- Singing the Faith: 495 (CD20 #22)
- John Whittier
- “Repton” by Hubert Parry
- 86.88.6. extended
Ideas for use
Intersperse the verses with prayer but keep the spoken words to a minimum in order to make space for the “still small voice of calm”. See this example by Andrew Murphy. You may also find this approach suitable for use with My song is love unknown (StF 277).
Also see Hymns as Prayer.
For more about John Greenleaf Whittier, see our article BLM - the forgotten life of a campaigning hymn writer.
Better than “Repton”?
We’re not exactly into the high-stakes territory of the “Hereford” and “Wilton” rivalry here – two hymn tunes that will forever lock horns over claims of best setting for O thou who camest from above (StF 564). And given the present-day popularity of “Repton” as a setting for Dear Lord and Father of mankind, it may seem perverse to question its apparently unassailable position. Nevertheless, Methodism in Britain has proved surprisingly ambivalent about which tune to use for this text in its hymn books, and perhaps there is good reason to revaluate Repton’s fitness for the part.
It was George Gilbert Stocks who, in 1924, adapted an aria for contralto from Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith for the hymn and named the tune after Repton School, where he was director of music. The tune requires the last line of each verse to be repeated – but, for many, it has become synonymous with the words, and it is the only tune published in Singing the Faith.
Yet, when The Methodist Hymn-Book was published nine years after Stocks’s musical adaptation, it was two other tunes that were offered as settings for the hymn (MHB 669): “Georgia” (the set tune) and, as an alternative, the tune with which John Greenleaf Whittier’s words had already become associated in the United States – “Rest”. (A Parry tune was used for another of the eight hymns by Whittier in this hymn book, “O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother!”, MHB 911 – set to “Intercessor”.)
“Repton” made an appearance in the 1983 Methodist hymn book, Hymns and Psalms (H&P 673) but, again, an alternative tune was included, this time “Mansfield College”, written especially for the words by Bernard Massey.
Arguably, these alternative tunes, and “Rest” in particular, reflect Whittier’s original intentions better than “Repton”. How so?
The verses of “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” are taken from a longer poem titled, surprisingly to our ears, “The Brewing of Soma”, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1872. Soma is a plant from which one can extract a liquid with intoxicating (perhaps hallucinogenic) properties. Whittier discovered that Soma was used as a sacred ritual drink in some ancient Indian religions, and used its alleged effects as a metaphor for evoking the sensual in some expressions of Christianity. He was thinking of music, incense, vigils and trances – all very far removed from the stillness and selflessness associated with the Quakerism he himself practised.
In the original poem, it is after a catalogue of feverish distractions that Whittier suddenly introduces a note of quiet: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind…” Is this mood of serenity undermined by the passionate climax that recurs in Parry’s tune? Or maybe it’s simply that we like to sing the tune passionately! Yet which organist can resist pulling out all the stops, urging the congregation on to unrestrained passion with the words “Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire” – before dropping the volume suddenly and melodramatically for the hymn’s final line: “O still small voice of calm!”
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration – though the rise and fall of Parry’s tune is, in this context, undeniably theatrical in its effect. And it raises the question: are the alternative, more measured tunes worth exploring as possibly reflecting more accurately the Quaker experience that Whittier expresses here. Not for nothing did the American composer Charles Ives name his evocative song-setting of our verses 3 and 5 “Serenity”:
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.