'Prayer for the Nation: O God of earth and altar' (G.K. Chesterton)
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,169
    G.K. Chesterton’s 'O God of earth and altar' (1906) is a hymn which is probably better known to Anglicans than to Catholics (although it does appear in The Westminster Hymnal, No 212, set to WILLSBRIDGE by R.L. Pearsall). The most common Anglican tune used is KING'S LYNN (by Ralph Vaughan Williams, in The English Hymnal), although LLANGOFFAN also appears. The text seems particularly relevant to the present difficult times we are living in. He wrote the poem as a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and the Vaughan Williams setting is rather serious, even somber (it's in D minor).

    In the present time, with so much turmoil going on in our country, I have been drawn to the text, and although I greatly cherish the RVW setting, I have been moved to set it to 'Es flog ein kleins Waldvögelein' from in The Hymnal 1982 as harmonized by Walford Davies (at No. 616, for 'Hail to the Lord's annointed'). Of course, as seems to be my wont, I adapted the harmonization somewhat for the second and thid stanzas, adding an optional tenor or soprano descant for the second stanza and a soaring soprano descant for the third stanza.

    One MP3 sound file uses double winds (oboe, oboe d'amore, English horn, and bassoon) on the SATB choir parts with simulated voices on the descants. I think the choice of instruments for the sound file gives more clarity than just simulated voices (alone or with organ), so that one can better track the individual parts. I might add that I'm partial to the oboes and English horn, since I've played them for years. The other sound file is voices only (a cappella).

    It is my hope that this tune and setting might give one the feeling that there is hope for better times ahead.

    Note: For some reason (it's happened in the past) the MP3 file "Giffen-O_God_of_earth_and_altar-double_reeds" will not upload (Reason given: "Failed to write file to disk"). So here is a Dropbox link for the score & two MP3 files:


  • An interesting project, Chuck -
    I will always prefer King's Lynn, for it has a stolid sobriety that seems to fit the sobriety of Chesterton's plea.
    My first impression of Es ist ein kleins Waldvogelein was negative; but, on getting used to it I found that it seems to work rather nicely. The tempo is everything - it must be a very sober one.
    Thanks for 'broadening my horizons'.
    (And, I like your instrumentation - there is something Bachian about the sound of it.)

    I suspect that most of us would share your concern about this very sick nation of ours. I read once upon a time that Paul VI had occasion to lament that smoke from the fires of hell were seeping into the Church - they certainly seem to be clouding things up in our body politic.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • A choir member of mine asked me on Wednesday if we could sing something patriotic and I said I’d think about what we could do. This strikes me as an appropriate answer to that request; a plea for our country and for holiness that isn’t one of the kitch hymns that could only be sung on the Fourth of July at the best of times (and even then, I’m not convinced).
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Serviam,

    A priest friend of mine, many years ago, told me that patriotic music had no place at Mass. (He was a member of the Reserves, as a chaplain). Remember: our fatherland is Heaven.
    Thanked by 1Elmar
  • Elmar
    Posts: 503
    Even after 25years I haven't got used to the traditional singing of "Domine, salvum[am] fac regem[inam] nostrum[am]" at the end of mass on king's [queen's] birthday.
    In my native country nobody would get into his mind to sing anything patriotic in church (for different 'right'/'left' reasons of course).
  • Chris, the only patriotic hymn I schedule, and this only rarely, is “Eternal Father, strong to save” otherwise known as the navy hymn. Hence my reservation on Wednesday and me telling my choir member I’d have to think on it.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,169
    O God of earth and altar is rather far from being a patriotic hymn: it is a prayer, for ones nation. It's not "O, say can you see..." or "God bless America..." or "O beautiful for spacious skies..." or "My country 'tis of thee..." or "This is my country..." - or any of the other patriotic paeans so often (inappropriately) sung at Mass. Chesterton wrote a devout plea in his prayer. It has always moved me, and it moved me to make this arrangement. Please do not disgrace Chesterton's prayer by assigning it to the dustbin of songs inappropriate for being sung/prayed at Mass.
    O God of earth and altar,
    Bow down and hear our cry,
    Our earthly rulers falter,
    Our people drift and die;
    The walls of gold entomb us,
    The swords of scorn divide,
    Take not thy thunder from us,
    But take away our pride.

    From all that terror teaches,
    From lies of tongue and pen,
    From all the easy speeches
    That comfort cruel men,
    From sale and profanation
    Of honour and the sword,
    From sleep and from damnation,
    Deliver us, good Lord.

