An Irish Treat

Our first 2 vs 15 match-up may seem rather unfair to those who favor “Amazing Grace,” quite possibly one of the most famous and well-loved Christian hymns of all time. Given the feast day, it’s sort of a “home game” for the Irish tune Slane, and the text usually chosen by English-speaking Catholics, “Be Thou My Vision.” Let’s see how the polling works out:

For the John Newton text, the familiar melody didn’t come until two generations after it was penned. It wasn’t even directly connected to the man’s experience in the slave trade. It seems his conversion was a gradual one. Mr Newton remained at sea, and a few years later his journey brought him to the seminary. Nine years after his ordination, he wrote the words.

“Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses, and it may have been chanted by the congregation without music. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and (William) Cowper’s Olney Hymns, but settled into relative obscurity in England. In the United States however, “Amazing Grace” was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named “New Britain” to which it is most frequently sung today.

Some of us know the Irish tune for another frequent text, “Lord of All Hopefulness.” But Irish text, “Be Thou My Vision has a longer pedigree, going back to the Irish language. Eleanor Hull did the English versification a hundred years ago. Here’s verse one:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Welsh composer David Evans matched text to tune in 1927.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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9 Responses to An Irish Treat

  1. Karl says:

    Our hymnal has a love tune, with SATB choral verse options, by J. H. Desrocquettes, to which Be Thou My Vision was set in the Pius X Hymnal in 1953.

    • Randolph Nichols says:

      Desrocquettes’ tune (pentatonic, thus fittingly Irish despite the French name) is a welcome relief to Slane which can sound somewhat plodding and is at least for me awkward to play on the organ.

      It seems odd that so many good Pius X hymns, such as “Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty” (another pentatonic beauty), never made it into the common repertoire.

      • Karl says:

        Yes. Our choir is singing Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty tomorrow, mercifully, as it is one the chestnuts that is allowed to survive under the current regime at the 9:30AM Mass, for now at least. I sent Todd the pdf of the Desrocquettes setting this morning for his information; if he or Charles would like to see Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty (tune: Domhnach Trionoide), I can oblige….

      • Karl says:

        PS: As I posted on this blog in 2009:

        The text is public domain, and was written by Sr Janet Stuart (d. 1914):

        Spirit seeking light and beauty,
        Heart that longest for thy rest,
        Soul that asketh understanding,
        Only thus can ye be blest.
        Thro’ the vastness of creation
        Tho’ your restless thought may roam,
        God is all that you can long for,
        God is all his creatures home.

        Taste and see him, feel and hear him,
        Hope and grasp his unseen hand;
        Tho’ the darkness seem to hide him,
        Faith and love can understand.
        God, who lovest all thy creatures,
        All our hearts are known to thee;
        Lead us thro’ the land of shadows
        To thy blest eternity.

        To this, Ted Marier inserted a choral middle verse (same tune, different counterpoint) with a text from the Meissen Breviary as translated by the ubiquitous JM Neale in the 19th century:

        Jesus, we thy name adoring,
        Long to see thee as thou art,
        And thy clemency imploring,
        Hold it closely in our heart.
        That, hereafter, upward soaring,
        We in heav’n may have a part:
        Jesus, we thy name adoring,
        Long to see thee as thou art.

      • Randolph Nichols says:

        Oops. My memory failed me. “Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty” is not pentatonic, but just a plain old natural minor melody.

  2. I have, at the office, the Villiers-Stanford collection of folk hymns from the isles, so I can’t check his assignations readily. Though I’m sure Todd will pit this hymntune in the brackets later, I really believe that KINGSFOLD is the quintessential “Irish/Celtic” tune, as opposed to the formidable SLANE. One could also likely make a case for ST. COLUMBA over SLANE as well. I cite as evidence for KINGSFOLD that it seems everytime there’s a show on Travel Channel, or an Irish themed movie, its melody (or derivation) comes up in the soundtrack.

    • Karl says:

      What, then, would you call O WALY WALY? That seems to function like acoustical wallpaper on both sides of the Anglospheric pond….

  3. That is a great question, KLS! That water is wide and I think likely salted and diluted some of its Celtic DNA along the Appalachians. In all honesty, just instinct whispers that the melody, harbinger of all the CSI forensics of Celtic music, is so elongated, that it seems more like a “new world” Celtic tune like “Shenandoah.” I know its from the isles, but it seems more Irish-Catholic immigrantated among both lowland and highland southern colonies.
    All that aside, it sure works as a hymntune better than Chris Walker’s unfortunate ripping of “Skye boat song.” Arggghhh

    • Karl says:

      I remember a Sr of St Joseph colleague of mine in the 1990s, who referred to the Land of Rest Mass settings as the “hurdy gurdy Mass”….

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