Music for the Sixth Sunday of Easter — May 9, 2021

Lord, in thy name thy servants plead – Text: Jon Keble (1792-1866) / Music: Thomas Ravenscroft (1592-1635); Ravenscroft’s Psalter 1621

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The three days before Ascension Day have for many centuries been designated as days of special prayer and supplication (“rogare”) for “the seeds sown.” Although in Canada, with many different climatic zones, a fixed date for such prayer does not always seem relevant, the agricultural theme of Rogationtide has in recent years been expanded to include concern for the environment more generally.

The English churchman and poet John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, penned this hymn in 1856; it was published in Keble’s Miscellaneous Poems (1869). The development of Harvest festival and Rogation-Day services during the Victorian period would have encouraged the writing of this hymn asking for God’s blessing on the newly sown crops.

Little is known about Thomas Ravenscroft’s early life. It is believed he sang in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and probably received his bachelor’s degree in 1605 from Cambridge. He is well remembered for his metrical psalter (The Whole Booke of Psalmes), published in 1621. It was the influence of Calvin, not that of Luther, that was decisive in the shaping of both the English and the Scottish Reformed churches. The effect of that influence was to restrict congregational song quite firmly to psalmody. Ravenscroft’s collection provided an extensive compilation of many of the psalm tunes in use at that time. This hymn is found in The New English Hymnal at number 126.

Lord, in thy name thy servants plead,
And thou hast sworn to hear;
Thine is the harvest, thine the seed,
The fresh and fading year.

Our hope, when autumn winds blew wild,
We trusted, Lord, with thee;
And still, now spring has on us smiled,
We wait on thy decree.

The former and the latter rain,
The summer sun and air,
The green ear, and the golden grain,
All thine, are ours by prayer.

Thine too by right, and ours by grace,
The wondrous growth unseen,
The hopes that soothe, the fears that brace,
The love that shines serene.

So grant the precious things brought forth
By sun and moon below,
That thee in thy new heaven and earth
We never may forego.


Meditation on John Keble’s Rogationtide Hymn – John Ireland (1879-1962)

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The English composer John Ireland was born in Manchester, studied with Stanford, and taught Benjamin Britten among others, at the Royal College of Music, lived in Chelsea, London for over 50 years and died in his converted windmill home in Sussex. His foremost influences were the ancient landscapes of the Channel Islands, Dorset and Sussex, and the mysticism and fantasy in the writings of Arthur Machen.

Ireland’s music belongs to the school of ‘English Impressionism’. Having been brought up on the German classics, notably Beethoven and Brahms, he was strongly influenced in his twenties and thirties by the music of Debussy, Ravel, and the early works of Stravinsky and Bartók. While many of his contemporaries, such as Vaughan Williams and Holst, developed a language strongly characterised by English folk song, Ireland evolved a more complex harmonic style closer to the French and Russian models. Like Fauré, he preferred the intimate forms of chamber music, song, and piano music to the larger orchestral and choral canvases. The hymn tune Love Unknown (Common Praise 184) is sung in churches throughout the English-speaking world, as is his Communion Service in C major, last sung by the St. James’ choir in June 2019.

Ireland’s organ music belongs largely to the early years of his composing career (1902-1911). The ‘Meditation’ on John Keble’s Rogationtide Hymn, however, was written in 1958, and was his very last composition. Rather than literally quoting a musical setting of the hymn, it is programmatic, describing the meaning of the words in its melody, harmony, shifting dynamics and the tonal colours of the organ, in other words, creating a musical ‘impression’ of Keble’s text.


Greater love hath no man – John Ireland

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The anthem Greater love hath no man was commissioned in 1912 for Charles Macpherson, the sub-organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. Intended as a meditation for Passiontide, Greater love hath no man drew its text from a compilation of scriptural passages in Daily Light on the Daily Path, a series of booklets containing Bible readings which Ireland used to observe on a regular basis. The anthem rapidly gained currency in cathedrals and church choirs and, with the outbreak of war in 1914, its text gained a special resonance as the casualties from the front mounted.

Indeed, with Alice Meynell’s poem Summer in England, 1914, which contrasted the slaughter of Flanders’ fields with the tranquil scenes of England, and the subject of sacrifice emanating from pulpits throughout the land, Ireland discovered that his anthem inadvertently resonated with a wider national mood. Although Greater love might outwardly seem to be influenced by the English verse anthem, it has the scope and narrative redolent of a small cantata in its manner of continuity and dialogue between soloists and chorus.

The text is drawn from Canticle 8 (The song of Moses), 1 Peter 2, 1 Corinthians 6, Romans 12, and John 15, our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, which also gives this anthem its title.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods
drown it.

Love is strong as death.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for
his friends.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we,
being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.

Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified in the name of the
Lord Jesus;

Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you
out of darkness into his marvellous light.

I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your
bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your
reasonable service.

Gerald Harder