    Tie in a living tether
    The prince and priest and thrall,
    Bind all our lives together,
    Smite us and save us all;
    In ire and exultation
    Aflame with faith, and free,
    Lift up a living nation,
    A single sword to thee.

      Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874–1936
  • I don’t think any of us implied or intended that at all. It is a superb text.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Elmar
  • Charles,

    You're absolutely correct on both scores, of course. "My country 'tis of thee" has no place at Mass, and "O God of earth and altar" isn't in the same class of texts as the stuff we shouldn't sing. Anywhere where vernacular hymnody is fostered and nurtured could, I think, with a clear conscience, use Chesterton's text and an appropriate tune.

    I'm sorry if I gave a contrary impression.


    Precisely because this text is, in fact, prayerful and not the kind of text one sings for July 4th's fireworks' celebration, it could reasonably work as you have suggested.

    I've never thought of the Navy Hymn as "patriotic" in the narrow, parochial sense of the term.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Elmar -

    About Domine salvum fac regem - I would view this as a prayer for the monarch, not a hymn extolling him or her. That is the difference between praying for the monarch and singing a national hymn which is all about the fatherland - with God sometimes thrown it for honourable mention..

    In the C of E prayers for the King/Queen are on certain occasions said in certain services. This is mirrored in the Episcopal Church by prayer for the president included in several liturgical services.
    At evensong one of the suffrages is 'God save the Queen'.
    In the US that suffrage becomes 'God save the State'.

    I have a beautiful altar missal from the late XIXth or early XXth century Germany or Austria (I would prefer Austria) which has prayers for the Kaiser.
    Praying for the monarch, the president, or the state is quite different than singing about the glories of the nation - it might very well be a good thing to do.

    What is your native country?
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Elmar
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,169
    Here is an excellent video history of Chesterton and his O God of Earth and Altar, with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the Kyrie from his Mass in G Minor and, of course, concluding with the hymn sung to KING'S LYNN.

    Hymn History - O God of Earth and Altar
    width="1280" height="720">
  • Elmar
    Posts: 503
    What is your native country?
    The one where soldiers used to have a belt bearing the inscription Gott mit uns.
    Thanked by 1a_f_hawkins
  • Elmar -
    Ha! I had suspected as much. I used to have some soldierly relics of those Gott mit uns soldiers - a beautifully engraved ceremonial sword which was from the personal cavalry regiment of Prince Albert of Prussia among a few other things. My father brought them back from WWII. Unfortunately someone broke into my apartment back in the seventies and stole it along a few other similar items.
    Thanked by 1Elmar
  • oldhymnsoldhymns
    Posts: 227
    Thanks to Charles for posting this fine hymn back in January! I had a recording made of it superbly sung by the Ensemble Altera Singers. The recording session took place at Blessed Sacrament Church, Providence, Rhode Island, on March 11, and can now be heard on my website catholicdevotionalhymns.com. Here is a direct link to this hymn:

    https://www.catholicdevotionalhymns.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/altera08_-_O_God_of_Earth_and_Altar-_Davies.mp3 I hope you enjoy it!
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,169
    Thank you so much, oldhymns. To hear the entire hymn with the second stanza descant of mine is a special, blessed treat for me - just three days before my birthday! The singing in the recording is superb, sensitive, and soul-enriching.
  • Who is the boy soprano?
    Very well done!
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • oldhymnsoldhymns
    Posts: 227
    The voice you hear is actually a female soprano with a treble-like sound, if you're referring to the descant singer. Her name is Rachel Garrepy. She is a member of a very active Catholic-musical family in Rhode Island.

    The session on March11 also involved the recording of another melody for "O God of Earth and Altar." This one, attributed to Corner, 1631, is from the "Hymn Pamphlet Series--Selections from THE ST. PIUS X HYMNAL--#1753, Hymns to Our Lord." It was published by McLaughlin & Reilly in 1951, two years before THE ST. PIUS X HYMNAL was introduced. The hymn pamphlet series consisted of 8 pamphlets, each devoted to a different topic and each containing about 8 hymns. The intent of these pamphlets was to "whet the appetite" of Catholic musicians prior to the release of the THE ST. PIUS HYMNAL in 1953. What's interesting, though, is that a number of hymns "didn't make the cut" and are not included in the hymnal, this being one of them. Here is the link to the Corner version: