Bring us O Lord God – Words John Donne (15572-1631), Music William H Harris (1883-1973)

I can’t remember when I was introduced to this anthem (other than pre-pandemic), but I sang it with the Manchester Chorale, and probably in a couple of concerts. It is scored for two unaccompanied choirs, both singing at the same time, so there are two groups of each voice part, each accompanying the other. Rehearsals made me tingle, so beautiful was the sound of the words interweaving with the music.

It’s sublime. The text is from a sermon by John Donne, a priest and poet:

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion world without end. Amen.

But why have I chosen to write about it now? Because for this parish, and for so many of the people in it, 2022 was a year of tragic loss. We all lost our beloved Rev Deborah. Some also lost husbands or wives, others lost sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, parents and close friends. I attended six funerals last year. I just wish I had remembered about this anthem sooner.

Donne’s words are about death and are often read as a prayer at funerals. But it is far from morbid. Donne flips death, often euphemistically referred to as “falling asleep”, and calls it “our last awakening”. We awake to God in heaven to find that we are no longer pulled by the binary opposites of darkness and dazzling, noise and silence, fears and hopes, ends and beginnings. Instead, we will find all things in balance, with composure, harmony and constancy. We will be at peace, free of struggle.

It has been said that Donne gives us a glimpse of heaven through his sublime words, and that Harris reveals even more of its wonder in his setting for double choir: the synergistic combination of words and music shimmers in holy serenity. We are drawn into the prayer’s ‘one equal music’.

Donne tells us that our loved ones are safe, and that we will be too when our last awakening comes.

Here it is, sung by the choirs of King’s College Cambridge:

Carol P

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