Saturday, 19 September 2015

Sussex hymn-tunes - Part I

I am not a native of Sussex but I have lived here for about eighteen years now, which is longer than I spent in the town in Kent where I grew up. So for me, Sussex is now very much home. I have been delighted to discover that my researches into hymn-tunes have led me to many 'little towns' that are only a few miles from my doorstep.

Many of the tunes named after Sussex places owe their titles to Ralph Vaughan Williams. In December of 1903 Vaughan Williams had heard a Mr Pottipher, of Brentwood in Essex, singing the folk-song Bushes and Briars; when he heard it, he felt it was something he had known all his life. From then on he became an enthusiastic collector of folk-songs, working with Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood, George Butterworth and others to preserve the musical heritage of the country. Around this time, in 1904, he was approached by the Rev Percy Dearmer and asked to become music editor of a new hymn-book. This eventually became The English Hymnal, now a classic of hymnody. In choosing tunes for the hymns in this book, Vaughan Williams often turned to folk-music, adapting the traditional tunes so that they would be suitable for congregational singing. Nearly forty folk-tunes made their way into The English Hymnal in this way, and some of them have become so familiar as hymn-tunes that their earthy origins have all but been forgotten.

The area around Vaughan Williams' home in Leith Hill proved to be particularly fertile in his quest for folk-music that could be adapted for hymn-tunes. So it is not surprising that place-names from Surrey and Sussex crop up many times in the tune-index of The English Hymnal. I have already discussed FOREST GREEN in an earlier post; but that is over the border in Surrey. Today I'm keeping strictly to Sussex.

Thrift Cottages, Monks Gate. Photo © Mark Browse

And what better place to start than a tune called SUSSEX? It comes from a folk-song called The Royal George; Vaughan Williams collected more than one version of this tune, but the one that most closely resembles the hymn-tune was sung to him by Peter Verrall, who lived in Thrift Cottages in Nuthurst Road, Monks Gate, just outside Horsham. The song concerns a shipwreck, and the original words begin as follows:

As we set sail for the rock of Gibraltar,
As we set sail from sweet Dublin Bay,
O little did we think of our sad misfortune,
Sleeping in the briny sea.

In The English Hymnal Vaughan Williams adapted this song for the hymn Father, hear the prayer we offer. Here's a link to a recording of this hymn sung by the choir of Lincoln Cathedral:

Peter Verrall of Monks Gate, and his wife Harriet, were keen singers of folk-songs, and provided Vaughan Williams with much fruitful material. Harriet sang him a traditional Christmas song which has become ubiquitous: it is the one beginning On Christmas Night all Christians sing, and it is often referred to simply as the SUSSEX CAROL. There is a very well-known arrangement of this by the late Sir David Willcocks.

Harriet Verrall also sang Vaughan Williams a song called Our Captain calls all hands:

Our Captain calls all hands on board tomorrow
Leaving my dear to mourn in grief and sorrow.
Dry up those briny tears and leave off weeping,
So happy we may be at our next meeting.

Like all folk-songs this has many variants. To give an idea of the tune, here is a clip (with slightly different words), sung by Martin Carthy:

Readers with even a passing interest in hymns will at once spot what Vaughan Williams did with this song: it is the basis of the hymn-tune MONKS GATE, familiar to nearly everyone as the tune for John Bunyan's lyric Who would true valour see (or, as some prefer, He who would valiant be - the slightly amended version of the words that Percy Dearmer produced for The English Hymnal). Here is the hymn being sung lustily in Southwark Cathedral:

Monks Gate millennium sign. Photo © Mark Browse.