Music Notes | Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

This Sunday’s Offertory anthem at the 11:15 Eucharist, like last Sunday’s Communion anthem (‘King of glory, King of peace’), consists of a poem by George Herbert set to music and found in the Hymnal 1982 (there are two others in that book). Herbert, a 17th-century English priest-poet generally grouped with the ‘metaphysical’ poets Donne (Herbert’s godfather), Marvell, and Southwell, was himself a musician and perhaps set some of his own poems, several of which refer to music or are self-referential in that regard.

The poem of praise beginning ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’ is headed ‘Antiphon’, and indeed this line and next – ‘my God and King’ – form an antiphon, or refrain, to the two stanzas.  The stanzas themselves are straightforward exhortations to praise God, excepting the last couplet of the second stanza, which may bear some explanation:

but above all, the heart

must bear the longest part.

It is likely that ‘the longest part’ refers to a cantus firmus, or pre-existing melody, upon which much Renaissance polyphony was built, and which usually appeared in longer note-values than were used in the other voices of a piece of music. If heaven and earth, and the Church which spans both, can and must be loci for the praise of God, nevertheless, Herbert suggests, the human heart is the locus classicus for such acclamation: there must lie the pre-existing melody, the throughline, of divine praise around which external adoration – in glorious polyphony! – may be built. 

‘Antiphon’ has been set to music several times, perhaps most famously by Vaughan Williams in Five Mystical Songs (all settings of Herbert poems, one of which, ‘The Call’, is found in simplified form in the Hymnal). The present setting [Hymn 402] was made by Erik Routley, a 20th-century English Congregationalist minister and a scholar and promoter of hymnody. The verse is fairly conventional, though quite skillful: its second phrase is a sequential repetition of the first, pitched a third lower, while the ascending four-note motive found in these two phrases is extended across the third and fourth phrases into an ascending scale spanning a whole octave before descending once again. The antiphon, set in the often dramatic key of B-flat minor, makes a strikingly declamatory contrast to the placid verses (which are in the parallel major key), and is harmonized slightly differently in each of its three occurrences. The whole is as powerful as it is brief.

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