Service music

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (September 8, 2019)

On an afternoon in the spring of 1863, Folliott Sandford Pierpoint, a young classics instructor and aspiring poet, surveyed from atop a hill the countryside in the valley of the River Avon outside of Bath, his native city. His gratitude for what he saw resulted in the hymn we sing as our Processional this Sunday, “For the beauty of the earth.”

What is not widely known is that Pierpoint was also profoundly grateful for the beauty of the Church and the gifts God had given it; the stanzas of his hymn that reflect this are not included in hymnals.

For thy Bride that evermore
lifteth holy hands above,
offering up on every shore
this pure sacrifice of love:
Christ, our God, to thee we raise
this our sacrifice of praise.

For thy martyrs’ crown of light,
for thy prophets’ eagle eye,
for thy bold confessors’ might,
for the lips of infancy:
Christ, our God, to thee we raise
this our sacrifice of praise.

For thy virgins’ robes of snow,
for thy maiden mother mild,
for thyself, with hearts aglow,
Jesu, victim undefiled,
offer we at thine own shrine
thyself, sweet Sacrament divine.

The name of Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871) is not well-known, but her most famous hymn, “Just as I am” (#409), appears in more hymnals than does “Amazing Grace.” Miss Elliott’s 150 or so hymns have been especially cherished by those suffering from illness and physical distress. A stanza omitted from our sermon hymn — “My God, My Father, while I stray” — reflects such a condition:

Should pining sickness waste away
my life in premature decay,
my Father, still I strive to say,
“Thy will be done!”

The tune to which we sing this hymn — WIMBLEDON — was composed especially for this text by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876). In his lifetime recognized as a leading choirmaster and organist, S. S. Wesley is recognized today as one of the 19th century’s greatest composers of music for the Anglican liturgy. Some have claimed him the most important English composer of music for the Church between Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).

In his book, The Musical Wesleys, music historian Erik Routley notes that S. S. Wesley was “easily the most cultivated musician of his day” who could “induce a sense of spaciousness and authority which none of his contemporaries could approach.” His father, Samuel Wesley, was also a composer and gave his son the middle name Sebastian in honor of his love for Johann Sebastian Bach. S. S. Wesley’s grandfather was Charles Wesley, whose hundreds of hymn are a great treasure of piety and theology. While Samuel Sebastian Wesley wrote some hymn texts, his principal work was as a composer of works for choir and for organ, as well as hymn tunes.

The pieces sung by the choir this Sunday are both by the great Tudor composer, William Byrd (1543-1623). The text of the Offertory anthem Prevent us, O Lord is a collect from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. “Prevent” is used in the sense of going before and hence directing. On the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, the collect asks that God’s grace “may always prevent and follow us.” Grace is in front of and behind us. You may listen to the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge sing this anthem on a recording from a choral evensong service preserved here.

The Communion motet by Byrd is Ave verum corpus.

The text to our first Communion hymn — “Humbly I adore thee” — was not originally intended for congregational singing but for private devotion. And it was probably not written by Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274) as indicated in our Hymnal, but it does date to the 13th century. Our second Communion hymn is “Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts.”

Our closing hymn — “Holy Father, great Creator” — was written by Alexander Viets Griswold (1766-1843). Born at Simsbury, Connecticut, he was consecrated bishop of the “Eastern Diocese,” in 1811, and was subsequently Bishop of Massachusetts. The tune REGENT SQUARE was composed by Henry T. Smart (1813-1879) and was first published in the English Presbyterian Church’s Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship (1867), of which Smart was music editor. Because the text editor of that hymnal, James Hamilton, was minister of the Regent Square Church, the “Presbyterian cathedral” of London, the tune was given its name.