Note: this blog post appeared Nov 1 on Facebook and, now, is catalogued here. I am committed to posting once per month on the first day of the month and due to technical difficulties (computer virus) I was unable to access Word Press on Nov 1. Since the time that this was posted on FB, a couple of small edits have been made thanks to some crowdsourcing comments. All good! Happy All Saints.
I had the gift of several hours in the car in the past couple of days as I moved about our diocese from appointment to appointment. In that time I had the opportunity to enact an annual ritual: I sang – repeatedly and to my heart’s content- Sine Nomine, or “For All the Saints.” It is, by far, one of my top ten (OK, maybe one of my top three) hymns, and with the Feast of All Saints upon us and some solid road time, it was the perfect license to let it rip.
I sing the Vaughn Williams setting, of course (Sine Nomine), that is in our Hymnal 1982 (# 287) and I sing All.Of.The.Verses. All 8.
I spent some time reflecting today why it is that I love this hymn so much and, as long drives are wont to do, I found myself going down lots of rabbit holes- musical, personal and theological.
The hymn “For All the Saints” was written in 1864 by William Walsham How. How was the sometime bishop of Wakefield, England, and the author of several other hymn texts- ten, to be exact. (Later edit: How wrote 60 hymns, according to another source. Prolific! thanks, Dina Ishler!) To the best of my understanding How’s hymn, “For All the Saints” is the only one of his adopted for inclusion in the Episcopal Hymnal. How based his hymn on the scriptural passage from Hebrews 12: 1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
The original tune was not the one that we love so much, Sine Nomine. It was Sarum, composed by Joseph Barnby. The tune Sarum does not appear anywhere in our 1982 hymnal. (Later edit: apparently, Sarum is in our 1940 hymnal- thanks, Lois Keen!) Later, an alternative tune was offered, as well: Engleberg. We know that hymn tune by Stanford as “When in our Music God is Glorified” (Hymnal 1982 # 420). For a real fun time, try singing “For All the Saints” to “When in our Music God is Glorified!” It’s like rubbing your belly and scratching your head at the same time.
The tune Sine Nomine was the second tune offered for How’s text and came about in 1906. Called one of the “finest hymn tunes of the 20th century” (Clothier), Vaughn Williams wrote it for the publication for the new English Hymnal and gave it its interesting name, Sine Nomine which means, literally, “No Name.” It is thought that Vaughn Williams was not being a smart alec and refusing to name his tune, but referencing the many saints gone before us whose names are not known to us, and only to God.
How’s original text has 11 verses. Our hymnal has picked up eight of them. The verses that the Episcopal Church has chosen not to include are:
For the Apostles’ glorious company
who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
shook all the mighty world, we sing to thee: Alleluia!
For the Evangelists, by whose pure word,
like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord
is fair and fruitful, be thy name adored: Alleluia!
For Martyrs who, with rapture-kindled eye,
saw the bright crown descending from the sky
and, seeing, grasped it, thee we glorify: Alleluia
In my prayer and singing time, here are some of the things that I thought about as I pondered why this hymn is one of my go-tos:
Musically, it is hard to do better than this splendid, singable composition of 10. 10. 10 (with Alleluias). That configuration, decoded, means that there are 10 syllables in each line of the song (plus the Alleluias.). We code our hymns this way. (Another 10.10. 10 hymn, for reference, is “Abide with me.”) This 10.10.10 meter is symmetrical and easy to sing. Sine Nomine’s best musical feature, though, is its unmistakable and strong downbeat – a booming low G played on the pedal. The arrangement that we have suggests strong unison singing until verses 5 and 6. Often these verses are sung acapella and add a lovely texture to the music. And, Vaughn Williams has provided a beautiful alto part with some leading notes that are just so satisfactory to sing. Thank you, Mr. Vaughn Williams.
Personally, this hymn gives me time (it takes a good while to sing) to reflect on all of the saints in my life, and most of all, beloved ones who have gone before to join the great cloud of witnesses. My father. My mother. Friends, Aunts, Uncles, cousins, roommates, parishioners. Dear ones, all. Especially at this time of year, I remember my father whose birthday was in November and who died before I got to know him. There is a strong connection for me, by faith, of having only known my father by stories told to me and I trust, through our faith, that for him, life has not ended, but has changed, and that at the last day we will, together, see God. A feast day that celebrates those gone before us (Okay, technically, that would be all All Souls, on Nov 2 when we remember All the Faithful Departed) is an opportunity to give thanks for those on whose shoulders we stand, and it is a chance to hold them close. Yes, that’s more personal than theological.
Theologically, there is much to love about this hymn. What’s to love? The strong conviction of the promise of eternal life which is marked by peace, calm, paradise, light, shining glory, and strength. God as our rock, our strength and our might. And, as I sang the hymn today, some things gave me caution. What’s the caution? I was really struck today, in his hymn that I have sung for years and years, by the images of war: of God as “Captain in the well-fought fight”, the idea of us engaged in a fierce strife overcome by the clarion call of the triumph song, and the image of warriors, having won their rest. I am on the pacifist end of the War-Peace spectrum and wonder if the time in which this text was written may have contributed to its war-heavy imagery- England was just coming off the heels of the Crimean War in 1864… could that have influenced our bishop poet? Or is it our American selection of the war-heavy stanzas for our hymnal(s) that reflects something about us? It may be, for me, that in this time of great worldwide unrest- terrorism, nuclear threat, violence at our borders, regular shootings in our streets, schools and houses of worship- that images of war set my teeth on edge. We have enough, enough.
My favorite part of the entire hymn is the second “10” of our Verse 4: “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” There is something so true about this: that we, here on earth struggle to live faithfully in pursuit of fulfilling God’s covenant call to us to be compassionate, just, humble, righteous, fair and loving… and… because of our inherent nature, it is a feeble struggle. But. But! We have, as our models, the saints before us who shine, like beacons to light our way. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” I love it.
How about you?
What hymn is in your top 10? Or top 3?
Here’s a link to a good recording of Sine Nomine if you want to sing it for yourself!