Herbert Still Teaches Us

By Saliers, Don E. | The American Organist, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Herbert Still Teaches Us


Saliers, Don E., The American Organist


On a recent Sunday morning, I was visiting a nearby Episcopal church, joining the assembly in singing the George Herbert hymn "King of Glory, King of Peace." It was sung well by everyone around me. Then, when the third stanza came, the choir sounded out that glorious descant found in The Hymnal 1982. The organist let us sing unaccompanied, joining in die concluding phrases. It was true "surround sound" with hymnals in hand (and no projected text on a screen): The musical setting is David Charles Walker's "General Seminary."

Seven whole days, not one in seven,

I will praise thee;

in my neart, though not in heaven,

I can raise thee;

Small it is, in this poor sort

to enroll thee;

e'en eternity's too short

to extol thee.

It was one of those musical epiphanies. Choir, congregation, and organ all together, each with its distinctive contribution to one heartfelt offering of praise. We need occasions like this, I thought. Speaking with a choir member afterward, it was clear that both choir and congregation were praying with Herbert and Walker and the host of all who have sung this before us. The wonder of a 17th-century poem and a 20th-century tune sung by a 21st-century assembly.

I have been going back to read George Herbert again (as though we should ever have stopped). Once again, his poem titled "Prayer" came before me. Here it is in its original spelling:

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,

Gods breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almightie, sinners towre,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-daies world transposing in anhoure,

A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,

Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,

Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,

The Milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,

The land of spices; something understood.

From The Temple

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Here, compacted in one place, is the whole range of prayer. Suddenly, it occurred to me that this gives us a set of images not only about prayer but about the music we offer each week as well. So I ask: how might our choice and performance of hymns, psalms, anthems, voluntaries, and service music sound this whole range? …

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