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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Songstories 28: Be Thou My Vision (Vision, 1992, GIA)

There are a few songs that I think are slam dunks on the 4th Sunday in Lent: Christ, Be Our Light, for instance, and some incarnation of "Awake, O Sleeper." Certainly "Amazing Grace" qualifies, or has for most of my life until I started reading more about the origins of the song. Since grace does trump sin, I'm willing to keep indulging the sensus fidelium and programming Amazing Grace occasionally, but one song that I think hits the nail on the head as well any other song for Lent 4A is the Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision," restored of late to a few RC hymnals after a few decades of being separated from SLANE, its boon companion tune.

When I was a grade-school choir boy, we never sang BTMV to the tune Slane, but rather to a tune devised by J. H. Desroquettes, culled from the pages of the revered Pius X Hymnal. No less a light than Paul Inwood knew of and was influenced by the composer, about whom Inwood wrote in an internet exchange, "Dom Desrocquettes was a monk of Quarr Abbey, in my diocese (Portsmouth, England). I have a few memories of him, though he died when I was comparatively young. He was one of the influences on me in Gregorian chant accompaniment." Dom Desroquettes was a monk of Solesmes abbey, later of Quarr on the Isle of Wight, and he influenced many US composers as well, including Alexander Peloquin and Richard Proulx.

The tune, which I have reproduced below from my memory, is hauntingly beautiful, and may have been more so when accompanied by the accompaniment in the hymnal, but my recollection is that we sang this and a lot of other music from the hymnal by heart and unaccompanied. The parish organist, Mahlon Gaumer, was really quite good considering that he was obliged to play on a Hammond B3 in the great cruciform structure that was St. Vincent de Paul Parish in the early 1960s.

When thinking about re-introducing this song to my congregation in Phoenix, I toyed with the idea of using the older melody that I remembered, but then along came Van Morrison and the Chieftains with their anarchic version on Van's album Hymns to the Silence, and that was the end of that idea. Van was probably doing what I did: remembering the words from his childhood, though in his case through a Guinness-and-Jameson's-induced fog, for which I envy him. As my friend Dennis Wells put it recently when I was posting about this on Facebook, "I'm glad you used the only part of the song in which he doesn't completely scramble Thy, Thee, Thou, Thine, as though they are interchangeable." I don't really mind: the guy who gave us "Brown-Eyed Girl" and "Tupelo Honey" as well as the Irish Heartbeat and Bells of Dublin albums, and plenty more, can do no wrong.

So what I ended up doing was arranging "Be Thou My Vision" for the tune SLANE, for unison or SB voices, flute, and string quartet with piano. On the recording, we also used a drum set with a little different take on the beat than Van used, but definitely clicked the tempo up from the often too-dreary pacing of that melody when one hears it used in church with other venerable texts like "Lord of All Hopefulness."

Wikipedia reports that the origin of the text may date to the 6th Century CE. The text was translated in 1905 from the Irish by Mary Elizabeth Byrne, and versified in 1912 by Eleanor Hull. Coupled with SLANE, it appeared in Anglican and Methodist hymnals beginning in the 1930s. This makes me wonder whether the Roman Catholic tune by Dom Desroquettes, lovely as it was, was written to set it apart from the Ulster version that had settled in with the Church of England! Who knows?

At any rate, both tunes suit the song well. The references in the text to God as the "high king" of heaven stamps it as wonderfully Irish, and the many references to armor and victory seem to ratify the drum cadences we used that stir the singer to "put on Christ" while s/he prays to be blessed with a vision of love that will carry through to the end of one's days.

We'll be singing "Be Thou My Vision" as we start off our Lenten liturgy on the 4th Sunday, when we will hear about the healing of the man born blind, and celebrate the second scrutiny of the elect. This song has been with me since in was in about fifth grade, and stirs me every time I sing it. I only hope that my arrangement and attempt to make it more accessible stirs people in this and other generations who make it their own.

Below the iTunes window, I will write out my adaptation of Eleanor Hull's text, which tries to make the text more gender inclusive, while keeping the flavor of the original. (See the Wikipedia entry for the Irish text, the translation by Byrne, and the original versification by Hull. There is also an OGG Vorbis file of the song sung in Irish to the tune SLANE which is VERY cool.)

Be Thou My Vision on iTunes.

Be Thou My Vision
tr. from the Irish by Mary E. Byrne and versified by Eleanor Hull
alterations by Rory Cooney, © 1992

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
Naught is all else to me save that thou art.
Thou my best thought by day and by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word,
I ever with thee, and thou with me Lord,
Thou my heart's great love, and I am thine own,
Thou in me dwelling and I with thee one.

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight,
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight,
Thou my soul's shelter, and thou my high tower,
O raise thou me heavenward, O power of my power.

Riches I need not nor vain empty praise:
Thou my inheritance now and always,
Thou and thou only the first in my heart,
High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.

Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O ruler of all,
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
Naught is all else to me, save that thou art.