Saturday, November 2, 2013

All Things Bright and Beautiful


Autumn, in much of the United States and Canada, immerses us in brilliantly colored leaves and flowers, cool breezes, and spicy fragrances. The summer haze has given way to stunning sunsets and crystal clear nights, and a new arrangement of stars is unfolding in the sky. Geese begin their annual migration south, while squirrels, deer, and many other animals are moving about, eating all they can, and getting ready for the coming of winter. As in springtime, we thrill again to the wonder and beauty of God's creation.

There are many people who can see and even appreciate this magnificent thing we call Creation, but can't bring themselves to acknowledge that it had a Creator. They believe that it all came from nothing and resulted by pure accident. Could the Pieta have sculpted itself?  Did the Mona Lisa really spring forth from random molecular collisions?  Creation is infinitely more vast, complex, and compelling than these works, as wondrous as they are; how could it have been brought into being without a Mind to so masterfully organize all that matter and space, and the intricate laws that govern them?

Scripture only declares what we should already know by observation and insight: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork."  (Psalm 19:1) As St. Paul observed, "[t]he invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse . . ."  (Romans 1:20)  When we pause to reflect on these profound truths, we're apt to say with the Psalmist: "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8:3)

Children seem to intuitively understand the divine authorship of Creation, and are awed--yet comfortable--with it. Perhaps this was part of the insight behind one of the sweetest Christian hymns, All Things Bright and Beautiful.

THE TEXT AND ITS LEGACY

Cecil Frances Alexander
The text was written in 1848 by English writer and poet Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), the wife of Anglican clergyman William Alexander, who later became Primate of All Ireland. It has been said that Mrs. Alexander was inspired to write this hymn when trying, with difficulty, to teach a group of children the meaning of the Apostles' Creed. When traditional teaching methods failed, she decided to write a series of hymns based on selected passages in the Creed.  She developed All Things Bright and Beautiful from the phrase, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth."  That may be more abstract than the typical child can appreciate, but the text of the hymn expresses this fundamental truth in terms familiar to a child's (as well as an adult's) experience and interest. Here are the original words (today, due to its seeming endorsement of the class system, the stanza referring to "the rich man in his castle" is generally omitted):
Refrain

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.


Refrain

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.


Refrain

The purple headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.


Refrain

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.


Refrain

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.


Refrain

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.


Refrain
This hymn celebrates the wonders of Nature that fascinate children and adults alike: flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, trees, meadows, sunshine, sunsets, wind. But its central teaching is that "The Lord God made them all"--and made them well!

Mrs. Alexander wrote more hymns to illustrate other elements of the Apostles' Creed, including Once in Royal David's City, and There Is a Green Hill Far Away. She published these and others in a collection entitled Hymns for Little Children in 1848.  It was enormously successful and went through 69 editions during her lifetime and 100 editions altogether. Mrs. Alexander donated the profits from Hymns for Little Children to a school for the deaf, adding to her other endeavors supporting a ministry to unwed mothers and establishing a district nursing service.

It has also been suggested that All Things Bright and Beautiful may have been inspired by a verse from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "He prayeth best, who loveth best; All things great and small; For the dear God who loveth us; He made and loveth all." (the verse appears in the graphic at right)

Llanwenarth House
The place of the hymn's composition also figures in its story. It has been claimed that Mrs. Alexander wrote All Things Bright and Beautiful while staying at Llanwenarth House in Govilon, in the Usk valley of Monmouthshire, Wales.  In this connection, the refrain "the purple headed mountains, the river running by," may refer to the Sugar Loaf and Blorenge mountains and the River Usk (interestingly, Llanwenarth House was sold in 2012). The place of composing the hymn's text has also been attributed to Markree Castle in County Sligo, Ireland, and to Mineheadand the nearby village of Dunster in Somerset, England.

Along the River Usk

While Mrs. Alexander's hymn continued to be widely sung through the years since its publication, it gained greater notoriety when English veterinarian James Herriot, at the suggestion of his young daughter, named his first book All Creatures Great and Small, after a phrase in the hymn's refrain. He later wrote three more books named after the other three lines of the refrain: All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All. These best-sellers inspired a movie as well as a long-running BBC television series.

THE MUSIC

William H. Monk

All Things Bright and Beautiful has been matched with several melodies over the years. The earliest (1887), and my favorite, is BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL by English organist, church musician, and music editor William Henry Monk (1823–1889) (who also composed the tune "Eventide" used for the hymn "Abide with Me").  This tune is set forth below (only the music to the refrain and first stanza is presented here; I couldn't find a complete rendering of the text and music):

Martin F. Shaw


At least as popular today, especially in Great Britain, is the 17th-century English melody ROYAL OAK as adapted and arranged in 1915 by English composer Martin F. Shaw (1875-1958).  The original tune takes its name from a tree at Boscobel, Shropshire, England, in which King Charles II hid during the Battle of Worcester in 1651), which concluded the English Civil War. Here is the music to Mr. Shaw's arrangement:


Also quite popular today, at least outside church services, is a full choral arrangement by contemporary English composer and conductor John Rutter (b. 1945).

REFLECTIONS ON THE HYMN

While All Things Bright and Beautiful may have been written specifically for children, in a way that appeals to their natural curiosity and sense of wonder, it affirms some of the most profound truths of being--truths that even adults tend to forget, lost as we become in the murk of worldly distraction and self-absorption.

The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament teaches that God created the heavens and the stars, sun and moon; the seas with all its creatures; the earth and all its flora and fruit; the birds and animals; and finally, the pinnacle of His Creation, Man (and Woman!). He saw that they were all very good, and enjoined them to "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth." (Genesis 1:1-1:31)  That God created this magnificent universe is declared joyfully in the New Testament as well as the Old (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 4:11).  We learn that He cares for us and for all creatures and elements of His Creation, the small and the great--and especially for us, His children: "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26)

Attitudes of wonder, humility, thankfulness, and joy need to be cultivated from the earliest age, if children are to grow into spiritually healthy and happy adults. Appealing, instructive hymns like All Things Bright and Beautiful serve that purpose well.

VIDEO PRESENTATIONS

The following rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful is by an unidentified chorus singing William H. Monk's tune "Bright and Beautiful," accompanied by a charming video.



Martin F. Shaw's arrangement of "Royal Oak" is the tune sung by another unidentified choir in the following video; both the visual and musical experiences here are matchless:



Featured in the following video--another gem--is John Rutter's arrangement of All Things Bright and Beautiful. The choir is not identified, but I believe it is The Cambridge Singers:



* * * * *

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them. ~ Isaiah 11:6

1 comment:

  1. What a beautifully-written post! I was surprised to see the music of Mrs Alexander's hymn was composed by the same person who did the music for 'Abide With Me'. And I also didn't know Mrs Alexander wrote the words to 'Once In Royal David's City'....the same hymn that begins the 'Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' at King's College Chapel at Cambridge University. Thank you for sharing the backstory of this lovely hymn, and the gorgeous pictures and videos!

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