THE first appearance of this short hymn is in a French text dating from around 1490:
Jesus soit en ma teste et mon entendement.
Jesus soit en mes yeulx et mon regardement.
Jesus soit en ma bouche et mon parlement.
Jesus soit en mon cueur et en mon pensement.
Jesus soit en ma vie et mon trespassement. Amen.
The first English text appears in a Book of Hours (a digest of monastic prayers and services for those who wished to follow a monastic pattern of prayer) printed in Salisbury in 1514. These are the words:
God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
The first tune it was set to was Lytlington by Sydney H Nicholson (1875-1947). While he was organist at Manchester Cathedral he edited the 1916 supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern. From 1919 to 1928 he was organist at Westminster Abbey but became so concerned about the state of choral music in the parish churches throughout the country that in 1927 he founded the School of English Church Music, now the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), and subsequently left his distinguished post to concentrate on this project.
There are not many recordings of God Be in My Head to Lytlington on YouTube but I found this recent one from Canada.
The beautiful words have inspired many other settings, including this one by John Rutter (b 1945), about whom I wrote here. https://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/the-midweek-hymn-the-lord-is-my-light-and-my-salvation-by-john-rutter/ Maybe readers could mention their own favourites.
By far the best known melody is by Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941), with the name God Be in My Head.
Here is a beautiful solo version by David Wigram, BBC Choirboy of the Year 1999.
This is by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Since there is not a lot known about the hymn, I thought it would be interesting to look at Henry Walford Davies, the composer of a wide range of music including military melodies, chamber and orchestral works and church settings.
He was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, to a musical family. He was a boy chorister at St George’s Chapel Windsor, and later studied at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music. In May 1898 Davies was appointed organist and director of the choir at the Temple Church in the City of London, and began to achieve success.
During the First World War Davies joined the Committee for Music in War Time, organised concerts for the troops in France and musical events for the Fight for Right movement, which aimed to boost morale among civilians and servicemen (Hubert Parry composed Jerusalem to William Blake’s words for the movement). In 1918 Davies was appointed director of music of the Royal Air Force, with the rank of major. He established the RAF School of Music and two RAF bands, and composed the Royal Air Force March Past, to which a slow ‘trio’ section was later added by his successor, Major George Dyson.
Here is a performance from 2011 (appropriate, since it was Battle of Britain Day yesterday)
Davies’s Solemn Melody is one of the permanent selection of national airs and mourning music performed on Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph, Whitehall. I found this video of a rehearsal for the ceremony in 2018. Solemn Melody starts at about 19’45”.
In 1926 Davies was appointed musical adviser to the BBC, and gave many radio talks. His obituary in The Times said: ‘His name has become known to many thousands of people who have not been interested hitherto in music or in musicians. He proved himself to be one of the very few lecturers who could immediately establish the sense of personal contact with audiences over the wireless. They have felt that they knew him and could enter into music, which was the absorbing interest of his life, through the personal relation which he always established immediately with his audiences. It was an almost unique gift.’
On the death of Sir Edward Elgar in 1934, Davies was appointed to succeed him as Master of the King’s Music. When the Second World War broke out he moved from London to Bristol with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the corporation’s music department.
He died at Wrington, near Bristol, on 11 March 1941, and was buried in the graveyard of Bristol Cathedral.
Here are a few examples of his large catalogue of church music.
This is a setting of part of the hymn Blessed are the Pure in Heart.
George Herbert’s 1633 hymn King of Glory, King of Peace
The familiar carol O Little Town of Bethlehem
Finally, the canticle Nunc Dimittis (which appears in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace)