Thus opens one of the more rousing hymns we sing in Chapel in the Senior School, a hymn that is often criticized for nationalistic English overtones, when in fact it is a lament about the sorry state England had fallen into in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. In that respect it does have a national context – England in the early 1800’s – but it takes very little imagination at all to extrapolate universal meaning from it. The words were written by William Blake, a visionary poet whose most famous poem is probably “Tiger, tiger, burning bright…”. The premise of Blake’s poem is the apocryphal legend that after the resurrection, Jesus travelled throughout Europe and ended up in England. The music is composed by Charles Hubert Parry, a prominent English composer, in the last decade of his life, during the First World War. He also composed the music for another favourite hymn we sing, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. So why this history lesson? Do read on.
On Wednesday in Chapel we experienced a version of that hymn, in an arrangement composed by Brandon Chow, one of our musically gifted Grade 10 students. He conducted a string ensemble of his classmates (accomplished musicians themselves), who accompanied our Chamber Choir. The strings opened with a very modern musical statement in modest, fractured tones that left a listener wondering how we were going to arrive eventually at Parry’s stately Victorian tune. It is fairer to say, actually, that the choir provided the music that arrived: against the continuing thoughtful meditation of the strings, the choir began its traditional rendering of Jerusalem, which expanded eventually into a descant that was both haunting and uplifting. I could carry on, because the effect was breathtaking enough to justify getting carried away. But I won’t get carried away. It was outstanding.
We are lucky to have frequent memorable musical moments at the school. Not too long ago we had the music performed at the Remembrance Day Service – in particular the duet, Brother James’ Air, performed by Benjamin Schaan and Andy Erasmus – or the Middle School Strings Concert of a few weeks’ ago, or the Small Ensembles Concert next Wednesday, or the three Carol Services over the next few weeks (do check out the School calendar).
Life is plenty harried and hectic, whether in school or out. Last Wednesday it was exquisite to walk out of the building into a bright sunny day further transformed by something both powerful and humbling.