Posted: Sept 8, 2023

A New Organ Accompaniment for an Old Anthem

Enjoy special music prepared by Assistant Choirmaster & Organist Stanley M. Baker on Sunday, September 17

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the most esteemed English musicians of the 20th century. He was also very prolific and created music for a great variety of ensembles.

For the Abinger Pageant (think village festival with musical skits) in 1934, Vaughan Williams was commissioned to create several different musical works of greatly varying types including a choral setting of parts of Psalms 84 and 90, “O How Amiable Are Thy Dwellings”, to be accompanied by the local military band. In 1940, Vaughan Williams arranged a version of this same piece accompanied only with organ which is the version almost exclusively in use in churches and schools today.

Curiously, there is a footnote at the bottom of the first page of the organ version that says “This anthem was originally accompanied by military band. For open air performance this is preferable.” I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be nice to know the instrumental sounds that Vaughan Williams had in mind when he first conceived the anthem.” I mostly wanted to reflect those sounds in my choices of organ stops if possible.

Finding the original score for band turned out to be a bit of a challenge however. That version is now out of print but I was able to locate one using Inter Library Loan (thank you Richmond Public Library!).

As I began to delve into how Vaughan Willams wrote his original accompaniment, I began to discover many wonderful things about it that were regrettably left out of the first organ-only version. Even at the very beginning there are some long-held notes that were not included in the first organ version.

That’s when this little project took on a life of its own. I decided to (almost) completely rewrite the accompaniment using the full score as my guide. While at my previous musical position I had become fluent using music notation software (think word processor for music) which meant that creating a new musical score was within my grasp.

This anthem culminates by quoting a well-known hymn (the Psalm 90 part), “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”. One of the discoveries embedded in the band score is a little descant for a solo clarinet soaring over the choral voices. I managed to include this as the top voice in the organ part.

Hope you all enjoy this new, yet old version of the anthem!

Stanley Baker, Assistant Choirmaster & Organist

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