Isaac Watts (1674-1748), often said to be the father of English hymnody, had a particular vision for the language of faith. Watts was a poet – and a critic of ponderous and banal church music – from a tender age, famously annoying his family by rhyming in daily conversation (one attributed line spoken to his irritated father “Oh Father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”) That father, a learned deacon in the dissenting Congregationalist church, famously challenged him to improve on the rather functional hymn-psalm settings used by protestants in that time – Isaac accepted this challenge and wrote a new hymn every Sunday for two years, eventually contributing more than 600. One of which was the striking paraphrase of Psalm 23 “My Shepherd will supply my need” sung by the choir last Sunday, and another, the central melody of our annual Remembrance Service, a paraphrase of Psalm 90, “O God, our help in ages past.”
Music and memory are deeply intertwined, music often added to word to aid in our remembering. We continue to see, in children learning to speak right up to dementia patients, snatches of song and pieces of music entering first and remaining longest in memory. The new field of music and cognition continues to enrich our understanding of why pieces of music evoke, on simple hearing, memory of a time or place perhaps not thought of in years, or for any other reason.
“O God, our help in ages past,” sung and heard today at RPC to William Croft’s 1708 tune, ‘St Anne,’ picks up on the theme of time that Psalm 90 so grandly explores, even in the six of Watts’ nine verses still in use (and interestingly after a significant change made by John Wesley upon re-publishing it in 1738, changing the first line from “Our God…” to “O God…”). The simple ‘St Anne’ tune is masterfully incorporated into Ralph Vaughan Williams’ own choral paraphrase of Psalm 90, “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge”, figures into one of Handel’s ‘Chandos anthems, “O Praise the Lord with one consent,” and perhaps more dubiously into today’s postlude, the great E-flat major ‘St Anne’ Fugue.
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream” bears the memory of our war-fallen further and further away: several generations of us here in the west now have never lost a loved one to war, known a veteran, or been forced to suffer the experience of war. But we know that war continues – its refugees become our neighbours and our sisters and brothers. It would not be hard to argue that deeply evocative texts and tunes such as those running throughout our service today have become key agents in our remembering – but as Seaton suggests today, remembering is also about the future: our call to a gospel of peace, in contrast to a past of conflict. Perhaps our songs and verses can be repurposed in a similar way as we journey on.