Saturday, April 20, 2013

St Patrick's Breastplate: A classic Anglican hymn for Trinity Sunday

Posted here now so I can learn the song for a solo on Trinity Sunday (May 26). ST PATRICK'S BREASTPLATE, incorporating a tune called DEIRDRE in the sixth verse, was No. 268 in the Episcopal Hymnal (1940) that I grew up with. Also commonly known by its first line, "I bind unto myself today," it was my confirmation hymn.

The Lutheran Book of Worship has it, omiting the sixth verse. The entire hymn is included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (available on line at , however. It is more than a thousand years old, and it has been ascribed to St. Patrick since the year 690 AD, when it was directed to be sung in the monestaries and churches of Ireland. Sometimes the hymn is known as "The Deer's Cry," reflecting an ancient legend that St. Patrick and his followers were changed into deer while singing it in order to escape a Druid high king of Ireland.

Several melodies have been written for the song, also known as a daily prayer of St. Patrick. As I know it, ST PATRICK'S BREASTPLATE combines words by Anglo-Irish hymnwriter Ce­cil Frances Alex­an­der with music by Charles Villiers Stanford, an Irish composer who taught in England's Cambridge University at a time when classical music was beginning to draw heavily on folk traditions.

"This hymn can be a chall­enge to sing with­out see­ing the words matched to the notes," observe the editors of the Cyberhymnal (linked below), "but it is a mas­ter­piece ne­ver­the­less."

They're correct on both counts.

The hymn is complex musically. As Wikipedia notes, "In many churches it is unique among standard hymns because the variations in length and metre of verses mean that at least three different tunes must be used - different in the melody sung by the congregation." The melodies (I count only two) are lovely Irish tunes, though, and they lend themselves to Celtic fingerstyle guitar arrangments.

What it sounds like

You hear elaborate arrangements of the piece, but melodically it draws on the modal harmonies of traditional Irish song. It lends itself to both settings.

So it can sound very different, depending on who's performing it and why.

At one extreme, perhaps, is the opening procession at the installation of the Right Rev. Andrew Dietsche as 16th Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New York. Feb. 2 of this year at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The hymn begins at 3:19 and the sixth verse ("Christ be with me ...") at 8:21. While the acoustics on the recording are muddy, it shows the pageantry of a high-church Episcopal service at its most elaborate, with a descant on the last verse and variations on the organ afterward as the procession winds down.


Very different is American guitar virtuoso John Fahey's arrangement in A minor, here covered by YouTube user BD Shelton.

(Also on Shelton's channel and worth coming back to: Lovely arrangements of another Episcopal hymn, "In Christ There is no East or West," and "Tarleton's Resurrection" by John Dowland in an open D tuning.)

With its roots in Irish folk melody, ST PATRICK'S BREASTPLATE lends itself to folk arrangements.

In the 1940 hymnal, the melody modulates from G-minor to G-major, which presents a little bit of a problem on the mountain dulcimer, but I think I've worked out a decent compromise between what I want to do and what I can do by tuning my baritone dulcimer to GCgg and capoing on the first fret. That gives me, by my reckoning, A-minor on ST PATRICK'S BREASTPLATE and D-major chords on DEIRDRE.

All of this is a work in progress, however.

A little background

Stanford, who arranged the hymn, was a professor of music at the University of Cambridge in England, but his roots were in Dublin and he clearly had an ear for Irish song. In his day he was a well regarded composer of several symphonies, mostly in the style of Brahms, but now he is chiefly remembered for his influence on students including Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, according to a magisterial profile in Wikipedia (I counted 149 footnotes).

According to Wikipedia, Stanford "liked and respected folk songs," perhaps especially "genuine Irish folk tunes" he incorporated in his orchestral works, and his church music "is dominated by melody." I know him best for having "restored and arranged" the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore. He is one of the few authors I've ever read whose footnotes are entertaining! See what he said about "The Last Rose of Summer," for example. He had no patience for arrangers who didn't understand modal harmony.

At any rate, Stanford's arrangement of ST PATRICK'S BREASTPLATE and DEIRDRE dates from 1904. It was included in Vaughan Williams' 1906 hymnal for the Church of England, and it clearly respects Anglo-Irish folk traditions.

According to the Cyberhymnal, the text is a 19th-century trans­la­tion of a Gael­ic po­em called “St. Pat­rick’s Lor­i­ca,” or breast­plate ("A 'lorica' was a mys­tic­al gar­ment that was sup­posed to pro­tect the wear­er from dan­ger and ill­ness, and guar­an­tee ent­ry in­to Hea­ven"). Ce­cil Frances Alex­an­der, the wife of an Anglican bishop in Ireland, wrote her paraphrase in 1889 from "a care­ful­ly col­lat­ed co­py of the best prose trans­la­tions" of the original poem at the request of an Anglican dean of the Cha­pel Roy­al at Dub­lin Cas­tle. The Irish-language poem on which it's based is very old, dating at least back to the seventh century, when it was already described as a prayer of St. Patrick. Padraic Colum's Anthology of Irish Verse (1922, available on line in the Bartleby collection) has an unrhymed translation by Kuno Meyer.

Citing a collection of 11th-century manuscripts known as the Irish Liber Hymnorum, the Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, ed Marilyn Kay Stulken (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981) says:

According to legend Patrick and the Druid king Loegaire [mac Neill] met at Tara Hill, where a festival of the Druid fire-worshipers was about to begin with the extinction of all fires through the country. Patrick however, defiantly lighted a Paschal (Easter) fire on the Hill of Slane in full view of the King, when then set out to kill Patrick. In the pursuit, Patrick and his companions were miraculously transformed into deer and recited this hymn in flight; hence its title, "Faeth Fiada," of "The Deer's Cry."
Some performances available on YouTube:
  • Another processional, more like what I remember growing up in the Episcopal church, at St. John's Episcopal Church, Detroit, on Trinity Sunday. The notes specify it was Hymn 268 in the 1940 hymnal.
  • A baritone solo during the processional at St. James Anglican Church in Kansas City.
  • A Christian contemporary vocal backed by guitar and flute (?) by YouTube users Moe & Erin Pacheco of Chicago: "An arrangement of the Lorica we put together for St. Patricks Day."
  • Vocal with strummed guitar chords by YouTube user Marco Klaue of the Netherlands.
  • Variations on "St. Patrick's Breastplate" by American composer Dwayne Milburn, commissioned in 2005 by Indiana University of Pennsylvania and performed there in 2012 (embedded below). Milburn is conductor of the Soldiers' Chorus and deputy commander of The U.S. Army Field Band.

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