A hymn for our times : O God of earth and altar

A Victorian hymn for today

G.K. Chesterton’s O God of earth and altar is a hymn which deserves to be better known, and one which feels particularly relevant to the time we are living in.  He wrote it for The English Hymnal which was published in 1906, as a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and it has been rightly described as ‘vigorous’.

The text

1 O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

2 From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

3 Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

The tune

It is the perfect length for a hymn, three verses of eight short lines.  Even if you don’t know the tune of a hymn, three verses gives you a chance to join in : one to listen, one to attempt and clarify, and the last to sing with conviction.  This is just as well, as O God of earth and altar is sung to two possible tunes among the Anglicans, King’s Lynn by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Llangoffan, a Welsh folk melody.  With typical Catholic stubbornness, we usually sing it to a different tune, Willsbridge by R. L. de Pearsall.  He is himself a very colourful character, if you look him up,  and his tune does fit the words well.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard any version of this hymn sung, however.

Long rolling sentences

I have a particular weakness for hymns where each verse is one sentence.  I think it can give them great strength and cumulative power.  Of the Father’s love begotten is my usual example (though its two last verses each contain an extra full stop).  It’s something that you can do with a translation from the Latin (which Of the Father’s love begotten is), as Latin has so many grammatical ways of extending a sentence without ambiguity.  Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle and O Godhead hid are other examples.  It is also not unusual in translations from German;  Now thank we all our God for example.  But it’s not just translations; there are several English originals, including the much-loved Dear Lord and Father of mankind (mostly),   Thou, whose almighty wordO Jesus Christ, remember, and so on.

Elegant prosody

Technically, Chesterton’s poem is superb, alternating a double rhyme with a single one.  This could sound affected or comic, as English is not so rich in double rhymes as some other languages (it’s easier to do in French or Italian, for example), but here it simply flows.  Some effort is evident in the third verse, where Chesterton has to use the archaic ‘thrall’ to make the rhyme, but he pulls it off because so much of the language of the hymn is in straightforward monosyllables, and the reverberations of the archaic word are precisely what he is emphasizing.  The plainness of nearly all the vocabulary is a very fine example of art to hide art.  The language is simple and direct, another reason why it has not dated, and it is built, like Jerusalem, strongly compact, with no words wasted.

Analysis : first verse (and a quibble)

The first verse is a direct appeal to God, and here I would like to make a tentative suggestion.  The apostrophe is ‘O God of earth and altar’, and I am not sure what it means.  Then it occurred to me that it might be an error of transcription (incredibly common, as anyone who ever copies anything will know : this is why people are so attached to the copy and paste function, whose inventor died recently).  I think it’s meant to be ‘O God of hearth and altar’, i.e. both a private and public God, both intimate and ceremonial;  but the mistake occurred because ‘earthly’ is written just two lines down. (I also think that having ‘earthly’ there is another reason why Chesterton would not have used ‘earth’ in the first line.)  I can’t go hunting for manuscripts to check in the current lockdown, but Chesterton himself once wrote a poem about how bad his writing was, and if you look at some examples of his handwriting, you can see how the confusion might have crept in.

Full of charcter, but not the clearest….

Apart from this minor point, Chesterton is starting his appeal here precisely in the same way that the psalmist does so often : O God in heaven, bend down and listen to me.

Then he sets out the difficulties of the situation in which we find ourselves.  This is a hymn of community, one of the reasons why I like it;  he is writing as himself, but for us all.   There is nothing selfish, patronising or high-handed in his distress or his appeal.  Apart from one reference to ‘cruel men’, it is exclusively ‘our’ and ‘us’, with no exceptions made.  It is indeed a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and as true now as it was in 1906.  He is generous; he does not blame ‘our earthly rulers’, but he sees that they cannot solve the problem, and ‘our people’ are dying.  He blames ‘the walls of gold’ which (sharp image) ‘entomb’ us, he sees that we can’t act together because we do not value each other (diagnosis of the last x years of politics), and then he sounds like the psalmist again : ‘take not thy thunder from us,/ but take away our pride’.

fearsome apocalyptic monsters

Like the psalmist, Chesterton values God’s thunder.  He is calling upon the God who rides upon the wings of the wind (Ps 103/104), who has clouds and darkness as his raiment (Ps 96/97, and I could go on).  This is the God who is unassailably Other, and powerful.  This is who we need; no one else has been able to help.  This situation is beyond us and out of our control; we need God to step in.

