Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Oh How Amiable

Ralph Vaughan Williams Ralph Vaughan Williams

It has become our tradition to open the choir season in the fall with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ anthem “O how amiable,” which is based on Psalm 84, Psalm 90, and the first verse of the hymn “O God, our help in ages past,” which is itself a paraphrase by Isaac Watts of the first verses of Psalm 90. Vaughan Williams’ setting begins with the old translation of the psalm, which some of us remember from the 1928 Prayer Book – Coverdale’s translation from 1535:

O how amiable are thy dwellings, thou Lord of hosts!

My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Blessed are they that dwell in thy house; they will be alway praising thee.

After the rather gentle and lyrical beginning of this anthem, Vaughan Williams switches to the end of Psalm 90 and the music becomes more triumphant and almost march-like:

The glorious Majesty of the Lord our God be upon us; Prosper thou the work of our hands upon us. O prosper thou our handywork.

Then we get Isaac Watts, to the familiar hymn-tune:

O God, our help in ages past Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.

Vaughan Williams wrote the piece to be used at a pageant play for a parish church in 1934. It was published with the notation “for the dedication of a church and other festivals.”

Much as I love the Coverdale version of Psalm 84, I enjoy equally the immediacy of the Hebrew scholar Robert Alter’s version from 2007:

How lovely your dwellings, O Lord of armies! My being longed, even languished, for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh sing gladness to the living God.

Another translation is found in the Englishlanguage version of the Brahms Requiem, in the movement “How lovely is thy dwelling place,” last sung here at Grace by the choir of St. Luke’s, Evanston a few years ago. But we can also sing it congregationally, to the beloved melody known as “Brother James’s Air,” in our hymnal at 517. This version of the words is based on the rhymed, metrical version in the Scottish Psalter of 1650, and is sometimes chosen for funerals. Perhaps my favorite verse in this hymn is:

They who go through the desert vale Will find it filled with springs, And they shall climb from height to height Till Zion’s temple rings With praise to thee, in glory throned, Lord God, great King of Kings.

Event Calendar

Live Stream - Solemn Mass
Sun Jun 25 @10:15AM - 11:30AM
Vestry Meeting
Sun Jun 25 @11:45AM -
Parish Breakfast
Tue Jun 27 @ 7:00AM - 08:00AM
Mass - St Peter and St Paul
Thu Jun 29 @ 9:00AM - 09:30PM
Bible Study
Thu Jun 29 @ 9:30AM - 11:00AM
Brat Fry @ Miesfeld's
Sat Jul 01 @12:00AM

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