This article first appeared in the September issue of the parish magazine.
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, 1st Baronet, was an English composer, probably best known for stirring hymns and anthems such as “Jerusalem” and “I Was Glad”. When the sheet music for “There is a Country Far Beyond the Stars” was given out at a Halle Academy rehearsal, I expected more of the same. How wrong I was! Whilst this piece has its lively moments, it is generally quiet and contemplative, intended to be sung in four parts* without accompaniment.
The text is taken from Henry Vaughan’s (1621–1695) “Peace”, and has given me much cause for thought:
- My soul, there is a country
- Far beyond the stars,
- Where stands a wingèd sentry
- All skilful in the wars:
- There, above noise and danger,
- Sweet Peace sits crown’d with smiles,
- And One born in a manger
- Commands the beauteous files.
- He is thy gracious Friend,
- And—O my soul, awake!—
- Did in pure love descend
- To die here for thy sake.
- If thou canst get but thither,
- There grows the flower of Peace,
- The Rose that cannot wither,
- Thy fortress, and thy ease.
- Leave then thy foolish ranges;
- For none can thee secure
- But One who never changes—
- Thy God, thy life, thy cure.
I do not claim by any stretch to be an expert in analysis of medieval poetry, however I think Vaughan is telling us that heaven, defended by archangel Michael, is where Jesus waits for us. We are reminded that Jesus took the humblest of human forms and died for our sake. We are to strive to get there and take refuge with Him. There is no salvation other than through Jesus, our eternally constant presence.
The verses alternate between 3/4 and 6/8 time. This means that whilst there are six quavers in each bar throughout, the emphasis changes in the pulse from 1 2 3 4 5 6 (three beats in a bar) to 1 2 3 4 5 6 (two beats in a bar). Why point this out? Because, along with the movement of the notes, it suits the text precisely.
One of my most powerful choral singing experiences was with this piece at Halle Academy in January 2016. It’s not straightforward, and stress levels were rising. In exasperation the conductor told us to close our copies and put them away. We were then asked to stand and turn toward the centre of the choir so that we were all facing inwards, looking at each other. We were given our starting notes, counted in, and left to get on with it. We sang unaccompanied and unconducted. It was a truly beautiful sound.
There is a gorgeous version of “There is a Country…” on YouTube here, presumably with a conductor, but without any accompaniment.
* soprano (high women’s voices) alto (lower-pitched women), tenor (higher pitched men), and bass (low pitched male voices)