Herbert: Musical Settings


English poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often found its way into music: for example, the lyric verse of Philip Sidney (1554-1586), Edmund Spenser (?1552-1599), Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), and others was set and sung in the courts of Elizabeth I and James VI and I. John Donne writes, in 'The Triple Foole', about the experience of hearing his own verse sung back to him in this way, though if it ever happened, he was probably more gratified than galled (as he claims). But though the poetry of George Herbert was popular, and circulated widely after its publication in The Temple in 1633, it was many years before it was extensively set for choral performance, and many of the best settings are by twentieth-century composers.

Herbert's poetry continues to be encountered and understood within the choral and even liturgical traditions today. In Cambridge, for example, settings of his poetry are regularly sung - in hymns - all over the university and city, and anthems based on his poetry rank among the favourites of many singers who love John Blow, Henry Purcell, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten. The choir of Queens' College, Cambridge, under the direction of Madeleine Lovell, very generously offered an hour of their time to record some of the more famous modern settings of Herbert's poetry, to which you can listen, below. You may want to consider how settings like this interact with the written words of Herbert's poetry, and how the situation of his poetry in a liturgical context and community may affect our assumptions about what these poems can do and mean. Or you may just want to listen to the music!


1. Hymn: King of Glory, King of Peace
(to the tune of Gwalchmai, by J. D. Jones)

¶ Praise.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 140)

King of Glorie, King of Peace,
I will love thee:
And that love may never cease,
I will move thee.

Thou hast granted my request,
Thou hast heard me:
Thou didst note my working breast,
Thou hast spar'd me.

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.

Though my sinnes against me cried,
Thou didst cleare me;
And alone, when they replied,
Thou didst heare me.

Sev'n whole dayes, not one in seven,
I will praise thee.
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.

Thou grew'st soft and moist with tears,
Thou relentedst:
And when Justice call'd for fears,
Thou dissentedst.

Small it is, in this poore sort
To enroll thee:
Ev'n eternitie is too short
To extoll thee.

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2. Hymn: The God of Love my Shepherd Is
(to the tune of University, by Charles Collignon)

¶ The 23 Psalme.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 167)

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe;
In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my minde in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Yea, in deaths shadie black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staffe to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev'n in my enemies sight:
My head with oyl, my cup with wine
Runnes over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my dayes;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.

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(Here the choir sings verses 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6)


3. Hymn: Let all the World in Every Corner Sing
(to the tune of Luckington, by Basil Harwood)

¶ Antiphon.
(From The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 45)

Cho. Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
My God and King.

Vers. The heav'ns are not too high,
His praise may thither flie:
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Cho. Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
My God and King.

Vers. The church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out:
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Cho. Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
My God and King.

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4. Hymn: Teach Me My God and King
(Traditional English melody, published by William Sandys, 1833)

¶ The Elixer.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), pp. 178-79)

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:

Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav'n espie.

All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.

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(Here the choir sings stanzas 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6)


5. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'Sweet Day'

¶ Vertue.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 80)

Sweet day, so cool, co calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall sweep thy fall to night;
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all my die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season'd timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

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6. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'The Call', from 'Five Mystical Songs'

¶ The Call.
(from The Temple (Cambridge, 1633), p. 150)

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

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The bass soloist in 'The Call' is Ciaran Woods, of St John's College.



With thanks to Madeleine Lovell, Alex Breedon, Jemima Stephenson (organ), and the choir of Queens' College, Cambridge; and to the President and Fellows of Queens' College, Cambridge for use of the College chapel. The recordings were made and mixed by Nick Sutcliffe.


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