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The Palm Sunday Hymn: Ride on, Ride on in Majesty


TODAY is Palm Sunday and our hymn is Ride on, Ride on in Majesty, which is about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem to meet the barbaric fate he knew awaited him.

The story so far: Jesus has been travelling through Judea and Galilee, preaching, healing the sick and performing miracles. Word has spread far and wide, and crowds follow him everywhere. They are starting to say he is the long-awaited Messiah. In Jerusalem, the Pharisees, the religious elders, are jealous and worried. They start working on ways to get rid of him.

Fully aware of the Pharisees’ hostility, Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The disciples are amazed that he is taking the risk, but Thomas says: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him’. On the way Jesus tells them what is going to happen – that he will be arrested, scourged and crucified, yet will rise again after three days.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrives in Bethany, about a mile and half from Jerusalem. There he eats with Mary thought by some authorities to be Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. An account of the evening is given in Rev Julian Mann’s post today in TCW.

Next day Jesus tells a couple of the disciples where they can find a donkey and asks them to bring it. Riding it as a symbol of peace and humility, he slowly heads for Jerusalem. Excited crowds line the route, throwing down their clothes and palm fronds in front of the donkey. Others wave palm fronds.

They shout: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!’

The Pharisees say among themselves: ‘We cannot stop this man. The world has gone after him.’

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the whole city is in uproar and people are asking each other: ‘Who is this?’ His followers reply: ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee!’

The words of Ride on, Ride on in Majesty were written by Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868), the son of a baronet who had been given the title as a court physician to George III. Milman was educated at Eton and Brasenose, Oxford, where his career was nothing short of brilliant. He took a first in classics, and carried off the Newdigate, Latin Verse, Latin Essay, and English Essay prizes.

He was ordained in 1816, and two years later became parish priest of St Mary’s, Reading.

In 1821 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford (this is a part-time position requiring three lectures a year). In 1830 he published his History of the Jews, which brought down on him the censure of the Church. It treats the Jews as an Oriental tribe, and all miracles are either eliminated or evaded. He was presented with a memento by some representative Jews in recognition of his sympathetic attitude. Some think this publication delayed his preferment to higher office, but in 1835, Sir Robert Peel made him Rector of St Margaret’s, Westminster, and in 1849 he became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

He was the first to translate Sanskrit epics into English. He edited Gibbon and Horace, and his major work was The History of Latin Christianity (1855). Given all that scholarship, it is not surprising that he wrote no more than 13 hymns.

Ride on, Ride on in Majesty was written in 1820 and published in Bishop Reginald Heber’s Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year in 1827.

This is the text:

1 Ride on, ride on in majesty
as all the crowds ‘Hosanna!’ cry:
through waving branches slowly ride,
O Saviour, to be crucified.

2 Ride on, ride on in majesty,
in lowly pomp ride on to die:
O Christ, your triumph now begin
with captured death, and conquered sin!

3 Ride on, ride on in majesty
the angel armies of the sky
look down with sad and wondering eyes
to see the approaching sacrifice.

4 Ride on, ride on in majesty,
the last and fiercest foe defy:
the Father on his sapphire throne
awaits his own anointed Son.

5 Ride on, ride on in majesty,
in lowly pomp ride on to die:
bow your meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, your power and reign!

It is usually sung to the tune Winchester New, which seems to have originated as an anonymous melody first published in Germany in 1690. It was harmonised in 1847 by William Henry Monk (1823-1889), who also wrote Eventide, the tune of Abide With Me.

Here it is sung by the congregation and choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

An alternative tune is St Drostane by John Bacchus Dykes, who composed the original melody for O Perfect Love, which I wrote about a few weeks ago as well as Melita (Eternal Father Strong to Save) Nicaea (Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty) and Dominus Regit Me (The King of Love My Shepherd Is). St Drostan (it seems to be spelled without the final ‘e’) was a follower or possibly nephew of St Columba and sailed with him from Ireland to Scotland in about AD 585. He founded a monastery at Old Deer in Aberdeenshire, but no trace remains.

St Drostane is a lovely tune but I can’t find any recordings of choirs singing it. Here it is by the congregation of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

Here is a slightly different account by pianist Dierre Upshaw.

I really like this one by Harry Secombe (1921-2001), the comedian probably most noted for The Goon Show who was also a fine tenor.

Finally, while I was looking around YouTube I found this more modern tune composed in 1939 by Graham George (1912-1993) called The King’s Majesty. George was born in Norwich but moved to Canada at 16 and spent the rest of his life there as a distinguished organist, conductor, composer and teacher.

Here is a terrific performance at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (‘Smoky Mary’s’) in Times Square, New York City.

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Margaret Ashworth
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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