Archive for January, 2017

Ring Out, Wild Bells

Compline Choir member Gregory Bloch writes the following guest post about his wonderful arrangement; make sure you scroll down to listen!

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On New Year’s Day, 2017, the hymn for the service of compline at Saint Mark’s was “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” to the tune Deus Tuorum Militum, in an arrangement for choir and bells by yours truly.

It is a combination of text and music that first appeared in my favorite hymnal, Songs of Praise, Enlarged Edition published in 1931, and co-edited by certified musical giant Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin “All things bright and beautiful” Shaw, and superstar of the early 20th-century liturgical revival Percy Dearmer. It is a hymnal with explicit ambitions to improve the moral and intellectual life of the entire British nation. “We ourselves have borne well in mind,” writes Dearmer, “the fact that our churches, both Anglican and Free Church, have alienated during the last half-century much of the strongest character and intelligence of the Nation by the use of weak verse and music.” And later: ” If the Churches are to recover during the present century the ground which was lost during the last, much will depend on the hymn-books used.” The editors thus selected hymns for Songs of Praise based on criteria of poetic quality foremost — its goal was to present to every churchgoer, week after week, “that heritage, [which] is ours by right, of the great poetry in which the English language is supreme.” Gradually, Dearmer believed, the tastes of the whole nation would be elevated until “in the future, intelligent men [sic] will be able to take up a hymn-book and read it with as much interest and appreciation as any other collection of poetry.”

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It didn’t quite work out that way, although Songs of Praise has given us several hymns and harmonizations which have endured, and many which deserve to be better known.{1} The hymnal the co-editors produced feels like no other, containing texts far more (for lack of a better term) “sophisticated” than anything one would find in a hymnal today, including texts by Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Algernon Swinborne, Emily Brontë, Robert Browning, William Wordsworth, G.K. Chesterton, John Masefield, and a truly bizarre hymn cobbled together from lines of Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!”

Which brings us to “Ring out, wild bells,” with text by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The hymn is a selection of stanzas from one of Tennyson’s masterpieces, In Memoriam A.H.H., a book-length exploration of the poet’s grief at the death of his beloved college friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. It is the poem in which the phrase “nature, red in tooth and claw” appears. Here is the hymn as it appears in Songs of Praise (with notes for my bell arrangement in pencil):

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While looking through the hymnal sometime back in September, the phrases “ancient forms of party strife” “false pride in place and blood” and “the civic slander and the spite” seemed… urgently contemporary.

When I sat down to write out an arrangement, I decided to omit the “grief the saps the mind” verse, and replaced it with Tennyson’s original second stanza, which the hymnal omits:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going let [it] go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

(In both this verse and the first verse I changed Tennyson’s poetic “him” to “it,” to prevent any misunderstanding on the part of the congregation who did not have the text in front of them.) The entire long poem consists of quatrains like these, with their unusual ABBA rhyme scheme, a form which is today referred to as an “In Memoriam stanza”; in Dearmer’s words, the pattern “produces an impressive ‘circular’ movement.” The haunting opening stanzas of the poem also appear as a hymn in “Songs of Praise,” paired with Gibbons’ “Song 5”:

 

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Astute regular listeners to the Compline Choir may have noticed our hand bells were silent for some time this summer, but have been used quite a bit in the last few months. This is because the Cathedral’s beloved and unique bells were sent out to a specialist to be restored and retuned. The bells were cast in 1965 by the Dutch foundery of Petit & Fritsen, a company founded in 1660 and still in the hands of the original family — but which no longer produces hand bells, rendering our bells now literally irreplaceable.

Since their return, it struck me that, for as much use as the bells get by all the choirs at the Cathedral, we typically only use a few bells from the middle octaves. We almost never take advantage of the fact that the set includes five complete octaves, from C3 to C8. For this bell-themed hymn, and to ring in the new year, I set out to use the full range of bells, including the lowest bell in the set, C3, here held by Compline Choir baritone James Wilcox, who rang it in the service:

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The refurbishment of the bells was made possible by a generous gift from a member of the Saint Mark’s community, to whom the arrangement is dedicated. After hearing the hymn sung in the New Year’s Day compline service (and despite an unfortunate missed cue before stanza 4), she wrote me to say that the hymn “made me feel hopeful for the year we are in.” I hope you enjoy it as well.

[Editor’s note – the missed cue before stanza 4 has been edited out]

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{1} Notably, “Morning has broken,” an unlikely hit for Cat Stevens decades later, was commissioned by the editors from poet Eleanor Farjeon, to carry an old tune in an unusual poetic meter. The obscure but excellent hymn from Songs of Praise, “Ah! think not ‘the Lord delayeth’” with a text by Percy Dearmer himself, was sung by the Compline Choir in the service of December 4, 2016.

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New year, new season, thoughts on mercy

advent-candlesAdvent and Christmas have come and gone once again. Yesterday was January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, and I took the ornaments off the tree which we keep up all through the twelve days of Christmas. Then it was off to a birthday dinner for my youngest daughter, who was born on this feast day 28 years ago. It was especially festive this year, because she is going to give birth in the spring to a son – my first grandchild.

Today the artificial tree will come down and be packed away for next year. But perhaps because of my daughter’s journey to become a mother, I can’t let go of a season that is so full of expectation and hope. So while I pack up the symbols of the season gone by, I am still engaged with the things I have seen and heard over the last month – several of which I want to share with you.

Around the second week of December, I attended our annual Saturday day retreat at St. Placid Priory, where I am an Oblate. This year the theme was Advent Mercy, to coincide with the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis. One of the highlights of the retreat for me was watching a five-minute video made by Marilyn Freeman, another Oblate, who is a media artist and writer. Her “cinema divina” presents an opportunity for contemplation in the same way that “lectio divina” uses a spiritual text, which calls for deep listening, awakening to specific words or phrases that resonate, and mulling over and expanding the themes presented. Click on the following link to Marilyn’s site to start the video:

Mercy

One of the highlights of Compline during Advent was  singing of Peter Hallock’s setting of the hymn Rorate caeli desuper, which he wrote for the Compline Choir in 2008. The words speak of the desolation of the times and the hope that comfort is on the way. It’s a longing that, no matter what the time, never loses its relevance.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just One.

Ne irascaris Domine, ne ultra memineris iniquitatis:
Be not angry, O Lord, and remember no longer our iniquity:

ecce civitas Sancti facta est deserta: Sion deserta facta est: Jerusalem desolata est:
behold the city of thy sanctuary is become a desert, Sion is made a desert, Jerusalem is desolate.

Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus:
Be comforted, be comforted, my people;

Quia innovavit te dolor?
Why hath sorrow seized thee?

Noli timere, salvabo te; ego enim sum Dominus Deus tuus.
Fear not, I will save thee; for I am the Lord thy God.

Consolamini
Be comforted

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In 2016 both Christmas and New Year’s Day were on Sundays, and Compline at Christmas was made very special by having the whole service done in candlelight. You can listen to the service, which had several anthems, at this link.

All the best in 2017 from the Compline Underground!

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