Second verse

The second verse is a sort of inverted litany, like the old Scottish ‘From ghoulies and ghosties…’, but it’s fascinating to see what Chesterton prays for us all to be delivered from, because it’s so modern.  And he’s a writer, a journalist, so it’s this area of danger he knows best.  He offers us a list which starts with ‘all that terror teaches’ – and this, remember,  in 1906, when the Dark Web was a long way off.  ‘Lies of tongue and pen’ – all the fake cures for corona being spread through social media?   ‘All the easy speeches that comfort cruel men’ is, I feel,  a bit more time-specific, but I’m not sure that I will still feel that if we continue to discuss euthanasia as we seem likely to do.  ‘From sale and profanation of honour and the sword’ – yes, we have seen plenty of that;  ‘from sleep and from damnation’ – this is a tight encapsulation of the Niemoller dictum.  Enough frightening things there to give you nightmares, so from all this, ‘deliver us, Good Lord!’ , with an unusual exclamation point,  for once feeling fully justified.

Third verse

The third verse emphasizes again the importance of community.  In this public health crisis in which we find ourselves, we cannot simply act and hope to be safe as individual atomies, we have to think about the threat and protection of us all.  So Chesterton prays for us to be tied and bound together, those in earthly authority (‘the prince’),  spiritual authorities (‘the priest’), and – the rest of us.  ‘Thrall’ is an Old English word (used very deliberately by the man who wrote The Ballad of the White Horse), with its root in slavery or servitude, and here meaning ‘the ordinary person not in control’, which feels exactly right.  Once we are all wrapped into an indivisible bundle, Chesterton asks God to ‘smite us and save us all’.  Note ‘and’, not ‘or’.  God can do whatever he likes, and we have deserved whatever he does, because he is justice personified; but after the justice comes mercy, as Pope Francis always stresses.  After the terror and the catastrophe, there will be the result.  God will have made us into ‘a living nation,/ a single sword’, which will be ‘aflame with faith and free’ to do what God made it for.

bringing the people together

The best hymns double as prayers, and this is one which clearly does that.  The whole movement of the words follows the gathering together of all the people into a unity, and then lifting this up in supplication.  It is a hymn which does not pretend that nothing is wrong, or that there are easy answers; but it beautifully expresses the hope to which we all cling.  I am sure it already felt prophetic and apposite when it first came out, in the beginning years of the twentieth century, amid so many wars and social upheaval.   I find it amazing that after so long, it still feels as if it were written for us, for now.  I also find it comforting.

the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God  Eph 6.17

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What is the purpose of a church choir?

Speaking as a choir member…

I’ve been a member of at least one choir, off and on, ever since I was at school, and the first ‘outside school’ choir I joined was a church one. I love singing in a choir. I have joined the church choir in most of the places we have lived for any length of time. I even met my husband in a church choir (and that’s where he learned to play the guitar).  I am not being nasty about church choirs.

One day I’ll get him to move on to a theorbo…

This summer on our travels we got to see more different churches than usual for Sunday Masses, and I found myself thinking about church choirs and what they are actually for.  My first ever blog was about why we have music at all in church, but now I’m thinking about how we do it.

Differences between choir and church choir

I would distinguish very carefully between a church choir and a choir. Choirs learn to sing something exactly and beautifully, by doing a lot of practice. They sing different sorts of music, and often outside any context except that of a concert.  Their reason for existence is to perform the music.  Church choirs on the other hand lead the people at an event (usually a religious celebration) so that those people can take part confidently in the event itself.  The church choir may sing during a time when the congregation is doing something else (e.g. handling the collection, lining up for Communion), but it is not there to replace the effort of the congregation but to enable and enhance it. Mass is not a concert, and music should never be an excuse to stop people joining in.  I was delighted to discover that the Pope made the same point last year.

too much discipline here for a real congregation
What a choir can do

Deciding to concentrate on a choir instead of getting the people to sing is an easy trap for church musicians to fall into, because most musicians, even the non-professionals, are thinking all the time about how they can make the performance better, to do a better job at bringing the music to life, making it flower.  Using a choir instead of the congregation is a short cut.

a rare picture of a mixed choir

It’s quite difficult to find early pictures of choirs singing, because there are really only a few stock options, and in some ways it’s a relatively modern idea.  One version is the group of monks singing in community, and this is still the only model of church music which pleases some people.   Another is the single singer, often with instrument: the minstrel or the troubadour model originally, like the singer-songwriter of today.  We’ve all come across people like this singing at Mass, and it doesn’t work as a community effort.

