Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Hills of the north

My last post was entitled Sussex hymn-tunes - Part I, implying that there would at the very least be a Part II. And so there will be, in due course. But today I would like to write about East Anglia. I realise that East Anglia is not in the north, and is notoriously unhilly. But the title of the present entry does have a point, which we will come to by and by.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Snape Maltings given by the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave a wonderful rendition of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Brahms' Symphony no 4, and Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (sung by Helena Dix, who stepped in at the last minute to cover for Susan Gritton, and produced a sublime, ravishing performance).

This is of course Benjamin Britten country. As far as I'm aware Britten did not contribute to hymnody in any way (unless you count his arrangement of the National Anthem, which is sometimes heard at the Last Night of the Proms). Nevertheless, a visit to Snape is a musical pilgrimage in keeping with the spirit of my other journeys inspired by hymn-tunes. The morning after the concert I went for a walk through the marshes and then drove up the road to Aldeburgh and strolled along the seafront. It was a sunny, windy autumn day, and after I had finally tracked down a place that could sell me coffee (and a decent coffee at that - thank you Munchies) I was content. There is an impressive memorial to Britten right on the stony beach: a massive metal shell pierced through with a quotation from Peter Grimes: 'I hear those voices that will not be drowned'.
The Britten memorial on Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk. Photo © Mark Browse 2015
None of this has much to do with hymns. But the day before, en route to Snape, I called in at two places that have inspired some great hymn tunes. 

Little Cornard really is a little place, not far from Sudbury in Suffolk. To get to it you have to drive along a single-lane track, hoping that you do not meet another vehicle coming the other way. There are few cottages here and a pretty church (which unfortunately was closed when I went there). 
Little Cornard Church, Suffolk. Photo © Mark Browse 2015
During the 1910s the composer Martin Shaw would come here to help out on the local farms. The Martin Shaw Trust Archivist Isobel Platings tells me that he once wrote to Ralph Vaughan Williams from here, giving his address as Slough Hall, Slushy Lane, Workhouse Green. Vaughan Williams assumed this was a joke, and replied by writing to Shaw's Hampstead address. 

Shaw also spent his honeymoon in Little Cornard, at Appletree Cottage, which was lent to him by Noël Haselwood. I tried to track down the location of this cottage, and came to the conclusion that it is no longer there: it seems to have been replaced by a modern house, which can be seen in the distance in this picture:
© Mark Browse 2015
Shaw wrote many hymn-tunes, some of which have become established as classics. LITTLE CORNARD, named after this charming hamlet, is the vigorous tune usually sung to Hills of the north, rejoice, even though, as I mentioned earlier, the countryside around here is not northern and rather flat.

Just a few miles away is the pretty medieval town of Thaxted. The centre of Thaxted has many brightly-coloured old houses, leaning against each other for support. Its church is truly impressive, and has been described as 'the cathedral of Essex'. In 1914 Gustav Holst went to live in Monk Street, which is nowadays not much more than a loop off the B184 just to the south of Thaxted, with a handful of substantial cottages. It was here that he composed his most famous work, Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, which was later re-named The Planets. According to some sources the music for this suite was originally inspired by the countryside around Thaxted, and the association with astrology was added later.

In 1917 Holst and his wife moved to Thaxted itself, into a house in the centre of the town, which now bears a blue plaque to commemorate his time there.
Holst's house in Thaxted. Photo © Mark Browse 2015.


The following year Vaughan Williams sent his friend Holst a poem called The Two Fatherlands, by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, who had been Britain's Ambassador to the USA at the outbreak of World War I. Vaughan Williams had been shown the poem by Lucy Broadwood, who suggested that he set it to music. He did not have the time to write a tune for it, so he sent it to Holst. It is a patriotic poem which has become a staple of Remembrance services, beginning I vow to thee, my country

Holst too was very busy, but he found he did not have to write a tune for the poem: he already had one that fitted it nicely. One of the movements of The Planets is called Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. It consists mainly of energetic, enthusiastic music, but also includes a passage with a grand melody, part folk-tune, part Elgarian nobilmente pomp. In the recording below, it occurs at 2:53.


Holst realised that this grand melody would fit the words of I vow to thee, my country perfectly well. He did an arrangement of it as a song for solo voice and orchestra. Its first appearance in a hymn-book was in Songs of Praise in 1925 (a book edited by Percy Dearmer, Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw). In this book, and in subsequent hymn-books, it was called THAXTED after Holst's home in rural Essex.

The interior of Thaxted Church. Photo © Mark Browse 2015

Thaxted church spire. Photo © Mark Browse 2015

Here's the hymn being sung at a televised remembrance service.