There’s a funny opening in an episode of Family Guy, where the guys are sitting at the Drunken Clam, and a Barry Manilow concert is announced. At first they make fun of it, but slowly, they are comfortable enough to confess how much they love Manilow and are soon like excited teenagers as they plan to see him in concert.
I feel a little like this, especially in the company of my friends who are lovers of much less schmaltzy English composers like Benjamin Britten. But the truth is, I love Ralph Vaughn Williams, who set this English folk tune in a lovely arrangement. He did hymnody a great service with his settings and compositions. He parted from his contemporaries and leaned into the beautiful folk tunes of England and France, and wrote lush, harmonious pieces that are a joy to listen to and a joy to sing. And I am definitely a fan of this tune.
I also rather like the lyrics, with some rich metaphors and turns of phrase, although their place is complex: is it a winter hymn? An Advent hymn? A praise hymn? Some part of all three, I suspect.
All beautiful the march of days, as seasons come and go;
the hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow;
hath sent the hoary frost of heaven, the flowing waters sealed,
and laid a silent loveliness on hill and wood and field.
O’er white expanses sparkling clear the radiant morns unfold;
the solemn splendors of the night burn brighter through the cold;
life mounts in every throbbing vein, love deepens round the hearth,
and clearer sounds the angel-hymn, “Good will to all on earth.”
O Thou from whose unfathomed law the year in beauty flows,
thy self the vision passing by in crystal and in rose.
Day unto day doth utter speech, and night to night proclaim,
in ever changing words of light, the wonder of thy name.
My problem is this: the tune’s a bit cheery and springy and seems a tad odd in this setting. It will seem odd in future posts too – I go back to my comment a few weeks ago about how meter doesn’t always mean the lyrics fit. For me, it’s a hair too happy a tune, especially for lyrics like “laid a silent loveliness” and “life mounts in every throbbing vein, love deepens round the hearth”… I don’t want spritely trills while singing those lyrics, I want a lush, lengthened melody line there.
And for all this grousing, I sang this with some measure of gusto. The tune almost requires a full-bodied sing with its lilt and intricate movement. So I don’t know. Maybe this series has me looking at these hymns with a more critical eye than is necessary. Maybe it’s the mood, and it will pass, and soon I will be transported again into the mystery, inspiration, and comfort of singing hymns. Who knows?
What I know is that despite my thinking this marriage of tune and lyric doesn’t quite work, I am glad for the singing.