Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Wash Me Throughly

            Yes, it was “throughly,” not “thoroughly,” both in Miles Coverdale’s psalm translation of 1535, and in the King James (“Authorized”) version.  We may think we grew up with the King James Bible, if we are old enough, but we forget how much the spellings were modernized by the time it became part of our childhoods.  In the edition of 1611, Psalm 51 began:
                        Haue mercie vpon me, O God, according to thy louing kindnesse:
                           according vnto the multitude of thy tender mercies
                                    blot out my transgressions.
                        Wash mee throughly from mine iniquitie,
                           and clense me from my sinne.
                        For I acknowledge my transgressions:
                           and my sinne is euer before me.
                        Against thee, thee onely have I sinned, and done this euill in thy sight:
                           That thou mightest bee iustified when thou speakest,
                           and cleare when thou iudgest.
            Printed in Gothic type, the combination of the appearance of the letters and the archaic spellings can slow you down a bit when reading – but this may not be a bad thing when studying scripture.  Modernize the spellings, and what strikes me is not how archaic the language is, but how clear and modern it is, especially when compared to English of a few hundred years earlier.  To read Chaucer, even with modern typeface, you need a dictionary or an edition with more annotations and footnotes than original text.  For the King James Bible, entire chapters can sometimes go flowing by without any serious obstacles to understanding.  Did the accessibility of the printed Bible, and the increasing literacy of the populace, act as a sort of brake on the development of the language?  It’s certainly interesting to discover what a large proportion of our contemporary vocabulary and how many of our expressions have their origins in the Bible or in Shakespeare.  Our largest dose of King James at Grace Church occurs at the Advent Lessons and Carols service, when we use it for all the readings, but we also encounter Tudor English at Sung Compline (particularly the psalms) and in choral pieces from time to time throughout the year.
            On Ash Wednesday, we sing Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s setting of “Wash me throughly” composed around 1840.  S. S. Wesley was the best of the early Victorian composers of English church music.  The choir has just done another anthem of his that we often use during Epiphany: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.”  It is appropriate almost any time, but we tend to sing it during Epiphany or Candlemas because of its theme of darkness versus light:
                        The darkness is no darkness with thee,
                          But the night is as clear as the day.
                        The darkness and the light to thee are both alike.
                        God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
            That piece is instructive for the creative way in which the composer assembles an anthem text from various parts of scripture, in this case Isaiah 26, Psalm 139, John 1, and Psalm 119.  Given his family background, it shouldn’t be surprising that he had learned to think “theologically” and make connections between different parts of the Bible. 
            In order to be an Anglican church musician today, it is necessary to get the Wesley family tree sorted out to avoid constant confusion.  Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s father was Samuel Wesley(1766-1837), the composer of substantial organ works, whose “Voluntary in D” I played in church yesterday.  His organ works, the first to fully exploit the resources of the English organs of that time, were published between 1802 and 1820.  Samuel’s father was Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the composer of around 6000 hymn texts.  Charles’s hymns include many we use today, including Jesus Christ is risen today, Christ, whose glory fills the skies, Hark! the herald angels sing, Lo! He comes with clouds descending, Love divine, all loves excelling, O, for a thousand tongues to sing, and many others which remain favorites.  Charles was the brother of John Wesley, the “founder” of Methodism, but never really left the Church of England, preferring to criticize it from within. Samuel also had a brother, Charles, who was a composer, so this can be confusing, in addition to a plethora of “Samuels” of different generations. 
            Samuel Wesley the organist (father of Samuel Sebastian) was a child prodigy who had completed an oratorio by the age of eight, and was playing in church when he was seven.
Samuel had a stormy life, in part due to his insistence on defying the Church’s authority.  He lived with his eventual wife, Charlotte Martin, in a committed relationship out of wedlock, only marrying her in 1793 when she was very pregnant, after which Samuel rather unchivalrously complained of the difficulties of her pregnancy.  The couple feuded off and on until 1810, when Samuel got their fifteen year old maid with child.  The maid’s child was to be Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the greatest English church music composer of his day.  Anyway, the illegitimate pregnancy caused Charlotte to leave for good, whereupon Samuel happily set up housekeeping with the maid, Sarah Suter, who then bore him six more children.  Divorce from Charlotte was impossible, divorce basically not being affordable to any but the wealthy, so a “Deed of Separation” was drawn up forcing Charles to support Charlotte and their legitimate children for the rest of his life.  This proved difficult, and he ended up in debtor’s prison for a brief period.  Apparently it didn’t help when, in 1787, he was walking home inebriated from a public house, and fell into an excavation from which he wasn’t rescued until the following day, having been knocked unconscious.  He then deteriorated from eccentric to mentally unstable, and eventually threw himself out of a window, imagining in his delusion that he was pursued by innumerable phantom creditors sent by Charlotte.  A lengthy stay at a lunatic asylum enabled him to be pronounced cured, and he went on to become a well known composer, teacher, editor and organist, befriending Mendelssohn and contributing to the  rediscovery and promotion of the music of J. S. Bach.
            Illegitimate or not, Samuel Sebastian (his middle name a tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach) proceeded to become the most famous English church musician of his period, including tenures at Hereford, Exeter, Winchester, and Gloucester cathedrals. Several of his large-scale anthems have stayed in the repertoire of cathedral choirs ever since they were published.   Some choir members at Grace will remember an Easter when we rendered his anthem, Blessed be the God and Father, composed in 1833 for Hereford Cathedral on an Easter Sunday when the choral forces consisted of a handful of undertrained and woebegone boys, and the Dean’s butler, who sang bass when he wasn’t buttling.* (As I recall, we were short of tenors and altos the year we did it.)  The resulting anthem was a triumph over adverse circumstances.  Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace is a good example not only of his choice of texts, but of a harmonic richness and adventurousness very modern for the period, with many colorful harmonic “clashes” (“dissonances”) resulting from independent melodic lines converging on each other.  Wash me throughly is a good example of the composer’s treatment of short prayers of a penitential character, with beautiful melodies that seem to arise naturally from the strong and weak accents of the language, expressive harmonies that suit the emotion of the text, and counterpoint – independent melodic lines overlapping each other – that serves to heighten the poetic intensity of the psalm verses.  S. S. Wesley also wrote hymn tunes: “Aurelia” is the tune for “The church’s one foundation,” and “Hereford” is in our hymnal for the text “O thou who camest from above,”
the poem being from his grandfather, Charles Wesley:
                        O thou who camest from above
                           the fire celestial to impart,
                        Kindle a flame of sacred love
                           upon the altar of my heart.
                        There let it for thy glory burn
                           with ever bright, undying blaze,
                        And trembling to its source return
                           in humble prayer and fervent praise.
                        Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
                           to work, and speak, and think for thee;
                        Still let me guard the holy fire
                          and still stir up the gift in me.
                        Still let me prove thy perfect will,
                           my acts of faith and love repeat,
                        Till death thy endless mercies seal,
                           and make the sacrifice complete.
            The latter is recorded on the Grace Church choir CD, “How shall I sing that majesty.”
* “to buttle” is a verb describing what butlers do, although I suspect it was invented by P.G. Wodehouse to depict Bertie Wooster describing Jeeves.  
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