Don’t leave it to the professionals

When we’re talking about Sunday Mass, we’re not talking about a congregation made up entirely of musicians.  Obviously any church on a Sunday is going to contain people who don’t know the music, who can’t sing in tune, who just want it to be over, who don’t feel like joining in, who can’t sing because the last time they sang that hymn was at a funeral, and the loss is still raw (and that’s even before you look at the congregation as well as the clergy).

Children can (will?) be restless and babies noisy (one old priest I knew always called that the ‘chorus of angels’).  People will take breaths in the middle of words;  they will sing passing notes that aren’t there in the text;  they know a different version of the tune (or the words – I often sing the wrong words in an older hymn because the text has been subtly altered and I’m singing from memory).  Often they don’t have a very big repertoire of hymns, so if you want to extend it, you will need to do it gently and encourage them.  As soon as they feel uncomfortable, they will simply stop singing.   They are frightened of getting something wrong and other people noticing, with a fear totally out of proportion to the likelihood of that happening.

So the music produced by a congregation is less polished and accomplished, but it’s their music, and they’re not doing it for any other audience than God.  I suspect at Mass on Sundays he’d rather hear them than a choir singing alone,  – just as you’d be disappointed if you went to your child’s school play and they had outsourced the singing to professionals.

…even if they came with a great set of instruments
Sing a new song

Having discussed the possible drawbacks of congregational singing, it’s only fair to say that it’s great to hear how well a congregation can sing if you give it the chance.  This is why we stress ‘singable’ (awful word) as the point of the music on the website, and why I try to give all my church music tunes which are easy to pick up.  Good unison is much more likely than bad harmony to allow people to feel secure enough to join in.  If your congregation consists of the same people singing the same words every day, you can decide to sing in Latin or anything else, but for most Anglophone people at church on a Sunday, it needs to be English.  If your congregation is, remarkably, exactly the same people turning up every week and they know the words, you can get them to sing chant; but for most congregations, chant will put them off, and they will leave the singing to the choir (and if you want to do chant well, weekly rehearsals are not usually enough).  Tunes were invented after chant, for a reason : they are easier for non-monks to pick up and join in.

New every Sunday?

I’m very aware that the psalm and response change every week, so accessibility is extremely important.  I’ve talked before about what makes a good psalm response.  I do ask quite a lot of my cantors, but the shape of the tune should be strong enough to help you to get back on the rails before the end of the stanza if the irregular words have thrown you off.  Then the congregation’s part is simpler, but still strong.   Only very rarely do I change the last line of a stanza, because the congregation really needs to recognise the lead-in (and of course, the cantor’s looking up, and if necessary waving at them, will also help).  Psalms do get repeated in the Lectionary (especially around Christmas and Easter), and this helps too, if it’s recent enough for the congregation to remember.  The Alleluia verse changes from week to week, but the Alleluia itself not so often (and they are modular, so you can decide just to keep to one, though I think it’s good to wake the congregation up and make them refocus every now and again).

Growing accustomed to the tune…

The Mass parts have much more chance to bed in to people’s memories, so it is worth spending time on getting them right, maybe even running through one of them before Mass if you have the chance.  It is an advantage that the congregation mostly knows the words for the Mass parts;  and/or having a tune is a great help to settling the words in your head if they have been changed.  Deciding to sing the Latin (or Greek, for the Kyrie) version every week to avoid getting to grips with the (new) English version is actually selling your congregation short, as they will end up stumbling over the English words (even while speaking) for a long time when they visit other churches.  Singing the Our Father in Latin at the standard parish Sunday Mass means that small children can’t join in with the one prayer they may know by heart, and it really annoys some young adults too (one of them being my youngest daughter).  There is a case for not singing the Our Father at all (Jesus didn’t, so far as we know).  I’ve set it so that you can sing it if you want to, but I’d always keep an eye on how many people are actually joining in, because surely that’s the most important thing.

The other version of the church choir

The other obvious version of a group of singers in this context is the angels, who turn up either alone as messengers or in a group as a choir.   Traditionally, there are nine choirs of angels, though I have no information on whether they pool their auditions, and I have heroically refrained from discussing the way in which the Church has used church choirs throughout its history as a way to prevent women singing.  But I take great comfort from the fact that the main choirs in the Bible are angels, since they do not have gender, so women can sing with the angels as much as they like.  The angels are like the best sort of church choir : they strengthen the congregation and make it brave to join in.

And here is a lovely picture of these wonderful inclusive angels with possibly the first version of a singalong sheet.  Why are they holding up the music?  Because, at any Mass, what matters is that everyone can take part.

Sing all ye citizens; all you need is the words and a full heart

[Read this in Spanish]

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.