Friday, February 2, 2018

“A Verse may find him whom a Sermon flies..."

From a review of two books, one of which is O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music:
.... Reading O Sing unto the Lord set me thinking about the hymns I love—these tunes that according to Gant “did for the English what opera did for the Italians.” What gives them, beyond nostalgia, their particular power? “My Song Is Love Unknown” is a text by the mid-seventeenth-century Church of England minister Samuel Crossman, from his “Young Man’s Meditation” of 1664, which has as one of its epigraphs George Herbert’s contention “A Verse may find him whom a Sermon flies, And turn delight into a Sacrifice”:
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?…

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.
On the page these verses are by turns meditative, introspective, and outraged. They reflect Crossman’s personal saving faith and the institutional faith of the church to which he belonged, but they were actually composed at what must have been a time of anxious moral questioning for the poet. Ejected from the established church in the wake of the Restoration settlement that followed the Civil War and Interregnum of 1642–1660, he wrestled with his conscience, took the necessary oaths, and was ordained afresh in 1665. His own sense of isolation surely lent his identification with Christ’s loneliness and his need for Christ’s saving love an added intensity.

More than two and a half centuries later, in 1925, the composer John Ireland set Crossman’s poem to music, in a masterpiece of protean strophic setting—the tune as harmonized seems to open a myriad of emotional possibilities that allow it to track the text with an unerring sensitivity. At its heart, though, is a melody of ineffable tenderness....
God’s Own Music | by Ian Bostridge | The New York Review of Books