There’s a voice in the wilderness crying – Text: Isaiah 40:3-11; para. James Lewis Milligan (1876-1961) / Music: Henry Hugh Bancroft (1904-1988)
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This hymn, found in Common Praise at 106, was written by James Milligan in 1925 in celebration of the union of the creation of the United Church of Canada in that year. The three stanzas are based on Isaiah 40:3-11, which is also quoted in this Sunday’s Gospel reading from John 1: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'” Milligan was born in Liverpool, England and immigrated to Canada in 1911, where he made a career as a journalist and served as a Methodist lay pastor. He published two volumes of verse; as far as is known, this was his only hymn. The text sung in this recording differs somewhat from that in Common Praise, which has altered some phrases of Milligan’s original.
The very memorable tune ASCENSION was written to these words in 1938 by Henry Hugh Bancroft. The composer was born at Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, England in 1904. After studying music at Durham University, he immigrated to Canada, taking up the position of Organist & Choirmaster at St Matthew’s Church in Winnipeg. He held the same position at Christ Church Cathedral here in Vancouver from 1946 to 1948 and finished up his career at All Saints’ Cathedral in Edmonton. The teacher of my teacher Hugh McLean, I think of Hugh Bancroft as one of my musical grandfathers.
There’s a voice in the wilderness crying,
a call from the ways untrod:
Prepare in the desert a highway,
a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted,
the lofty hills brought low;
make straight all the crooked places,
where the Lord our God may go!
O Zion, that bringest good tidings,
get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people
the coming of their King.
Like the flowers of the field they perish,
like grass our works decay,
the power and pomp of nations
shall pass like a dream away;
but the word of our God endureth,
the arm of the Lord is strong;
he stands in the midst of nations,
and he will right the wrong.
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd,
the lambs he’ll gently hold;
to pastures of peace he’ll lead them,
and bring them safe to his fold.
This is the record of John – Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
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Orlando Gibbons was a leading composer, virginalist and organist in the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods. He sang in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge between 1596 and 1598 and was granted the degree of Bachelor of Music in 1606 before being appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by James I, where he served as an organist from at least 1615 and became senior organist in 1623. He wrote many keyboard works, fantasias for viols, madrigals, anthems and some Anglican services. His writing demonstrates a superb mastery of melody, development and counterpoint.
The late 16th century in England saw the emergence of the verse anthem, in which one or more solo voices are contrasted with the full choir. Gibbons’ well-known setting of John 1:19-23, a dialogue between John the Baptist and Jewish priests and Levites, lends itself perfectly to this form. It was written at the request of William Laud, who was President of St John’s College, Oxford, and was written for the college chapel, where it likely received its first performance.
This is the record of John,
when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him,
Who art thou?
And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly,
I am not the Christ.
And they asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elias?
And he said, I am not.
Art thou the prophet?
And he answered, No.
Then said they unto him,
What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us.
What sayest thou of thyself?
And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord.