There’s always been a place in my heart for British music. I enjoy the hymns “Jerusalem” and “I Vow to Thee My Country” in particular, and will make them the subject of this blog. They both figure in the annual National Remembrance Day ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Remembrance Day is the official occasion for commemorating those that served in the First World War, and the vast losses incurred in it.
I found the 2016 Remembrance Day program – a link to which follows – to be a heart-stirring example of national pride, mourning and resolve. I encourage you to listen to the tunes I’ve written about after you read the blog.
“Jerusalem” (beginning at 1:22:10 in the video)
This immensely popular patriotic hymn is based on an 1808 poem by William Blake. Set to music by Sir Hubert Perry, it dates from 1916. “Jerusalem” has been a staple of British church hymnals for decades.
The poem was inspired by a wildly apocryphal story saying that a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea traveled to what is now England and visited the city of Glastonbury. Presumably this caper took place during the so-called “hidden years” of Christ’s life that aren’t recorded in the New Testament. The poem’s theme is linked to the Book of Revelation (chs. 3:12; 21:2) describing a Second Coming of the resurrected Jesus, wherein he establishes a New Jerusalem.
Blake implies that a visit to England by Jesus would briefly establish Heaven there, in contrast to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution. The latter was just beginning to (BAD PUN ALERT!) gather steam around the time his poem was penned.
“Jerusalem” is so hardwired into British culture that it’s featured in one of Monty Python’s most famous skits dating from 1969 (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpn1anVPZsc). I think the lyrics are rather nonsensical but I still enjoy belting them out.
“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
“I Vow to Thee, My Country” (beginning at 1:33:27)
This piece’s lyrics come from a poem of Sir Cecil Spring Rice entitled “Urbs Dei” (“The Two Fatherlands”) coming from 1908 or 1912. After the First World War composer Gustav Holst set the words to a tune adapted from the “Jupiter” section of his famous work “The Planets.” The hymn was first performed in 1921. To my way of thinking “I Vow to Thee My Country” neatly encapsulates the purpose of Remembrance Day.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
The final line of the second verse is based on Proverbs 3:17, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace,” in the context of which the feminine pronoun refers to Wisdom.