Service music

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (November 3, 2019)

Our Processional hymn this Sunday honors the celebration on Friday of All Saints’s Day. “For all the saints” may be the definitive All Saints’ Day hymn. The text was written by William Walsham How (1823-1897) while he was serving as rector at Whittington in Shropshire, a post he held for 28 years before becoming suffragan bishop of East London. The author of over 50 hymns (including eight in our Hymnal), he once answered the question “What constitutes a good hymn?” by answering: “A good hymn is something like a good prayer — simple, real, earnest, and reverent.”

A good hymn also includes well-crafted music, and few hymn tunes equal SINE NOMINE, the melody composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams for use with this hymn in the 1906 English Hymnal. (Read more about this formative hymnal here, and about the formal structure of SINE NOMINE here.)

Our Sermon hymn — “Hark, my soul! it is the Lord” — is one of many poems by William Cowper (1731-1800) set to music. Cowper was both brilliant and deeply troubled, and many of his hymns make evident his struggle for a deeper confidence of God’s presence and love. Consider the texts of the three other Cowper hymns in our Hymnal: “God moves in a mysterious way” (#310), “O for a closer walk with God” (#416) and “Sometimes a light surprises” (#443). Each of them is from the point of view of a believer struggling with spiritual darkness.

The first stanza of “Hark, my soul! it is the Lord” ends with a question from Jesus addressed to the believer: “Say, poor sinner, lov’st thou me?” The final stanza begins with the earnest confession: “Lord, it is my chief complaint that my love is weak and faint.” In between these two stanzas are four stanzas (one of which is omitted from our Hymnal) in which we sing the words of Jesus to the anxious believer. Each stanza describes the depth of the love of Jesus.

In between our Hymnal’s second and third stanza, the following text, also representing the assurances of our Lord, appeared in the original:

“Can a woman’s tender care
cease towards the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be,
yet will I remember thee.”

The Offertory anthem today is a setting of a text from the Book of Common Prayer by the great English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). The text is the prayer at the beginning of the Litany (BCP, p. 54): “Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of our sins: spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.”

Purcell’s emotional use of harmony in this piece captures both the urgent desire for forgiveness (implied in the many dissonances) and the reassurance of pardon (listen for the rich, comforting harmony on the words “whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood”).

Here is a recording of this anthem sung by the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter.

During Communion, the choir sings O sacrum convivium by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). The Communion hymns are “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness” and “Father, we thank Thee Who hast planted.” This latter hymn is a metrical paraphrase of several brief devotional prayers found in The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, known also as the Didache, a Greek treatise that may date back to the first century. The paraphrase we sing is by F. Bland Tucker. The tune RENDEZ À DIEU is the work of the renowned French Psalmodist Louis Bourgeois (c.1510 to 1515–1559 or later), editor of the Geneva Psalter. Bourgeois is best-known for his composition of the tune OLD HUNDREDTH, to which the Doxology has been sung in thousands of churches for hundreds of years (see in our Hymnal, #277 and #278). His name has been assigned to one of his tunes, which we just sang at our All Saints’ Day service in the hymn “Joy and triumph everlasting” (#129).

Our closing hymn reminds us about how central music is in the work of Creation and Redemption. “Songs of praise the angels sang” is the work of James Montgomery (1771-1854), as are a dozen other hymns in our Hymnal, including “Angels from the realms of glory” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” In “Songs of praise the angels sang,” music is identified as present at the Creation, at the Nativity, and at the Second Coming. And we will be singing God’s praises for all eternity. Thus “the Church delights to raise psalms and hymns and songs of praise.”