Page 37 - Church Music Quarterly June 2019
P. 37

 less used. The first modern tune, used in the Oxford book was called Poplar, by T.B. Strong, who was Dean of Christ Church, and later Bishop of Oxford. This was included in the second supplement to the second edition of Ancient and Modern (1916). Other tunes include Constantia by R.O. Morris, David
by George Wallace Briggs, and Lytlington by Sydney Nicholson. Nonetheless, it is Davies’s tune that claims the first line as its name: ‘God be in my head’.
Some hymn books omit Davies’s original marking of Andante, which is to say that it is all too easy to labour it. The simple organ introduction
is the musical equivalent of the opening of hands in prayer (the orans position adopted by the priest
which is death itself as we depart in peace into the arms of Christ. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that in the French the text refers
to Jesus and there is an Amen. The translators have made the change without apparent reason. The gist and thrust of the prayer are hardly changed, but in modern times we might consider the English version to be more inclusive, and perhaps also more of a statement of intention (‘that God be in my head’) rather than a direct request (‘Jesus, be in my head’). Whatever one makes of this difference, it is surely incidental, or even accidental.
The suitability of the short hymn for funerals is evident in the final line and the piece complements the reading or singing of the Nunc
in body parts and their function gives spiritual power to the inevitable dualism we unthinkingly live by. Head, eyes, mouth and heart, these are considered to be the instruments of thought, insight, speech and love, and this ancient prayer asks that they may be attuned to the will of God so that
at our lives’ end we may depart in peace to the glory of resurrection light and life. Whether our seeing truly is located in our eyes, our speaking in our mouth, and so on, is a philosophical point now much informed by modern neuroscience, physiognomy and psychology.
Whether we see this as metaphorical or literal, there is a similarity to and a resonance with the Irish lorica (St Patrick’s
 The suitability of the short hymn for funerals is evident in the final line and the piece complements the reading or singing of the Nunc Dimittis beautifully
 at the Eucharist), a gesture of welcome and inclusion that typifies the spirit of the text. Some omit it, feeling that it is an unnecessary giving out of pitch to the choir. Either way, this is a personal devotion to be sung corporately (rather than a communal prayer often said alone, as the Lord’s Prayer often is). From the tonic of A major it moves confidently through E major and F sharp minor before a spine-tingling pause on ‘heart’ with a dominant ninth chord that carries us through to a cadence in D major. The final line roots us firmly back in A major as the brief prayer concludes. There is no Amen in the English version, which turns it into an open, almost unconcluded prayer, the Amen (‘let it be so’) to
Dimittis beautifully. It works particularly well immediately before or after the Commendation, before the deceased is carried out of the building. Originally in medieval French (but found in the British Museum), the text can be found on the frontispiece of a Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin (published
in 1514 by Richard Pynson), now preserved in the library of Clare College, Cambridge. Inclusion of a translation in the Sarum Primer (1558) and in John Cosin’s A Collection of Private Devotions suggests that the prayer may well have found frequent use before
or after a Daily Office service. The words need little commentary, save perhaps to notice that the invocation of the presence of God
Breastplate), which seeks to clothe the Christian in spiritual protection. The lorica is the outward spiritual vesture, while ‘God be in my head’ concerns the inner content and outward expression of faith. As a musical prayer, and because it is singable with limited choral resources, it is a useful and profound expression of a subtle desire and expansive hope, in the midst of death and life.
Holy Jesus, may our heads be filled with your wisdom; our eyes with your light; our heart with love for you and on our lips be found words of witness until that day when our time to depart this life comes and we are drawn by eternal hope to your resurrection life. Amen.

   35   36   37   38   39