The commentary for this quarter is by composer Barry Ferguson, co-editor of our hymnbook 'Another Music'. 'Discipline' is one of the six poems for which he wrote hymn settings, and here he reflects on his interpretation of Herbert's work.
Throw away thy rod - what a gripping start! Compare this with George Herbert’s great contemporary John Donne’s Batter my heart or Busie old foole. A dream start for a composer, certainly for this composer.
The structure is ideal too: eight short 4-line verses of 18 syllables each (only one syllable more than a haiku). The language is pithy, direct, with many moods – suggesting that mankind’s relationship with God oscillates between anxiety and reassurance. Such economy of language leaves room for music to add its voice to this fascinating, ambivalent and mercurial situation. (The Herbert scholar Helen Wilcox describes the situation as how God should best discipline us: with punishment or with love.)
The first verse is plain and essentially monosyllabic until the glorious word gentle. English is full of such expressive trochees (happy, lovely for example). An anthem setting would allow softer music at this point, as in my 1980 version for men’s (A.T.B.) voices. A hymn setting, however, has to paint with a broader brush.
Herbert’s/mankind’s intimacy with God can be underlined in music by a solo voice, for example. Verses 6 and 7 are playful and whimsical: an anthem setting can provide a welcome change of (faster) pace – fast and will-o’-the-wisp in mine.
Music can also enhance the question Who can scape his bow? and give weight to the following austere statement That which wrought on thee...... Needs must work on me.
It is far harder to achieve such subtleties in a hymn tune. My solution was to write two tunes: the first Maddy, (my grandaughter’s name) is restless, brisk and in the minor mode:
The second (Jesse Close) is more sustained, calm, reassuring and in the major, suitable for verses 5 and 8:
The final verse suggests to me a rapprochement. My second tune may be well suited to emphasise this warmer relationship. Man’s failure and weeping are now transformed into trust.
A dream text, and one not affected by the long shadow of Vaughan Williams’s majestic settings!
Note: This setting is one of the tracks on the recently released CD George Herbert: Hymns New and Old.
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