Thursday, June 28, 2012

O God of Earth and Altar

My husband, the parish music director, has chosen G.K. Chesterton's text, "O God of Earth and Altar," with Ralph Vaughan Williams's tune "Kings Lynn" as our parish hymn for the Fortnight for Freedom.  In light of today's decision, I think that posting it here is particularly apt. Here is the hymn tune:


 


 There really ought to be a better recording available, on organ alone, but all the other versions are either not well played or have choirs singing words other than Chesterton's.  Here are his words:

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.



Chesterton must have appreciated that Vaughan Williams based his hymn tune on a folk song.  Chesterton was still alive when the setting was done, but I have never seen any documentation about what he thought of it.

According to the received wisdom, hymns that mention swords in every verse, criticize politicians, and admit the possibility of damnation will not be popular with modern congregations.  There were no complaints, however, about last weekend's use of it except that the hymn tune was a little unfamiliar--concerns assuaged when the complainers were assured that they'd have another crack at it this weekend--and one person even called the office to ask if he could get a copy of the text, because he liked it so much!  The received wisdom is wrong.  People, normal people at least, like strong hymns now and again, especially if the poetry and music are good.

Perhaps we'll be able to sing Chesterton's "Hymn for the Church Militant" some time.  I am not sure if there are any Vaughan Williams tunes that would fit it, but the meter is common enough.  Most of Vaughan Williams's melodies are fantastic--truly the great hymn tune writer of the 20th Century--and I think the combination of his music and Chesterton's words is wonderful.  If only there were a dozen more hymns like that, any complaints that Sunday Mass had become to feminized and unmanly would soon disappear, at least from our parish.

That paragon of manly virtue, the newly named Venerable Fulton Sheen, would be proud.  At least there was some good news for America today, eh?


  

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