A highlight of the George Herbert Festival in July was a concert in the Double Cube Room at Wilton House. New settings to two of Herbert’s poems were sung by the Farrant Singers, one of which was Antiphon (II), composed for the occasion by Alec Roth.
Of the two poems by Herbert entitled 'Antiphon', the first is better known and sung as a hymn 'Let all the world …'. Both need a musical setting, with priest and people responding to one another back and forth in a rhythmic pattern.
Another of Herbert’s poems is brought to mind in the reading of this poem. It is 'The 23d Psalme', which starts with the line 'The God of love my shepherd is'. 'Antiphon (II)' sets out the ways in which God is experienced as a God of love, and what sort of response to this can be made by human and heavenly beings.
In verse 1, the response starts with men on earth here below with the angels replying And here above. The responses of men and angels are then reversed until the last, shorter, verse. While both praise God, they do so from different states of being: men are earthbound, prone to wrong doing and therefore often opposed to God. Angels are spiritual beings with no barrier in their worship of God.
In verse 2 we find the shepherd imagery. Verses from the 10th chapter of St. John’s Gospel are brought to mind here – a clearly painted picture of Jesus as the good shepherd who looks after his sheep, keeps them secure in the fold and ultimately lays down his own life for them – for us was sold.
Echoes of other psalms are also heard throughout this poem: Psalm 2, for example in the first line of the third verse he our foes in pieces brake. But it is also the broken body of Jesus which we take in Holy Communion. In response to such self giving love, angels and men are united in adoration, with men bowing low in reverence: we do crouch.
In the St. John’s Gospel imagery, all are brought together into one fold. In this poem, angels and men after they have responded from their different perspectives throughout the poem, are brought together into one fold - Who hath made of two folds one.
Earth and heaven are united in praise of the one God. In the little George Herbert church in Bemerton, each month at the evening service we say or sing a psalm antiphonally. We could not possibly match the soaring quality of the Farrant Singers as they sang Alec Roth's new setting of this poem. But occasionally we get a glimpse that we are not alone as we sing praises to the God of love.
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