universe!  And only twelve years before I was born.  What on earth happened to this world?