Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Non-plussed by a very familiar tune at St Michael & All Angels’ mini-hymnathon

The St Michael & All Angels, Bedford Park congregation made a very uncertain start to No. 36 in our Hymnathon Top 50 last Friday evening. I thought I knew the tune to “How shall I sing that majesty”, having checked out all the hymns beforehand, but the melody issuing from our wonderful new organ foxed many of us. It took me at least three lines to recognise it as the main theme from one of the greatest of all English classical compositions  – Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

It’s telling that the only YouTube version of the hymn sung to Tallis’s tune was by a student choir from Budapest. I can only presume that the person or persons who pledged £147.15 to get the hymn into the Top 50 must have specified this particular version of it, because it's normally sung to "Coefen". Whatever, it made me realise that, while I’ve loved the Fantasia ever since hearing it on a Vaughan Williams greatest hits-style compilation LP 40 years’ ago, and despite having heard a lot of Thomas Tallis’s music over the decades, I’d never bothered tracking down the original theme. So when I got home, I found "Third Tune for Archbishop Parker's Psalter ("Why fum'th in sight")" (1567) on YouTube:

(The first comment under the video is “someone could write a great fantasia based on this tune”.) The piece is in the Phrygian mode, by the way, and is also known as the Third Mode Melody. Here’s a stunning performance by cellist Tony Woollard:

And here is that Vaughan Williams Fantasia, first performed in 1910:

I find that  overwhelmingly, indescribably beautiful. Whenever I hear it, I see a hunched figure in a cowl walking slowly through a snowstorm towards a church through whose windows flickering candlelight can dimly be discerned (or that could have been the opening scene from an episode of Midsomer Murders in which the vicar’s found hanging from a bellrope). Anyhow, it's definitely midwinter for me.

I’m sure you know Thomas Tallis's music, but in the unlikely event you don't, here’s his most famous work, the sublime 40-part motet Spem in Alium (c. 1570), which has been described by the Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as “a crowning glory of our civilisation”. He won’t get any argument from me:

We enjoyed an utterly glorious performance of this work at a Prom in 2007 with a full complement of voices, and it was humbling to learn (from the conductor, Peter Phillips) that Tallis himself would only ever have heard the intended 40 singers performing it in his own head - there wouldn't have been enough trained singers available in one place in his era.

Our min-hymnathon raised another £7,500 (as I explained here, the money's to help pay for our new organ). You can see the final chart placings here. We put our cash behind “Jerusalem the Golden”, which came in a creditable fifth. It was a deeply wonderful and moving evening. You can read all about it here (the article mentions some strange local woman who does cakes for special occasions).

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