Text: William Walsham How (1823-1897)
Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Tune name: SINE NOMINE
The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to believers who were tempted to abandon their faith. The text reflects realism and hope. In the tenth chapter, the recipients of the letter are reminded that they had “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.” In verse 34, we read that these Christians “had compassion on those in prison, and “joyfully accepted” the plundering of their property. Despite this evidence of their faithfulness in the past, they still had need of better confidence and greater endurance to face present and future challenges.
The eleventh chapter of the epistle recounts the faithfulness of a procession of Old Testament saints
who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
The Epistle to the Hebrews was surely in the mind of the Rev. William Walsham How when he wrote the eleven stanzas of the hymn, “For all the saints.” Our hymnal retains eight of those verses; many hymnals only keep five or six, apparently preferring to avoid the more militant lines about soldiers and warfare. But there is no escaping the fact that this hymn is insistently addressed to the Church Militant in light of the victories of the Church Triumphant: we keep up the fight because we have a vision of eternal reward and rest.
Here are the three stanzas that are omitted in our hymnal:
For the apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
For the evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy name adored.
For martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
William Walsham How was an Anglican priest when he wrote this hymn (he wrote 53 others during his lifetime). He later became suffragen Bishop of London, then Bishop of Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
While there are other tunes to which this text is sung, the favorite is surely the one by Ralph Vaughan Williams called SINE NOMINE. That name means (paradoxically) “without name.” During the Renaissance, it was common for composers to write an “arrangement” of a well-known melody. When they wrote a composition not based on an existing tune, it was designated “sine nomine.” Vaughan Williams borrowed this practice in naming his new melody.
This tune first appeared in the 1906 publication of the English Hymnal, on whose editorial committee Vaughan Williams served. SINE NOMINE is admirably fitting for the spirit of How’s poetry. It has a martial quality, in part because of the steady 4/4 marching-style rhythm: no dotted quarter notes, only a quick run of eighth notes before the final Alleluias.
In addition to its unfaltering rhythm, the melody of SINE NOMINE also suggests a call to courage. The first note played by the organ is a G, which is the first note of the scale in the key in which we sing the hymn. One beat later, the first note that the congregation sings is a D. The interval between G and D is a perfect fifth, which is naturally (i.e., in the nature of the physics of sound) the most confident of intervals. It is the sound of fanfares and calls to arms.
In the first verse, when the singers rest on the word “saints,” we sing a G, then we jump down to sing a low D, once again affirming the note that sounds the fifth of the scale. Later in the tune, when we sing “Thy name, O Jesus,” the interval between “O” and “Je-sus” is that perfect fifth again; our singing imitates a fanfare. Then, at the climax of the melody, the second note of the first “Alleluia” rises to the highest note in the whole tune, a step above that opening D. This elevation gives that wonderful sense of triumph suggested in How’s text, a sonic evocation of what is possible “when hearts are brave and arms are strong.”
Vaughan Williams composed two different harmonizations for this hymn, one for unison singing, the second for singing in parts. Our hymnal uses the latter setting for the middle verses.
Our choir recorded this hymn as part of our 2020 Choir in Quarantine project.
Our choir members will not be offended if you enjoy singing along with this recording of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.