Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Favorite recording of the all-time favorite All Saints hymn

Of course, it wouldn’t be All Saints’ Day without Ralph Vaughan Williams' greatest hit, “For All the Saints.”

Unlike my daughter, my work schedule did not allow me to attend services and hear this hymn live this week. So on the way to work I decided to look for what recordings I had on my laptop among the 426 hymns.

I found four distinct performances. All were from English choirs using (as far as I could tell) boys for the trebles. Here the the performances, ordered from most basic to most ornate:
  1. Worcester Cathedral Choir, from the “Vaughan Williams: Hymns and Choral Music” (3 verses, 2:12). Other than only three verses, a model of what I would want a small church choir or medium-sized congregation to do
  2. Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, from “A Vaughan Williams Hymnal” (8 verses, 5:32) has several variations, including men only and an a capella verse. This is the straight-up version that I would hold as the aspirational goal for all but the most experienced church choir.
  3. Wells Cathedral Choir, from “Christ Triumphant: The English Hymn 1” (6 verses, 4:23) is similar, but a more pronounced retard at the end.
  4. Wells Cathedral Choir, from “Favourite Hymns from Wells Cathedral” (6 verses, 5:03) is all out, with trumpet flourishes before the beginning, between the 5th and 6th verses, and with trumpets and organ blasting over the choir in the final verse.
The first three have an almost identical tempo of 0:40 per verse, while the last one is noticeably slower (10% by my copy of iTunes).

Overall, I think I like #2 the best, in between #1 and #3. While #4 would probably be the one I’d prefer to experience live in a cathedral — or perhaps blaring on my high-end stereo in the music room — it’s just not the same with headphones on my laptop or iPod, and the drama actually gets a little tedious after a while.

Update: If you listen closely to these English choirs, you’ll notice a difference from The English Hymnal (#641) original and American practice. The choirs match this text in verse 1 of TEH:
For all the Saints who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith before the world the confest,
Thy name, O Jesu, be forever blest,
Allieluya, Alleiluya!
So while there are obvious spelling differences, when listening it is noticeable that the English sing “O Jesu” rather than the “O Jesus” used with this text and RVW’s Sine Nomine in Hymnal 1940 (#126.1) or Hymnal 1982 (#287).

It turns out Hymnal 1916 was first American hymnal to use “O Jesus,” but still used the older 1868 tune (Sarum) which was retained in H40 (#126.2). When I went back to Hymnal 1892, not surprisingly it has Sarum — it couldn’t know about the tune that Vaughan Williams composed in 1906 for TEH — but it used the British “Jesu” (while keeping the other American spellings).

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