Hymn of the day July 2021

Angel voices ever singing: Gordon Giles

Angel voices ever singing
Francis Pott (1832-1909)
Public Domain

Tune: ANGEL VOICES, Edwin George Monk (1819-1900)
Public Domain

Gordon Giles

            Angel voices ever singing
            round thy throne of light,
            angel-harps for ever ringing,
            rest not day nor night;
            thousands only live to bless thee
            and confess thee
            Lord of might.

            Thou who art beyond the farthest
            mortal eye can scan,
            can it be that thou regardest
            songs of sinful man?
            can we know that thou art near us,
            and wilt hear us?
            yea, we can.

            Yea, we know that thou rejoicest
            o'er each work of thine;
            thou didst ears and hands and voices
            for thy praise design;
            craftsman's art and music's measure
            for thy pleasure
            all combine.

            In thy house, great God, we offer
            of thine own to thee;
            and for thine acceptance proffer
            all unworthily
            hearts and minds and hands and voices
            in our choicest
            psalmody.

            Honour, glory, might, and merit
            thine shall ever be,
            Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
            blessed Trinity.
            Of the best that thou hast given
            earth and heaven
            render thee.

Reflection: Gordon Giles

Although we spend a significant proportion of our time in church singing, playing or listening to music, very few hymns actually make direct reference to it.  If a Sunday service lasts around an hour and we sing four or five hymns then we are spending about 20 minutes: a third of the time, immersed or involved in music.  Recent Pandemic prohibitions of hymn singing have reminded us of this—making our hymnless worship significantly shorter!  Yet we rarely sing about singing, and the hymns which invite us to do so are few and far between.  Alongside ‘Angel voices’, we might think of Fred Pratt Green’s ‘When in our music God is glorified’, and then we have to begin to look around for more.

Francis Pott, the author, was born in Speldhurst, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and went to Brasenose College, Oxford, graduating in 1854.  Ordained deacon in 1856 he served his title as curate of Bishopsworth, Somerset, before moving to Ardingly in Sussex in 1858.  A further curacy at Ticehurst, Sussex began in 1861, until he became rector of Northill, near Biggleswade, in 1866.  Sadly, he became deaf, and so resigned in 1891. During the 1850s he was a member of the original committee that worked on the first ever Hymns Ancient and Modern but it seems left the team before publication.  ‘Angel voices ever singing’ could not have appeared in that book though because it was written in 1861, the same year as HAM came out (it did find its way into the 1889 supplement however).

Pott wrote it for his old Brasenose friend William Kenneth Macrorie, who was Perpetual Curate of Wingates (or Wingate), Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire at the time.  He later went on to become Bishop of Maritzburg in South Africa.  Coincidentally Edwin Monk, the composer of the tune, was also a friend of Macrorie’s, as they had taught together at St Peter’s College, Radley, near Abingdon.  It is likely that Pott and Monk collaborated on the hymn, which was specifically composed and written for the dedication of a new organ at St John’s Church, and they headed it,  ‘For the Dedication of an Organ or for a Meeting of Choirs’ when it was published in the Second Edition of Pott’s Hymns fitted to the Order of Common Prayer (1866).

Somerset-born Monk was successively organist of Midsomer Norton, then Frome, and then in 1844 he left England to become the first organist and music master of St Columba’s College, Rathfarnham near Dublin.  In 1847 Monk returned to England as co-founder, organist and music master at St Peter’s, Radley, near Abingdon, where he encountered Macrorie.  He was also the conductor of the Oxford University Motet and Madrigal Society and an editor of Part Song books.  In 1859 he was appointed Organist of York Minster, where he founded the York Minster Musical Society.  Monk was also an astronomer of note, being a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The hymn begins with a reminder of the angels surrounding the throne of God in Revelation 5:11-13.  The idea of a God who is worshipped in heaven, is beyond our comprehension, and so verse two asks whether it is possible that such a divine being cares for us and forgives us, to which, supported by the unusual metrical structure of the hymn tune, we make the emphatic affirmative ‘yea, we can’! The metre (8.5.8.5.8.4.3) is not balanced, and the rhyming scheme (ababccb) is distinctive, but handled so inventively by Monk, the tune carries us forward in each verse to a solid, conclusive cadence, having passed through a modulation to the dominant midway through.

The central verses of the hymn give us what we need to celebrate art and craft and music in worship.  Pott summarises what we all know to be true and feel inwardly: that the arts are gifts from God, with which to praise and glorify him.  Just as we say at the eucharist, ‘all things come from you and of your own do we give you’, the same is true of our artistic endeavours.  Whatever the quality, we are offering talent as it has been received and nurtured, and it is our duty to ‘proffer’ back our best efforts, no matter how unworthy we may consider them.  Hence after the final doxology we conclude by singing that it is the best that God has given us, that we render in grateful, loving return.  For in this we have the great gifts of music and art: fundamentally human activities, inspired by God, which both stretch and make great demands of us, but which in doing so, give great pleasure, reward and satisfaction.  In us, God is both performer and hearer: the spirit leads us to prayer and praise, praying in us, through music and text, inhabiting our praise, offered up in reverence and awe to the holy throne, where with angel voices we join in heaven’s eternal song.

Prayer
O God who is beyond the vision of our human sight, give to our hands and voices, the desire and ability to turn the creativity with which you have blessed us to your glory.  Make our art holy, our song angelic and our praise worthy, that in all things we may worship you alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, harmony in unity, always. Amen.

Angel-voices ever singing

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