Thursday, April 18, 2013

A funeral for a Baroness

Wednesday was the funeral for Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Britain’s second greatest prime minister of the 20th Century (after Churchill), who in her three consecutive terms transformed the British economy and society.

The service for Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which lacks the official history of Westminster Abbey but makes up for it with architectural grandeur and scope (having been for centuries Britain’s tallest building). I couldn’t watch live, but it was covered by her old ally the Telegraph and her nemesis the Guardian (among others).

Since her death, I’ve been reading a wonderful biography by American Claire Berlinski, entitled There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. It credits her Methodist upbringing (and the influence of her father) for her great political success.

I don’t know much about English Methodists — other than the Wesley family and their hymns — but the order of service posted at the Telegraph and the St. Paul’s website seems very Church of England to me. The words to the hymns were very familiar to my ECUSA-raised upbringing (although the tunes were not).

The headline on the Telegraph service commentary termed it “a miraculous pairing of words and music.” As Christopher Howse wrote:
From the moment her coffin was met at St Clement Danes with the words, “We who are baptised in the death of Christ,” the topic was something universal: death. This was not divisive but, in the words of the Bishop of London, “the common destiny of all human beings”. It was, yesterday, as if the millions watching were following a stage tragedy. The difference was that this was a true story, and the tragic flaw of the heroine was not a moral failing but mortality itself.

The Church of England service emphasised two things: the reality of death, with no demurring, and the hope of resurrection. “The days of man are but grass,” read Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin. “For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone.” Left at that, it would be no more than Hadrian’s sad farewell to the soul: “Animula, vagula, blandula.” But it was not left at that. From deep, dim waters it strove upwards towards the light.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” the Prime Minister read from the Gospel of St John. “I go to prepare a place for you.” Those were words of Jesus, and, in the passage read, Thomas usefully responded, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest.” Nothing could rub in more sorely that we cannot see beyond the dark and narrow gates of death.
The text was from the Authorized Version (King James for us Yankees), including the Lord’s Prayer and a reading by her granddaughter of Ephesians 6: 10-18.

The opening sentences sung by the choir include these three (or at least two) very familiar passages, to a setting by William Croft:
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
John 11. 25, 26

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.
Job 19. 25-27

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.
1 Timothy 6. 7 and Job 1. 21
Other music included “How lovely is thy dwelling place,” an adaptation of Psalm 84 that’s one of my favorite songs from Brahms’s German Requiem.

The first congregation hymn was “He who would valiant be,” adapted by Dearmer and Vaughan Williams for The English Hymnal from text by John Bunyan (the great Puritan author) and an English folk tune. From The Cyberhymnal description, it seems an odd hymn to put in a CoE hymnal:
Words: John Bun­yan, Pil­grim’s Prog­ress, 1684; mo­di­fied by Per­cy Dear­mer in The Eng­lish Hym­nal (Lon­don: Ox­ford Un­i­ver­si­ty Press, 1906). Bun­yan wrote these words dur­ing his 12-year pri­son sent­ence for re­fus­ing to con­form to the of­fi­cial state church.
The “official state church” in this case was the 150-year-old CoE, which was too Anglo-Catholic for the Puritans and many others of the severe (or seriously) reformed faith. So this hymn in a 20th century Anglican hymnal celebrates defiance of the 17th century Anglican church.

Lady Thatcher’s funeral used the TEH version (#402) with the tune to Monks Gate, while H40 (#563) lists St. Dunstan’s and H82 (in a rare improvement) includes both tunes (#565 and #564 respectively), albeit without harmony for the former.

In a similar vein, the final congregation hymn was “Love Divine” by Charles Wesley. Raised on H40, the version to Hyfrodol (H40: #479) had very strong resonance with me, even before Mrs. Nine and I sang it at our wedding.

However, apparently that’s not the tune used by the CoE. TEH (#437) lists Moriah, while Songs of Praise, Enlarged Edition (#573) has the Welsh Moriah and the English Exile. Among CoE hymnals, only in the New English Hymnal (#408) do we see Blaenwern, the 1905 tune by William Rowlands used at Lady Thatcher’s funeral.

Other than the 1905 date, I haven’t found much about Blaenwern, perhaps because I only have a limited collection of books on English hymns. Ian Bradley lists five tunes, including three no longer used: the Purcell tune Westminster that Wesley favored, Love Divine by John Stainer (in the 1889 Hymns A&M and NEH), and Airedale by Charles Stanford. Bradley continues
Nowadays the hymn is generally sung to one of two equally majestic Welsh tunes: Hyfrydol by Rowland Huw Pritchard (1811-57), a loomtender’s assistant in the Weslh Flannel Manufacturing Company’s mills at Holywell; and Balenwern by William Penfro Rowlands (1860-1937).
One last note on Blaenwern: it’s the tune used with these lyrics at the wedding of the Queen’s grandson to Kate Middleton held two years earlier — and two miles away — at Westminster Abbey.

The service concluded with the Nunc Dimittis (in English) from Stanford’s Evening Service in G. Again, the words are very familiar but the tune is not; H40 has seven settings of the Nunc Dimittis, but none match the Stanford setting. By the end of the service, I would have would have heard many familiar texts, but (except for Brahms) not to the expected melodies.

Interestingly, the only overlap between Lady Thatcher’s service and the 2007 service for (Episcopalian) Gerald Ford is the Brahams — “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” (in English) from the German Requiem.

I won’t be having a state funeral, but perhaps my friends and family will host one at my local parish church many decades hence. I feel I can’t go wrong with these examples: the Brahms and “Love divine” would top my requests for my own funeral (assuming our local choir can handle it). My third request would be “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23) from Rutter’s Requiem; we did the psalm for my dad’s funeral, but the choir at his church wasn’t up for the Rutter setting on such short notice. In general, I’m not a big Rutter fan, but this piece is the most haunting setting I’ve ever heard of this text.

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