O God of Earth and Altar
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
The words have a startlingly modern ring to them, and some might find it surprising to stumble across them in the English Hymnal. But for the hymnal, first published in 1906, modernity was the point. This was the Anglican Church renewing itself at the start of the twentieth century—today they’d probably call it being relevant—and in their attempt to offer an alternative to the stolid Victoriana of Hymns Ancient and Modern, the publishers of the new book engaged a young composer to edit it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams might have been an atheist, but he believed in musical communities and viewed Anglican congregations as a good example. He took his task seriously, too, commissioning new tunes, composing some himself, and sifting history for forgotten gems. One of his finds was a hymn tune by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis that Vaughan Williams later made the basis of his famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. He also appropriated traditional melodies, but in this he had an ulterior motive. Vaughan Williams was on a mission to save the folk song, which was threatened with extinction.
Writing the introduction to his book Traditional Tunes: A Collection of Ballad Airs, published in 1891, Frank Kidson reported:
This class of song is fast disappearing before the modern productions, and any young ploughboy who should sing the songs his father or grandfather sung would be laughed to scorn … The old traditional songs are fast dying out, never to be recalled. They are now seldom or never sung, but rather remembered, by old people.
Vaughan Williams was hardly alone in his attempts to rescue these songs. Inspired partly by nationalism and partly by the belief that traditional music might be a way to discover new sounds in their own work, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, Gustav Holst and Percy Grainger went on excursions into the countryside and to small towns across Europe to ‘collect’ songs from those who still remembered them.
On a collecting trip to Norfolk in January 1905, Vaughan Williams struck gold in the harbour town of King’s Lynn. The seas were rough that week, too dangerous for sailing, and the pubs were full of fishermen. In seven days the composer noted down 67 songs in beer-fuelled performances. One of them was ‘Van Diemen’s Land’. It’s a ubiquitous song with a dozen different tunes, but the one Vaughan Williams heard (also sung to the words ‘Young Henry the Poacher’) made a deep impression on him. It’s in the hymnal under the title ‘King’s Lynn’, the tune attached to ‘O God of Earth and Altar’. The words are by the writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, best known today as the creator of the priest detective Father Brown.
Chesterton’s poem was first published in a magazine, the Commonwealth, in 1905, the same year Vaughan Williams learnt the tune, and its sentiments have scarcely dated. Here’s the second verse.
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
It is, alas, a lyric for the ages, and perhaps that is what Vaughan Williams recognised when he fitted it to the stout modal melody he had collected in that King’s Lynn pub. The mode in question is the Aeolian, which you can think of as a minor scale with a flattened seventh. If you play up the white notes from A to A, there it is. A minor would have a G sharp, but the Aeolian mode—sometimes called the natural minor scale—has a G natural. ‘King’s Lynn’ makes much use of that note.
The first line (‘O God of earth and altar’) climbs up to the G, landing on it with the second syllable of ‘al-tar’, before the second line resolves to the tonic A, an octave lower. The next couplet (‘our earthly rulers falter …’) climbs further, reaching the high A and staying there (on ‘fal-ter’), resolving to the dominant E (‘our people drift and die’). The third couplet, (‘the walls of gold entomb us …’) again reaches the A, but immediately drops back to the G (‘-tomb us’), resolving once more onto the dominant. Finally the forth couplet repeats the melody of the first.
Melodically it’s the third couplet that is significant. Thomas Anderson, the singer from whom Vaughan Williams recorded the original song, varied the tune here—doubtless for expressive purposes—rather than repeat the melodic line of the second couplet. You might have expected Vaughan Williams to iron out that difference in the hymn book, because having the same line twice would have made it easier on the congregation, and anyway the rationale for the variant was gone. But Vaughan Williams kept it, and in doing so, as the musicologist Julian Onderdonk has pointed out, was thinking both as a composer (the variant still works, because it calls our attention to Chesterton’s words) and as a musical nationalist, faithful to the music of his people.
It’s hard not to wonder if any of those modern-minded ploughboys later sang the hymn in the church and if they recognised the tune as one their grandfathers had sung. You also wonder what fans of heavy metal made of the tune. With metal’s apocalyptic mindset and fondness for a grand—not to say grandiloquent—lyric, it is not surprising that words from ‘O God of Earth and Altar’ should have found their way into an Iron Maiden song. But ‘Revelations’, from the band’s 1983 album Piece of Mind, used Chesterton’s complete first verse, together with the ‘King’s Lynn’ tune, and—at the end of the song—adapted Chesterton’s third and final verse. Chesterton had written:
Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.
On ‘Revelations’, which is fundamentally a humanist anthem, Iron Maiden’s singer Bruce Dickinson gives us a verse that begins: ‘Bind all of us together, / Ablaze with hope and free …’ It is pugnacious, certainly, but not as pugnacious as Chesterton, who wanted the whole lot of us smitten, in readiness for a fresh start. And was that sentiment also at the back of Vaughan Williams’ mind when he fitted the poet’s words to a folk tune? Did it occur to him that he was giving an endangered tune a fresh start? •
Andrew Ford is a composer, writer and presenter of The Music Show on Radio National.
Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist. She works as editor at the Australian Music Centre in Sydney.