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The Midweek Hymn: Angel Voices, Ever Singing

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THIS hymn was suggested by our loyal reader ‘Starshiptrooper’, and I’m glad he did because I don’t think I would have remembered it by myself.

It was written in 1861 by Francis Pott (1832-1909), an Anglican clergyman. His great-grandfather was the surgeon Percivall Pott (1714-1788), one of the founders of orthopaedics and the first scientist to demonstrate that a cancer might be caused by an environmental carcinogen. His father was the proprietor of the family business, the Pott’s Vinegar factory, in Southwark, London.

Pott studied classical languages at Brasenose College, Oxford, graduating in 1854. Two years later he was ordained into the Anglican priesthood, serving as a curate in Bishopsworth, Gloucestershire(1856-8), before going on to Ardingly, Sussex, from 1858 to 1861 and Ticehurst, Sussex from 1861 to 1866.

It was in 1861 that he wrote his two best-known hymns. One was his translation of a 17th-century Latin hymn into the Easter hymn The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done, which is usually sung to a tune called Victory by the 16th century Italian composer Giuseppe Palestrina. Here it is sung by the choir and congregation of Washington National Cathedral.

Another tune is Vulpius, named after its German composer Melchior Vulpius (c1570-1609).

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

The other was Angel Voices, Ever Singing. He was asked to write it by his friend and contemporary at Brasenose, William Kenneth Macrorie, later to become Bishop of Maritzburg in South Africa. At the time Macrorie was the first vicar of St John the Evangelist in Wingates, near Bolton, Lancashire, and he wanted the hymn for a service to dedicate the new organ at the church.

These are the words, the third verse in particular reflecting the occasion:

1 Angel voices, ever singing
round Thy throne of light,
angel harps, forever ringing,
rest not day nor night;
thousands only live to bless Thee
and confess thee Lord of might.

2 Thou who art beyond the farthest
mortal eye can scan,
can it be that Thou regardest
songs of sinful man?
Can we feel that Thou art near us
and wilt hear us? Yea, we can.

3 Yea, we know Thy love rejoices
o’er each work of Thine;
Thou didst ears and hands and voices
for Thy praise combine;
craftsman’s art and music’s measure
for Thy pleasure all combine.

4 Here, great God, today we offer
of Thine own to Thee;
and for Thine acceptance proffer,
all unworthily,
hearts and minds and hands and voices
in our choicest melody.

5 Honour, glory, might, and merit
Thine shall ever be,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
blessed Trinity:
of the best that Thou hast given
earth and heaven render Thee.

The tune, called Angel Voices, was written by another of Macrorie’s friends, Edwin George Monk.

Here is a sweet performance by Huddersfield Choral Youth Choirs:

Here is a slower version, with an organ, by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

In 1872 another tune, confusingly also called Angel Voices, was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and it was soon widely used. However Pott could not bear it. He wrote: ‘I am afraid that some of [the hymn’s] popularity arose from Sullivan having, contrary to my desire, set it in The Hymnary to a pretty, trivial but altogether unfit tune of his own – which caught the ear of people who did not trouble themselves to see that the hymn was of quite another character. In giving permission since for the printing of the hymn I have always made it a condition that Sullivan’s tune shall not be in any way referred to.’

Presumably because of this ban the tune is no longer often used, and this is one of very few on YouTube.

Much as I love Sullivan, I have to admit this is not one of his best efforts.

In 1861, the same year that he wrote the two hymns I have mentioned, Pott published a hymnal which must be a worthy contender for longest book title: Hymns fitted to the Order of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, According to the Use of the Church of England, To which are added Hymns for Certain Local Festivals. He also helped edit the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861, evidently his annus mirabilis.

In 1866 he was appointed Rector of Northill in Bedfordshire, where he stayed until deafness forced him to retire in 1891. He died in 1909.   

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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